Traditional western novels denote a sense of the “Old West” as defined as a time period of American history from about the 17th century to the early 20th century where new settlers dealt with the harsh landscape, lawlessness, and/or the loner who exacts vengeance in the name of doing what is right. For westerns that are written for teens, however, they don’t always follow all the typical western tropes, but most commonly some of these themes are paired with the main character or characters coming of age through the story.
Authors to Know
There aren’t many authors who are well-known for writing westerns for teens, however here are some of the more well-known western authors:
- Loius L’Amour
- Zane Grey
- Larry McMurtry
- Cormac McCarthy
The setting of western novels usually deem that they be set in western America. However, westerns can take place in other geographical settings where the landscape may mimic that of the “Old West.” So, it can be a landscape where there is a search for a valuable mineral or material, or there are desolate conditions that are hard to survive, or it is a new land that settlers must figure out how to tame. Whatever the case, a richly detailed landscape is one of the main characteristics of a western novel. Also, a civilized society does not exist in most western novels, usually because the land has been uninhabited and it has yet to be developed. Traditionally, western novels are set in the time period of the “Old West,” but when it comes to western novels written for teens, they do not need to be set in a historically accurate time. They can be set in the past, alternate past, present, and even future.
Main characters of western novels are typically male. If there is a female main character, she is usually a strong one. The main characters are traditionally the heroes of the story, and you are not always sure that they will survive until the end of the book. Plots of western novels for teens can include a lone character seeking justice, a type of good guy versus bad guy standoff, or even land disputes and lawlessness. Additionally, though not always common, westerns for teens can include the genres of romance and dystopia. One thing is for sure, though, action and adventure are a must and there is always an ultimate showdown in the end!
Appeal and Readers
The appeal of westerns to teen readers is not as wide as other genres. Generally, a teen can be sold on a western if they are looking for a story with lots of action and adventure and/or a story where the good guy prevails and justice is carried out. Westerns can appeal to both male and female readers, though the more traditional western novels appeal more to male readers.
Trends for westerns written for teens include setting the western in a future dystopian society. A prime example of this is Moira Young’s Dustlands series. In Young’s future world, the land has been ravaged and Saba and her family scavenge to survive. Saba’s brother is kidnapped and in order to save him, Saba must fight for her life in a violent city ruled by an evil King.
Read the High Country: a Guide to Western Books and Film by John Mort (Libraries Unlimited, 2006)
A Few Good Books: Using Contemporary Readers Advisory Strategies to Connect Readers with Books by Stephanie L. Maatta (Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2010)
The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Joyce G. Saricks (American Library Association, 2009)
Most publishers for teens will publish westerns, though there are not a high number of traditional western novels being published for teens at this time.
The Spur Awards have Juvenile Fiction and Nonfiction categories.
The Willa Awards have a Children’s/Young Adult Fiction & Nonfiction category.
There are also the Western Heritage Awards which have a Juvenile Category.
- Year of the Horse by Justin Allen
- Geronimo by Joseph Bruchac
- Crosswire by Dottie Enderle
- Dark Life by Kat Falls
- Far North by Will Hobbs (1997 Top 10 Best Books for Young Adults)
- I Am Apache by Tanya Landman
- Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
- The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan
- Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen
- Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2009 Best Books for Young Adults)
- Space Cowboy by Justin Stanchfield
- The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
- Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams
- Written in Blood by John Wilson
- Blood Red Road by Moira Young (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
— Colleen Seisser, currently reading Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige