Teens Don’t Read Westerns! Or Do They….?

YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults has been going for quite some time now–fifteen years! It’s always fun to go back and see what previous committees decided to focus on, but when I was scanning through the list and saw they had done Westerns back in 2001, it got me thinking.  Westerns have been in significant decline over the past fifty years and, while there is no end to classic titles available, Westerns for young adults isn’t exactly the direction publishers are trending toward these days. It could be a moot point–do teens even want to read Westerns? Show them a dusty old Louis L’Amour paperback and the answer is probably a resounding “no,” but a handful of recent titles might convince even the most skeptical teen that Westerns can be great stuff. With plenty of action and adventure (and nary a “little dogie” in sight) these books will appeal to a range of different genre fans. And who knows: they might even ask you for more…

The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan probably best represents the classic genre but could easily be sold as historical fiction or even a survival story. It’s set in 1866 Kansas; siblings Aiden and Maddy Lynch must abandon their farm after a drought wipes out what little remained after the death of their parents. When Aiden is recruited to work in a logging camp near Seattle, they begin an arduous journey by wagon train that threatens to bring even more sorrow than they left behind. Accurate historical details and a secondary plot line involving the American Indian smallpox pandemic help bring the time period to life. A 2010 Best Book for Young Adults.

Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith is a book that, despite its modern-day setting, firmly captures the feel of the Old West. Wide open spaces, plenty of horses, and a growing threat of violence are woven together to create a richly drawn novel that is tense and seriously gripping. Sixteen-year-old Troy Stotts has recently lost his mother. As the cusp of adulthood and the weighty responsibilities that come with it begin to loom near, Troy and his close friends hope to spend one last summer as kids, but continual run-ins with a local bully threatens their quiet lives. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, this is a great book for teens looking for a darker, more literary story A 2009 Best Book for Young Adults.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson has more of a homesteading slant, but it still gives readers a taste of the Old West. Sixteen-year-old Hattie has spent years being shuttled between relatives she hardly knows, but when she inherits her uncle’s farm she eagerly leaves behind her nomadic, “Hattie Here-and-There” life to homestead in Montana. Details of daily life will show readers how difficult it could be to just survive 100 years ago. Offering a rare female perspective, Hattie is as inspiring as she is courageous. A 2007 Newbery Honor Book and 2007 Best Book for Young Adults.

Can’t get your teens interested in Western novels? Try a graphic novel! Something about Westerns just begs for visual storytelling and the combination of genre and format results in some serious winners:

Before Kabu Kibuishi became famous for his Amulet series, he published the fantastic steampunk Western Daisy Kutter: The Last Train. Ex-bandit Daisy lives a quiet life as a shopkeeper but still dabbles in the odd game of poker. After a particularly bad loss, she agrees to work off her debt by training and testing the ultimate defense robot but is in actuality being set up to be murdered by her nemesis. This is a clever story with lots of quirky humor and some great action scenes. The sepia-toned coloring and Kibuishi’s spare artwork serve the story well. A 2006 Best Book for Young Adults.

The Sixth Gun: Cold Dead Fingers by Brian Hurtt and Cullenn Bunn is another genre-blender, combining the Old West with supernatural twist. After the Civil War, one of six guns with otherwordly powers was lost, but when it reappears in the hands of young Becky Montcrief, dark and sinister forces are reawakened. Suddenly, a whole lot of people want Becky dead, but Drake Sinclair, a lone gunman with a shady past, is helping to keep her alive. High quality writing and excellent artwork make this one a standout. A 2012 Great Graphic Novel for Teens.

Still can’t get your teens to read a Western? Don’t tell anyone, but Blood Red Road by Moira Young is really a Western dressed in post-apocalyptic clothing. Eighteen-year-old Saba goes looking for her beloved twin brother, Lugh, after he is taken by four masked horsemen, but first she must literally fight her way out of her own kidnapping to find him. The cover blurb might not sound like the Old West, but it’s got big skies, dusty wastelands, travel by horseback and wagon, a long and dangerous journey, and seriously evil villains. It’s also got a great heroine and can easily be handed to teens looking for their next Hunger Games read-alike. A 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection.

Got any more recently published YA Western titles? Please add them in the comments below.

— Summer Hayes, currently reading Various Positions by Martha Schabas

7 thoughts on “Teens Don’t Read Westerns! Or Do They….?”

  1. While it’s not a western in the traditional sense, there is a middle grade novel, May B, that was published early this year that is set in the 1830s Kansas and has some homesteading elements to it that would appeal to reluctant YA readers even I think. It’s a fast read.

  2. If you are going to include Blood Red Road, why not also include Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy? With homesteaders, horses, guns, an evil villain, and a native population with a clear connection with the natural world who is being oppressed by the pioneers, it definitely has a western feel. The only difference is it’s in the future and on another planet.

    1. Thanks, Gretchen! I can’t believe I didn’t connect the dots on that one.

  3. Though it’s rarely thought of as being one, Charles Portis’ TRUE GRIT is one of the best teen books around, and certainly an excellent example of a teen-friendly Western. Told in first person by a precocious 14-year old girl who is convinced that she knows better than everyone, the book is funny, exciting, and moving. I pick up used copies any time I see them, and have a stack from which I dole out copies anytime I realize that one of my female nieces, cousins, etc has grown to be near the age of the indefatigable Mattie Ross.

  4. I’d also suggest the underwater western, “Dark Life” by Kat Falls. It’s a whole new “frontier” to explore!!

  5. Our kids learn so much in their History classes and the old west should be a big part of that! Our country was built around that era and there is something so genuine about it. There is a great 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie with Paul Newman and Robert Redford that is fantastic! Westerns can be hard to watch or read, but with the right gang of outlaws and plot, you could easily get pulled in to a great book/movie combo! I just finished reading a fantastic book about Butch and Sundance that is definitely worth checking out and would be a perfect pairing to the classic movie! It’s called “Legends Lost” by Charlie Mac http://www.charliemacbooks.com

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