It's no secret that I enjoy reading (and writing) young adult fiction. I've often been asked to recommend teen fiction and so I thought: why not compile a list of some of the best YA novels I've ever read? Without further ado, a few of my favorite things ( that you can find in the "teen" or "young adult" section of your local library or bookstore).
- Taking The Ferry Home by Pam Conrad – My all-time favorite teen novel that I must have read fifty or so times, it takes place on an island where two girls – one priviledged, one the daughter of a recovering alcoholic novelist – spend the summer keeping secrets from each other. Evocative language and one character's dark past make this an especially memorable novel. (More to come in this Friday's Friday Favorites column).
- The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Pop culture, letter-writing, mixed tapes, Rocky Horror. All of these serve as a backdrop for Stephen Chbosky's novel about being socially awkward and the secrets we keep, even from ourselves.
- Girl by Blake Nelson – Another of those books I've read on repeat, Girl tells the story of Andrea Marr and her discovery of thriftstores and grunge rock in '90's Portland, Oregon. The narrative voices is a pitch-perfect copy of authentic teen-speak, with lots of "and thens" and a barrage of supporting characters – an incredibly fun, smart novel.
- LESBIAN FICTION – Okay. I know, I know. This is not just one novel, but a slew of them. Or rather, a group – I wouldn't say "slew" as that would seem to indicate there are a lot. Teen lesbian fiction is few and far between (and most are "coming out" stories). I happen to think there need to be more. Here, in this sub-category, are a few I think are the best: (1) Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden– Because it is a classic. Because it was banned. Because no one dies or gets beaten or raped. Because neither character decides she'd be better off with a guy. Because it is a wonderful novel about two girls who fall in love. (2) Keeping You A Secret- One of those aforementioned coming out stories, this one follows Holland as she realizes her sexuality after meeting already-out teen Cici. She dumps her boyfriend and turns her world upside down to be with a girl. Things aren't perfectly rosy by the end, but there's a feeling of hope that sticks with you and it's written by one of my current favorite YA fiction authors, Julie Anne Peters. (3) Hello Groin – Protagonist realizes she's in love with her best friend and spends the book trying to hide it, only to find out by the end that – spoiler alert! - her best friend is in love with her, too. Written in thoughtful, believable prose by Beth Goobie, who uses the novel Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates as a device for her young characters to discuss and discover who they are. (4) The Cat Came Back by Hilary Mullins – Released in 1993, this was one of the first teen lesbian novels I ever read. Written in a diary format, it follows a girl named Stevie who attends a Connecticut boarding school and is having an affair with Rik, a teacher. He's using her, of course. Meanwhile, a new girl on her hockey team, Andrea has made an impression on her. Before long and through her feelings for Andrea, Stevie finds herself able to ditch Rik. (5) The Bermudez Triangle – A group of three friends who have grown up together loses one of their threesome to an academic camp for the summer. While she's away, the other two...shall we say hook up? (6) Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – This one comes in at #6 only because it is more about a boy named John than it is about his lesbian friend, Marisol, but it's a terrific book. John falls in love with his Puerto Rican zinester best friend, who is, unfortunately, not that into him – because she likes girls. (7) Far From Xanadu – Another from Julie Anne Peters, this tells the story of a tomboy named Mike (yes, Mike's a girl) who falls in love with the new girl in town, Xanadu. Xanadu likes the attention she gets from Mike, but really likes guys. It's a sad, all-too-common story – bi-curious teen girl pretends to be into gay girl and then, not-so-much (and people wonder why that ubiquitous Katy Perry song makes me so irate!) – and the characters in Peters' novel are, as always, entirely realistic and relatable. AND that ends my shameless plug for the best teen lesbian fiction I know of. More to come, I hope.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume – Queen of the teen novels, Blume has managed to shape the lives and formative years of pretty much every woman I have ever met. These are probably the two of her books that had the most profound effect on me, personally (though I remember snippets of several of her other books as well – Just As Long As We're Together and Forever come to mind). In Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, the title character stumbles into puberty longing for her period to start and her boobs to grow (anyone else recall "we must, we must, we must increase our busts?). Here, Blume mixed humor with real-girl worries about being "normal" and I don't know anyone who couldn't, in some way, relate. Tiger Eyes was somewhat darker. A girl named Davey is grieving the loss of her father, who was shot and killed in a convenience store robbery. Following the funeral, depressed Davey spends a great deal of time in bed (in discussing the book with my sister a few years ago, we found that we both most remembered a snippet of narration in which Davey describes how she has come to like her own unwashed scent). Feeling a change of scenery is in order, Davey's mother moves the family to New Mexico. There, Davey feels more alone and her only friend for awhile is an alcoholic girl – but what's especially interesting is that Davey goes to work as a candy striper in a wing of the hospital mostly used to care for the terminally ill. Interesting because it seems a way of dealing with death that forces a person to face it, too, and in the barest way possible. I recall the tone of Tiger Eyes being sad, but hopeful and Blume's language is lovely, crafted so as to expose the world in the distilled way that teenagers see it.
- I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier – From the beginning, Cormier's novel is mysterious and fast-paced. The protagonist is riding his bike "furiously" and immediately there is the sense that he is fleeing something. The story comes together in flashbacks as it approaches a surprise ending that, when I was young, I recall taking my breath away.
- Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levathan – A more recent read for me, Cohn and Levathan tell a "he said, she said" story of two snarky, music-obsessed teenagers out on the town, trying to locate their favorite band and forget their terrible exes. It's one of those books that makes you (or, at least, me) wish to be younger again, out on the dance floors and streets of the city until sunrise and just getting to know someone who, in an instant, you know will change your life.
- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld – I read this last year and was blown away by the intelligent, original story. Central character Tally lives in a future where, until their sixteenth birthday, people are known as "uglies" because they have not yet undergone the operation to make them "pretty" (which, in their world, means their faces are perfectly symetrical and everyone looks about the same). The collective logic is that it will make everyone equal – no one will be treated differently for not being as beautiful as someone else. But then Tally becomes friends with a girl who wants to forego the operation and join a hidden resistance – and she begins to question what it means to be "ugly" and "pretty" and why the government forces the operations in the first place. Uglies is a heart-pounder and feels almost cinematic (I would love to see it made into a feature film).
- The Pigman by Paul Zindel – To this day I can find no other author who understands what it means to be a weirdo better than Zindel does and if I'm going to get personal, I should say that this was the first book ever that I can remember making me cry. I remember finishing it up in my parents’ kitchen back in North Carolina, my vision blurred by tears, feeling a love like I'd never felt for a piece of writing before. Mind you, I was 12 – but I read a lot as a child. In this one, Lorraine and John are high school misfits – he sets bombs in the school bathroom, she feels estranged from her own mother, who works long hours. Together, the two play pranks, one of which leads them to a lonely old man who collects ceramic pigs. Before long, Lorraine, John and Mr. Pignati are friends – he's the only adult they've ever trusted. Oddly enough, they are the ones who betray his trust.
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – I read Speak during one of my life's rough patches and the character really spoke to me – no pun intended. It's both, touchingly funny and painfully grim and begins with a girl named Melinda on the first day of high school. She talks to no one, makes references to how her friends are still not speaking to her and observes how everyone around her seems to be clueless, hypocritical or liars. As her story unfolds, we get bits and pieces of a puzzle that come together to form an agonizing truth – the reason why she no longer had friends...and another underlying truth that leads to the dark secret she's keeping.
Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.