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Librarians Love: “Clean” Reads for High Schoolers

YALSA-bk is a listserv with lively discussions among librarians, educators, and beyond about all things YA lit. Sometimes one listserv member will ask for help finding books around a certain theme or readalikes for a particular title. This post is a compilation of responses for one such request.

reading ajax for dummies by daveyninThe original request
My local high school is attempting to do a “One Book One Read” for their required summer reading, where every student — grades 9-12 — will read the same book. Last year they chose I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak and received a lot of parent complaints about the content (primarily concerning sex and violence).

They would like to try again this year and have asked for my help in finding The Holy Grail of Books. They’re looking for a book that:

  • Is appropriate for all grades (again, 9-12)
  • Students haven’t already read [for class]
  • Does not contain strong language, violence, sex, allusions to drugs or alcohol
  • “Has a good (but NOT religious) message”

These students are annually assigned to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Hiroshima by John Hersey and the teens absolutely LOVE THEM — to point where many of them read the books before they have been assigned, because they’ve heard they’re so good. Steampunk and dystopian series also circulate very well at my branch.

I’m going through the server archives to see what has already been suggested, but I’ve noticed most of the “clean reads” list are gender-specific and geared more toward middle schoolers.

Suggested titles

  • Legacy of the Clockword Key by Kristin Bailey
  • Hate List by Jennifer Brown
  • Airman by Eoin Colfer
  • Skinny by Donna Cooner
  • Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
  • Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances Dowell
  • Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
  • Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos
  • Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman
  • Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • Schooled by Gordon Korman
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
  • Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
  • Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  • Tamar by Mal Peet
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
  • Endangered by Eliot Schrefer
  • Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Keeping Corner by Kashmina Sheth
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • MAUS by Art Spiegelman
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Reboot by Amy Tintera
  • Pod by Stephen Wallenfels
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Suggested authors

  • Carl Hiaasen

Have more titles you think should belong on these lists? Add them on the YALSA wiki or leave a comment! Looking for more compiled booklists? Check out the YALSA wiki or other booklists here at The Hub.

— Gretchen Kolderup, currently reading an ever-rotating selection of books and articles about management

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  1. Megan Reichelt Megan Reichelt

    I am a little confused? Never Fall Down is about the atrocities in Cambodia. It is a very violent book. I have a relatively high violence threshold, and even I felt it was really graphic. It is important to the book that it is graphic, but I certainly wouldn’t have it on a list of non-violent books. Hate List is about a school shooting and has violent scenes. I don’t believe they will fulfill your 3rd piece of criteria. Ok for Now is one of my favorites, though it is geared towards middle school students.

    • I should clarify: for this post, I just compiled all of the responses that members of YALSA-bk sent in to the original query. Thank you for the details on some of these titles — that’ll help people looking for something similar to the original poster find the book from this list that’s right for them.

  2. Lynette Constantinides Lynette Constantinides

    We had the exact same issue at my Virginia high school.

    Three years ago we read The Hunger Games, the summer before the movie came out. Huge hit — and nobody complained about the theme of children killing children.

    The next year we read Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk and had a lot of backlash from a small segment of the community who objected to the language (not too bad, but accurate to the way high schoolers talk) and the themes of child abuse.

    This past summer we read Roland Smith’s Peak, which is free of sex, language and violence and has a good adventure plot, but is, frankly, kind of middle-schooly. Another school in our district read it too, and I didn’t hear about any complaints.

    • Thanks for suggesting these additional titles, Lynette! I hope your all-school read continues to be a success. :)

  3. Jenn Jenn

    A lot of the books on this list are not clean, according to the definition given above. I agree with the comment above re: Never Fall Down and Hate List. It is also worth mentioning that like Hate List, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen – while geared at middle-graders – has a school shooting. It’s not graphic, but it’s still a pretty significant act of violence.

    Other books on this list that feature relatively strong violence and language:

    Divergent by Veronica Roth – The eyeball scene. Enough said.

    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – The torture in this is pretty graphic, as is a pivotal scene. And isn’t there swearing in this as well? I can’t quite remember.

    5th Wave by Rick Yancey – There is strong language and some scenes of graphic violence in 5th Wave (I’m thinking specifically about her father’s death).

    That, of course, is not to say that they would not be excellent choices for the

    • Thanks a lot for the details on what’s in some of these books members of YALSA-bk suggested. As (I think) you’re saying in your last sentence, different communities have different standards, and not every book is for every reader, so having a better understanding of what possibly challenging content a book contains is helpful for anyone trying to choose a “One City One Book”-style read.

      • Jenn Jenn

        Whoops, I must have just finished writing that comment in my mind only! Gretchen, I completely agree with your comment, thanks for finishing my thought. The books I’ve referred to here are great works of YA fiction that would excite and engage teen readers. I just wanted to give some details about the violence described in some of the titles I’m familiar with.

  4. Djones Djones

    The Raven Boys (first book in the series) by Maggie Stiefvater. It has a little bit of violence, but overall it is pretty tame.

    Rick Riordan’s series are great. I love them as an adult, but some older teens might find it a little beneath their level.

    Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

  5. AJB AJB

    Lots of great recommendations here!

    Also loved Jasper Fforde’s Dragonslayer books (The Last Dragonslayer & Song of the Quarkbeast). Those are imaginative, hilarious, and great fun to read. I’ve recommended them to teens–guys & girls alike–who want something fantasy, but without any of that icky romance stuff (’cause not everyone loves a love triangle). Another fun series is Terra Lynn Childs’ “Fins” trilogy, although that one might be geared more toward the younger end of the adolescent spectrum.

    Thanks for compiling and posting this list!

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