Good Fiction for Young Adults
BY Simcha Fisher
| Posted 4/26/12 at 8:00 AM
I haven't read The Hunger Games yet, but I gather that the YA reading list hasn't become especially sunny or optimistic lately. When I was a YA, everything we read had to be about two or more of the following: the Holocaust, suicide, or bulimia. Also acceptable were books about racism, provided several lynchings were described in technicolor. Then, after we finished our assigned reading for the year, the school board would hold a workshop on what could possibly be causing the rampant depression in the student body.
Well, it's too late for me, of course. As soon as I'm done with this post, I'm going to go huff some wood glue, write a note blaming my parents, and OD on some Xanax I stole from the locker room while listening to Nevermind (to my younger readers: check your oldies station).
Here are seven novels I recommend for your teenager or almost-teenager. Kids that age do enjoy drama and angst, but these books don't glorify teenage gloom, or teach that it's the world's job to learn to appreciate the delicate genius that is Teenage Me. Most of these books are about courage, and about something that teenagers really need to know: how to discern true love from its flashier counterfeit. With the possible exception of the Paterson novels, I don't think this list is too girly. The only other thing they have in common is that they are stuffed with good ideas that young people need to hear, and the writing is far above average.
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
This one is often included in YA lists, but not for the right reasons, I think. Teenagers won't fully appreciate the themes of love and fidelity in this fleshing-out of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but there is plenty else in this gorgeous and searing novel to grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake the stupid ideas out of them. Heartrending and intense. For grades 9 and up.
--2 and 3--
Two novels by Katherine Paterson:
Jacob Have I Loved is a coming-of-age novel about twin girls living on a crabbing island in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1940's. One sister is lovely, talented, fragile, and secretly vicious -- the other, the narrator, is plain, strong, and full of rage. Their horrible old grandmother is unforgettable. I especially appreciate how the narration reveals serious flaws in the main character, with flashes of sympathy for even the worst characters. Flawless in structure, characterization, and style. For grades 7 and up.
Another excellent novel by Paterson, suitable for grades 5 and up, is The Great Gilly Hopkins.
It's like Flannery O'Connor, Jr. Great portrayals of hypocrisy, great portrayals of genuine love by a genuine Christian, who happens to be a fat, trashy, semi-literate foster mother named Trotter. The story could easily have dissolved into melodrama, but resists. My only quibble is with the character of the black teacher, Miss Harris -- she seems a bit too glibly drawn as the hard-as-nails and smart-as-a-whip black teacher with a heart of gold, etc. All the rest of the characters, though, are thoroughly believable, including Trotter's pathetic ward William Ernest Teague (W.E.T.) and a greasy-haired, would-be sidekick, Agnes Stokes. I believe it's sold as a novel about racism, but it's really just about love.
Also notable: The Master Puppeteer, set in 18th century Japan, has a boy for the main character. I remember it as being very good, but haven't read it in many years.
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
I know, I know. The author passed it off as an autobiography, and it wasn't. Pretty awful -- but darn it, I still like the book. It is beautiful and funny, and I feel happy while reading it. I wish I knew the characters in real life, which is more than you can say for most novels or autobiographies. Apparently it's been criticized as perpetuating the "noble savage" stereotype of the American Indian, but I don't see that; nor is it anti-white propaganda. The main point of the book is simply the wonderful story of a boy growing up with his Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather in the mountains during Prohibition. It's an ancient story of happiness, broken by a terrible grief and darkness of separation, and then a return to happiness, until Eden is outgrown. Also, it makes descriptions of scenery interesting. For grades 6 and up.
A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
This one is for older teens, for sure. The story is complicated and fascinating, and demands a lot of the reader. It's about Catholic monks and Jews and miracles and nuclear war and space travel and mutants. It's a crazy, grotesque, hilarious epic with lots and lots of ideas. There is a disturbing theme of the cyclic nature of history that seems to imply a "new" Immaculate Conception, but a teenager with a good grounding in the faith won't be troubled by it. I like how the priests are real men. It will appeal to lovers of science fiction, but is so much more than that.
The Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi
Three collections of short, sweet, funny and poignant stories from post-WWII Italy about a large and rash village priest and his rival, the equally large and rash communist mayor Peppone. If you don't enjoy these stories, there is something wrong with you. I could do without the cartoonish illustrations by the author, but the stories are hugely entertaining, and touch on all kinds of interesting theological ideas. Don Camillo's conversations with the crucified Christ in his church are authentic and moving. For grades 7 and up.
Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
The first two books of the space trilogy are great stories and provide so many memorable scenes (the third in the series, That Hideous Strength, takes a different turn and is not for the kiddies). It was from Perelandra that I learned that evil isn't interesting and the devil isn't clever or charming.
For more mature teenagers -- there are ideas about sexuality which are entirely Catholic (yes, I know Lewis wasn't), but which less mature kids won't be able to manage. The only part that might strike readers as dated is the fact that the villain wants to conquer worlds and force humankind on the universe, whereas today's humanist villains are more interested in quashing or containing the human race. It might be an interesting conversation to discuss what the current evil ideas have in common with the ones in the books.
There are many, many wonderful scenes in both books. I was especially affected, as a teenager, by the passage in Perelandra where Ransom protests to God that there is a representative of Evil in the world, fighting for the soul of the unfallen Lady -- so why is there no champion of Good? And the silent and terrifying answer comes booming back at him: you. There is also the memorable phrase, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, here goes! I mean, Amen!" Lewis' descriptions of scenery are the only drawback to these books -- he does go on and on, and without his characteristic clarity. For grades 10 and up.
You'll notice there is no Madeleine L'Engle in this list. I read her books several times as a Young Adult, and I'm sure they influenced me, but I just don't like her. I don't like her smarmy characters, I don't like how her ideals of family life are utterly saturated in six kinds of snobbery. I don't like the loosey goosey games she plays with syncretism, and her stories leave me cold, irritated and unsatisfied. I'm always astonished that she's described as some kind of literary genius -- her prose always strikes me as hokey and stilted. She is very original, I'll admit, but I have very little patience with the "o-the-aching-wonder-of-it-all" genre. I'm not saying "don't read her stuff," but I think you'll do just fine if you never do read her.
What would you recommend for your Young Adult?
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