I decided this year to make my students read books for fun. If they aren’t having fun reading their books then I instruct them to pretend they are having fun so effectively that I am unable to tell the difference.
In discussion about their books, one student admitted that the YA novel she’d brought was so poorly written it was getting in the way of her fun. She read the first two sentences aloud. Total clunkers. We had to agree that the writing was no fun. We couldn’t even pretend it was fun.
Yet some of my favorite writing occurs in the YA novels I love. Reading lists are so personal. I’m careful about getting in the way of students exploring their own tastes and building their own reading lists. Nonetheless here is a shortlist of my favorites for their fresh language along with a line or two of evidence to show why I love them.
Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters: This gorgeous, award-winning novel is about Mara, a girl growing up in a small, fundamentalist community with an abusive father and weak mother. Heartbreaking and galvanizing from the first chapter, this is the story of a young girl’s sexual and spiritual awakening in a violent, homophobic community. It’s a brutal story but also beautiful and an ultimately hopeful testament to the power of love.
“Sometimes knowing is torture. You wish you could hide your secret away in a dark, cobwebby shed, shut the door, and break the key in the lock so no one can ever get in again.”
When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling: Lacy is forced to live with her estranged mother after her beloved father dies, and in doing so has to leave everything and everyone she loves, including her kind stepmother. Pulled into her troubled and selfish mother’s unhealthy orbit, Lacy reverts to her old ways of delving into harmful magic in order to survive. Tricia Stirling is one of my favorite writers of all time for her astonishing imagery and mix of the magic and real. I would call it magical realism except that she makes me believe that magic is real. Maybe it’s realistic magic.
“The eye was large and perfectly round like a human’s, but it had the glittering green iris of a fish. After that, I started noticing magic in other places too. A swan serenading a catfish at Horseshoe Lake, her neck arching like a quivering bow in song. A boy with the legs of a goat, playing the flute from his canoe along the river.”
The Good Sister by Jamie Kain This novel follows three sisters after the unexpected death of the eldest. Each character follows a very different trajectory when buried secrets carry devastating repercussions. It’s a lushly written novel that deals honestly yet respectfully with the real difficulties young people face when adults abscond their responsibilities and the kids are left almost entirely on their own.
“Life, it turns on a complicated array of delicate gears we cannot see. A heart that beats can go still in the space of a moment. Breath can vanish before we’ve had a chance to say good-bye.”
The View From Who I Was by Heather Sappenfield: This novel takes astonishing turns of narrative perspective as it follows Oona after the night she attempts suicide after her high school’s Winter Formal dance. It’s a story of finding healing in the ancient traditions of other cultures, as well as in the painful truth very close to home.
“A great knife of honesty swooped in and sliced me down the center. There wasn’t blood. Instead, I escaped, rushing out of that pink satin bag and darting into the silver and blue balloons crowding the ceiling”
I love the immediacy, drama and freshness of well-written YA. To my students I say, keep exploring. The books you love are out there waiting for you to find them.