By Meg Cook
Don’t get me wrong. I am one of John Green’s biggest fans. The one thing that almost everyone I talk to, when I mention YA, asks me: Have you read The Fault in Our Stars?
The answer, YES, of COURSE, I laughed and cried and shook my fist at the sky as I turned the pages. I got my book signed in a three hour long line and went to see John Green dance around on stage with the Mountain Goats. I have read the entire John Green library, down to Will Grayson Will Grayson and Let it Snow.
Suffice it to say, I am a fan.
But have YOU read Perks of Being A Wallflower? The Miseduacation of Cameron Post? Anything by Courtney Summers, Melina Machetta or Nova Ren Suma?
We need to spread the love. There are a lot of YA writers out there writing some fantastic realistic fiction, and it needs to be recognized. John Green is a wonderful writer. I nearly died when I met him on the TFIOS tour last year (really, I don’t think I breathed the entire time except to whisper my name). But I’ve noticed something funny in the Barnes & Noble YA section (which I stalk religiously everywhere I go): a whole selection of books like The Fault in Our Stars. I feel like this might be for the benefit of the adult drifting into the YA section who doesn’t want to go sniffing around all the fantasy series and books with bicycles and pink hearts on the covers.
I have no such reservations.
Then my friend read The Fault in Our Stars and asked me for recommendations like it. I realized that John Green’s popularity is good thing, making more readers more curious about YA and what it has to offer. I got a little carried away with the list. And then I thought, wow, these are some really good and really important books that adults and young adults should be reading. I should do something with this.
Here’s the result.
Realistic YA Fiction:
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Teenage girl living in the middle of nowhere Montana who realizes she likes girls the night of a horrible accident. Everyone should read this book.
Cameron Post is one of those protagonists that you feel like you could read about her entire life and never get bored and never want to do anything else. She is that captivating. But alas, all novels must end.
On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Winner of the Printz award. I read this book the summer I was in Montreal and decided to read all the Printz winners (an as of yet, uncompleted goal). But seriously, there are some killer titles on that list, and it’s a good thing to check out.
Marchetta is a kickass Australian YA author who writes incredible, flawed and strong female characters. I first read her when I was in high school; my Mom and I listened to the audiobook version of Looking for Alibrandi in the car during frequent hour long road trips to my Grandma’s house. I would recommend that book as well, but On the Jellicoe Road has a level of complexity that is truly mind-blowing. Boarding schools, mysterious pasts, romance with a bad boy all tied together with incredible prose.
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
I talk all the time about how Courtney Summers is one of the most underrated contemporary YA authors around. I discovered her the summer I was in Montreal (she’s Canadian) (also, I should note, I had no job the summer I was in Montreal, and therefore read quite a lot of YA fiction as “research” for my own writing). I flew through Cracked Up to Be. I love unlikable characters (blog post forthcoming). Characters who are mean for a reason even if it’s the wrong reason. Characters with their guard up. About a girl who had it all (boyfriend, grades, popularity) and then gives it up for a mysterious reason I will not be revealing.
Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Light, YA romance with a strong emotional story. Very well-written. This writer is SO good at setting and writing emotionally charged scenes. It’s also just adorable. There is a bit of crossover from Anna and the French Kiss (Perkins’ first novel), but it’s stands alone as well. John Green actually recommend Anna and the French Kiss on his vlog.
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Written by a poet, a story of a girl dealing with grief and her tangled relationships in the aftermath. The imagery in this book is lovely. You can tell by the title alone, which is what drew me to this book in the first place.
I love beautifully crafted novels with hints of the magical. These are some recommendations for folks who might have misgivings about fantasy and magic in their books.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Rum Suma
I would categorize this a magical realism. Amazing, layered setting with compelling, selfish characters. Suma weaves a dream-like world in Imaginary Girls and an intense, but realistic relationship between two sisters abandoned by their alcoholic mother.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender is one of those writers who just rocks at everything she does. Her short stories are also incredible and, in my opinion, she is the contemporary master of magical realism. This is her second novel and is set in LA and is about a girl who can taste emotions. While not technically YA, the novel spans from childhood to middle adulthood, so it takes the shape of a long con coming of age story.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Reads like a historical fiction. Wonderful headstrong characters. I listened to the audiobook and highly recommend it. I’ve also read her Shiver series, which was excellent, though paranormal romance isn’t for everybody. (And it’s not always for me either, but if you want to read something MUCH BETTER than Twilight, that’s where I would point you).
Folks who know me well know that I love YA fiction, and some of them, for the first time, have actually been reading it. A lot of adults I know have been picking up TFIOS in particular as well as some series books like The Hunger Games. I cannot even begin to tell everyone how happy this makes me. But I think there is the risk that these books will be “set aside” from the rest of YA. They are literary, unusual and unique. They’ve captured the attention of the masses. They get bigger than YA and acquire adult covers.
I have heard a lot of people say: “I know it’s YA, but it’s really good, trust me.” This type of comment belittles a huge and varied library of literature. These phrases, quite simply, make me sad. There is so much to read in YA and middle grade. Adults shouldn’t feel like they have to justify reading it.
I liken it to when people say a novel like 1984 “transcended” science fiction. Not so fast, folks. Not only does science fiction get Orwell, YA gets TFIOS. When thinking about genre prejudices like this, I often think about one of my favorite quotes of all time, from the great writer Ray Bradbury:
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
This quote is my mantra. Apart from the excellent image of Bradbury packing up his dinosaurs and departing some sort of literary soiree, it relays exactly how I feel when I meet people who think good writing has to be a certain genre or written by a certain type of person.
I attended a writing program a couple years back where I was workshopping part of my first YA novel (realistic fiction about a sixteen year old girl living in my hometown during the 1990s … current status: packed in a box). After the class, another writer from the workshop approached me and asked: “Why are you limiting yourself to writing YA? You’re so talented.”
Obviously, the person who said this saw it as a compliment to my writing, but to me, it was extremely upsetting. People, writers and readers, simply aren’t able to accept that good writing can happen all over the place. For kids, teenagers, young adults. Part of this is because the young adult genre has expanded exponentially over the last few years. However, with this growth, stereotypes are also sewn. People think Twilight and thrown-together vampire novels. No characterization. But you can’t take one novel, or even a string of novels, and call the whole genre bad.
So, in so many ways, I am thankful for the extreme popularity of TFIOS, personally and professionally. John Green certainly deserves it and the young adult genre certainly deserves to have such a wonderful book representing its writing and writers. But I believe we always run into problems when we let one book represent a whole spectrum of writing, subjects and authors.
Being both a writer of YA and speculative fiction, I feel the press from both sides of the spectrum.
I think sometimes people are too afraid to give YA the credit it deserves, or are otherwise scared to brave the teen only stacks in Barnes & Noble. But I would advise curious folks to take those small steps towards the shelves, go up to the girl reading cross-legged on the floor, and see what she has to say. You might be surprised by what you find.