When you think about YA fiction, there are the “big” books – The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, Twilight, Fangirl, Grasshopper Jungle – these are the books that are in the magazines, that have been adapted as movies, that everyone seems to be talking about. They are great books not in need of any additional promotion. Everyone knows about these titles.
But today, I’d like to talk about those other YA books out there. Books that, in my opinion, are just as good, just as heart rending, as powerful, as emotionally satisfying, but for whatever reason, they did not hit the publicity jackpot. They are what I call quiet books. It is not that their plots or characters are quiet, but their fame is quiet. They may not get as much love, but I feel they are worthy of attention. Here are some quiet books; books that I feel deserve more renown. I hope you will read them and discover new authors and stories. Do you know of some quiet books of your own? Please leave a comment and tell us all what books you think are unsung! I’d love to add more quiet books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile.
Dead Ends by Erin Jade Lange
Dane is a high school senior, an excellent student, and one suspension away from expulsion. He has anger management issues. Dane must spend time with Billy, a high schooler with Downs Syndrome, to work off his detentions. To the surprise of both boys, they develop a real friendship based on their similarities: both are fatherless, both have tempers, and both appreciate cute girls. Lange writes realistically about teens with rough lives, and readers will believe in the friendship, will feel Billy’s pain of abandonment, and will appreciate the honesty of the not-tied-up-with-a-bow ending.
Hold Me Closer Necromancer by Lish McBride (A 2011 Morris Finalist)
Is humorous horror a genre? Because that is the best way to describe this unique and charming book. Sam’s life is not the best, but it’s not the worst. He has friends, a job, and a loving mom. He has no idea that he is a necromancer, a magician who can control the dead. A dumb prank brings him unwanted attention from a powerful necromancer who wants Sam to work with him, or be killed. Sam must learn to master powers he never knew he had, fast. McBride writes snarky, funny, sweet, and scary characters and places them in unusual magical jeopardy. She makes death and situations around it scary but also somehow silly. Knowledge of ’80s pop music is not required, but does enhance the reading experience.
Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
Nate and his parents move to a house where he discovers tape recordings made by a previous inhabitant. They sound like imaginative stories told by a lonely boy, but Nate and his new friend Tabitha soon find out that magic is real in their town, and they are quickly in over their heads dealing with the supernatural. Ruth’s black and white pen and ink drawings are by turns delicate and bold. It is gorgeous art that brings the story to life. The fantasy setting may draw readers into this graphic novel, but the depth of the characters will keep the story in their minds long after they finish reading.
Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian
You may think you know where this book is going, but honestly, you don’t. Tom is a senior in a small Maine town. He’s on the soccer team, has a great girlfriend, and his future could be bright at college if he ever gets around to applying. But with life so simple, why worry about the future? Tom is barely aware when his little town becomes a migration location for Somali refugees fleeing their war-torn country until several Somali boys join his soccer team and prove to be outstanding athletes. But not everyone in town wants the refugees there, and life for these young men is as far from easy as Tom’s life is from hard. Padian shows how Tom is brought up short by learning that life is not the same for everyone. With this same skill she also makes readers think about the wider world.
The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls by John Lekich
Fifteen year old Henry’s mother has died, his guardian uncle Andy (a very nice small time crook) is in jail, and Henry is trying to stay out of the foster care system by making it on his own. Henry is a very a considerate thief: cleaning houses, putting money into piggy banks, and never taking birthday cake. When he eventually gets caught, Henry’s good-natured thoughtfulness saves him from jail. He is sentenced to a rehabilitation program in the tiny town of Snowflake Falls. There is a lot of action, plenty of playful Runyonesque language, several charming old-guy small-time crooks, and a wonderfully silly caper.
The Story of Us by Deb Caletti
As her family gathers at an isolated bed and breakfast to celebrate her mom’s marriage, Cricket has a lot on her mind. She’s worried about her mom’s remarriage, she doesn’t know which college to choose, and she did something terrible to her longtime love, Janssen. Something that may mean the end of their steady, sturdy, wonderful relationship. As wacky wedding hijinks ensue, Cricket writes e-mails to Janssen, trying to sort through her feelings and determine whether getting back together is what she wants after all. Caletti tosses the reader into an already moving story, trusting you to keep up. She shows the reader how a rough childhood made Cricket who she is today, making readers care about Cricket and her family. This is a lovely book with a bit more meat to it than many other relationship stories.
Take What You Can Carry by Kevin Pyle
Kyle, a young teen, moves into a new housing development in the late 1970s and falls in with some bored local kids. They wreak minor havoc in their neighborhood, and Kyle begins shoplifting from the local convenience store. When he gets caught, the owner, Himitsu, does not press charges, but insists that Kyle work off his debt. Kyle’s story alternates with that of teenage Himitsu and his family being sent to a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. Himitsu was also not a model youth; he did things in the camp that Kyle echoes 33 years later. Wordless sepia toned panels tell Himitsu’s story, while white and blue art conveys Kyle’s Chicago suburb. Pyle’s images are filled with details to pore over, and although this graphic novel may be quick to get through, it rewards multiple readings. When and where Kyle’s and Himitsu’s stories connect is the heart of the book.
Ten Miles Past Normal by Francis O’Roark Dowell
Not every YA book is full of troubles and gloom. Janie is hopeful about starting high school, but what with playing in a jam band, living on a goat farm, and a friend named Monster, what is “normal” for one person varies for another. There is a love interest (or two), and parental embarrassment, and a cool older sister to look up to. But none of these standard YA tropes are handled in a standard way. O’Dowell smartly shows how Janie is not suffering through anything harsher than trying to find her place in high school, but how that can be harsh enough. Making friends, keeping friends, trying to broaden your horizons, meeting boys, seeing your idols from a different perspective, trying to stay yourself without feeling lost in a big school; throw in an interesting subplot about civil rights history, and you’ve got a rich book that will resonate with young teens who may not enjoy other, darker, YA literature.
Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett
Anna is mourning her “bruncle” Joe. (Her uncle was only two years older and raised alongside her; he was practically her brother.) Joe died a year ago, but Anna is nowhere near done grieving. When her loving, wise grandfather gets sick, any progress Anna has made toward healing backslides quickly. And then she finds out that she did not know Joe as well as she thought. The grief-stricken teen is a character that is all too familiar in YA literature, but Bassett writes it fresh. She has created a strong, flawed, loving support group of family and friends for Anna; people who believably stick with her as she lashes out but never acts out. You will want to spend time with Anna, hoping to see her find her way out of her grief and into the rest of her life.
~Geri Diorio, currently reading The Truth Commission by Susan Juby