A couple weeks ago a piece called “Young Adult Books that Changed our Lives” appeared on the CNN website, featuring members of the CNN digital newsroom talking about an interesting array of “books that have stuck with them since adolescence.” It got me thinking–what YA books would I pick? What books would others–in this case my fellow Hub bloggers–pick?
A bunch sprang to mind right away, so many that I had to make up some rules for myself in order to make anything resembling a manageable list. I decided to limit myself to at least vaguely YA titles (no adult books, no straight-up children’s books) and to only mention books that literally changed my life, books that caused me to take action in some way, or that fundamentally changed the way I think. The ones I’m highlighting are certainly among my favorites, but more importantly, these books had such a profound impact on me that there were tangible repercussions from reading them.
Let’s start with the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. I remember reading the first book in the series, Betsy-Tacy, when I was 10 years old, and loving it. I loved the next couple but then after Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill…I could never seem to find the next book on the shelf. Years passed and then–bam–the whole rest of the series! Betsy, Tacy, and Tib went downtown, they went to high school, they grew up, and I wanted nothing more than to jump into their world head first. When I found out the entire series was based on the author’s life, that I could go to Deep Valley and climb the Big Hill, that I could visit Betsy’s house…I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how I felt, but it was a lot like finding out that Hogwarts was a real school and I could go there! Skip ahead a few more years and I did, I went to Deep Valley (Mankato, Minnesota) and saw it all and not only that, I did it with a whole bunch of other people who, like me, thought they “were the only one” who loved the gang as much as I did. I made friends at that convention (and online, and at various conferences, and in person) that have had as much of an impact on my life as the books themselves. Plus I know all the words to songs like I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Morning Cy, Dreaming, and Tonight Will Never Come Again.
I’m going to lump The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle together–unfairly, perhaps, but they are inextricably linked in my mind, probably because I first encountered them around the same time, and because they astounded me in similar ways. It’s not overstating much to say that if you read these two books (and a handful of de Lint, and probably Ender’s Game) you would know an awful lot about the way I think, because the sense of wonder Cooper and L’Engle convey, the wondrous connections they draw, and the worldviews they so eloquently describe have become integral to the way I see the world.
Finally, 2006 Printz Honor book I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is not the sort of book that usually kills me, but it did. Completely. The literary pyrotechnics of the last chapter were like a gift, an idea whose time had come. It’s an excellent book, a completely compelling story, and–for me–a message that literally couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. I got the tattoo (though probably, based on past experience, not the one you might think.)
There weren’t that many YA books around when I was a teen and I read mostly adult books. The one story that had a huge impact on me when I read it in 8th grade was Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” I still remember how shocked and horrified I was by the mob mentality of the townspeople as they stoned to death the unlucky woman who drew the marked slip condemning her to death. I never imagined anything like this could actually happen until reading that short story. You can see the influence it has had in books like The Hunger Games.
Three books really sparked my growth as a reader and a librarian. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Kidnapped was the first book I read that I had to own. I saved my allowance and bought a hard cover copy at the book store. I remember looking at each edition and choosing the volume with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. This was the first time that a book felt like a treasure and worth protecting. Hatchet was a book that inadvertently got me in trouble. We had to read it for school and I wasn’t paying attention when the teacher said to only read the first 5 chapters. I read the whole book. My teacher scolded me for reading ahead but this was the first time I realized how fast I could read and how hungry I was for adventure stories.
The Sword of Shannara was a book I discovered working as a library aide in junior high school. I was shelving and found this huge paperback. All fiction books at our library that were very long also seemed very boring. This book looked different. I started to read the book while I was supposed to be working. I nearly forgot to check it out when I left for my next class. When I got home from school, I began to read again. I became so wrapped up in the story that the afternoon passed and at dinner time came. I didn’t notice my mom cooking or how it got dark and she put a light on for me. To stop reading was almost like pulling myself out of quicksand, as if the story was reticent it let me go. These experiences let me to a lifetime of literacy and librarianship.
Here are the books that changed me:
The Tiffany Aching Series (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight) by 2011 Edwards Award winner, Terry Pratchett
I read these starting about 9 years ago and they changed the way I thought about…everything. Tiffany and the other witches on the Discworld are eminently practical, down to earth, sensible, and smart. They realize that magic is not fireballs and flashy spells, but “headology” – psychology, therapy, and hard work. Everyone needs them, many fear them, but they do the hard work no one else wants to do. That is incredibly appealing to me. I never want to be flashy; I’d rather put my head down and get 23 things done with hard work than make a fuss over doing one big thing.
Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Doug’s story could have been trite and formulaic. “Boy from abusive home makes good.” But man oh man, can Schmidt write. He spins Doug’s tale out and breaks your heart into little pieces, patches it back together with hope, smashes it again, yet you keep reading. It’s genius-level work and it made me seek out other, realistic, and historical fiction YA works that I might never have tried otherwise. (I tend to get stuck in my fantasy rut.) Thanks for broadening my horizons, Mr. Schmidt! (The audio version of Okay For Now is a 2012 Odyssey Award Honor book.)
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
This is the funniest book I have ever read. Period. That it also has some heart-string tugging moments is just a bonus. People often write “LOL” or say “This made me laugh.” But this book made me laugh, out loud, in public. I recommend it to everyone, male, female, adult, teen, families going on road trips (the audio is fun), and everyone has come back to me asking for more of Antsy & co. This book made me realize I need to not pigeonhole writers. Shusterman is so much more than a horror/SF guy.
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman (2001 Printz Honor book) was incredibly powerful for me. It essentially gave me a vision and perspective on what it might be like to have a severe condition like cerebral palsy that not only confines a person to a wheelchair, but also disallows verbal expression, where I had none before. I still recommend this title to teens because it has the ability to open their eyes to a totally different way of experiencing life, plus it is an entertaining and gripping read. Give teens a book like that and you never know what great things it might inspire!
This isn’t a personal one, but I thought it fit. Recently, I was weeding the YA fiction and came across writing in a book. The book is Willow by Julia Hoban, which is about a girl who self harms. While I have not read it and it seems to have mixed reviews, these comments from three different readers speak to the power of the right book getting into the hands of a teen reader (or any reader) at the right time.
“This book is amazing. It saved my life.”
“Now that I have stopped, my dad looks at me. It took one bad summer and a ride in an ambulance to snap me out of it. Thank you might as well of saved my life.”
“I read this book and stopped shortly after. I came to the realization I needed to move on and I needed help.”
For all those who rail against â€œdarkâ€ YA fiction or are afraid it inspires teens to engage in risky or destructive behavior, this is testament to the opposite. Books don’t just change lives, they save them.
As a (still-sort-of) young black woman, I have not read a lot of YA written by black women. There were a few I found in middle school whose titles I have long forgotten, but by high school I had moved on to Anne Rice, Bridget Jones, and high fantasy of all sorts. When I started revisiting YA as an adult, I found that often times, I had no patience for the dialect I kept encountering while trying to read “Urban YA” and wasn’t going to force myself through it to find the interesting plots that must have been buried underneath them. (I will interject that I have problems with dialect of any sort–Bloody Jack fell to that knife for me as well.) I wouldn’t figure out if these girls thought like me, had the same goals I did, or even liked any of the same things I did, because I couldn’t stand to read them talking. When I started working at a nearly-all-black high school, I scoured my colleagues’ brains and the book sites and stores for worthwhile books to give my students to read: still in their comfort zone, but outside of the norm. And then, out of the ice, a few arose. The first I read was The Kayla Chronicles. Pretty good; well-spoken teenagers with interesting issues who learn real lessons.
They started to show themselves to me: authors like Jacqueline Woodson who could write about anything (though If You Come Softly was the one that left me crying on the floor for an hour). But there was still something missing, in my own personal repertoire. I enjoy contemporary fiction, but my real bread and butter is urban fantasy and paranormal romance. And then, randomly, (in Target of all places!) I found them: The Cambion Chronicles by Jaime Reed. Not only was the series narrated by a spunky black girl who worked in a bookstore and lived off her geek cred, but the supernatural element was off the beaten path as well. Where else are you going to find a tasteful YA novel about a whole race of Succubi? The writing was superb and fun, and it wasn’t all about The Plight of the Black Teen in Urban America. No matter how important that particular story might be, there are other stories to tell. It was reading this series that really gave me both insight into (and hope for) the future of “multicultural fiction.” I still have students who only want to read about Their-Own, but at least there are other things to throw at them as they begin to take the steps toward being willing to read about The-Other.
The book that most changed my life was The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. At the time I was in graduate school pursuing my MLS, but I wasn’t sure what path to take. After reading that book, I knew that I wanted to be a YA Librarian. Ten years later, I’m still loving the work I do and it’s the second best decision of my life.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some reading (the Cambion Chronicles sound fantastic!) and re-reading to do!
-Julie Bartel, currently reading A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny (because that’s what I do in October) and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black