Guest Post: Recommended ‘Young Adult’ Fiction

We focus on Harry Potter here and have a good deal of enthusiastic discussion about Twilight and the Hunger Games books (10 more days to Mockingjay!) but there are a lot of other books out there we neglect by necessity in saying as much as we do about these series. To help correct that imbalance, long time HogPro All-Pro Deborah Chan, aka Arabella Figg, a writer living in eastern Washington State, offers her recommendations in a guest post titled ‘Young Adult Books Offer Great Reading.’ Enjoy!

Every time I go into bookstores or the library these days, I get discouraged by the adult selections. I’m an eclectic reader, so I can’t just head over to a particular genre section and find a treasure trove. Instead, I circle around the new and general/genre book section, picking up, putting down…and often leave empty-handed and discouraged, wondering if there will ever be anything good to read again.

Adult fiction has been overtaken by what I call The Jodi Picoult Syndrome (Picoult writes bestsellers—I’ve read two—that are literary, compelling, and… vastly depressing). This Syndrome means that a novel will plunge me into a gloomy, psychological story, full of angst, dysfunction, family secrets, rocky and wrecked marriages, creepy people, disturbed or damaged children, tragedy, forbidden love, and an ending that can’t possibly have an edifying or uplifting resolution, given the whopping freight of human misery leading up to it. Last fall I tried to read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for a book club and the unpleasant narrator drove me away by page three.

When I expressed my thoughts about adult fiction to fellow Lost fan Liz, she wrote (bold highlights mine): “You hit the nail on the head about Jodi Picoult Syndrome. I have one of her books but never got around to reading it. I saw an article a few months back about the state of modern fiction being such that all sorts of dark and terrible things happen to children. Jodi Picoult was the writer the columnist chose to spotlight. I read Olive Kitteridge and it was so depressing. I picked it up because it won the Pulitzer Prize and got good reviews. I did find it worthwhile but I’m not sure if the value of reading it outweighed the tragic exploration of the human condition. Ditto with Revolutionary Road. Yes, it’s a masterpiece and extremely well crafted, but it took me weeks to shake the existential pall.”

I simply refuse to read any more of this kind of dreary book.

I’ve been raiding the library’s Young Adult bookshelves this summer, where I think the best storytelling is to be found these days. Fellow All Pro Jenna St. Hilaire agrees. “There’s less pressure to be pretentious and more freedom to hope in that genre,” she says. Unlimited by contemporary adult literary constraints, YA novels range widely in subject and genre (and combinations of genres), and are heavy on good story and characters; they entertain, move, amuse, and uplift me. Unfortunately, these timeless/ageless stories are often ghettoized in the YA section and adults don’t discover them unless they become powerhouse hits like Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, and I suspect, given the upcoming film, The Hunger Games, which has already been a favorite of adult book clubs.

I’ve enjoyed some remarkably imaginative YA novels over the past couple of months. In the three featured below, I suspect story scaffolding that John could grasp in a heartbeat.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

(National Book Award Finalist, Young People’s Literature, 2006)

I don’t want to give away much about this enchanting and beautifully-written medieval fairy tale, but it reminded me of a certain Rowling story and Twilight. One day beautiful young Keturah, the village storyteller, follows a legendary hart into the forest and is lost. Three days later Death comes for her, and to her surprise, he’s a handsome, compelling man with whom she surprisingly has a longstanding connection. Falling in love with her and pitying her youth, Death allows Keturah to choose a replacement, but she refuses. A la Scheherazade, and despite her terror, Keturah tells Death an unfinished love story and persuades him to let her live if she can find her true love in a day. This novel is a stunner, a beautiful and unusual apotheosis story that I look forward to rereading and examining more closely for story elements often discussed at this blog.

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

(Andre Norton Award Finalist for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy)

This is an outstanding reimagining of the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon (with its own embed of the Cupid and Psyche/Beauty and the Beast story). Cassie, 17, lives with her father at an arctic research station in the American Northwest and plans to work with polar bears. When she was a child her grandmother told her that her mother made a bargain with the Polar Bear King and was sent to the ends of the earth; her father tells her that her mother died. But Cassie discovers that her grandmother told her the truth. Cassie also makes a bargain with the Polar Bear King, who calls her “Beloved”: she will marry him if he rescues her mother. Carried to his exquisite ice castle she begins to love Bear, but her curiosity sets in motion a quest that will demand every bit of her strength to prove herself worthy of immortal love. This powerful and compelling apotheosis story is beautifully written, and the end is a twist I didn’t see coming.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin

(School Library Journal Best Book of 2008)

This original novel is based on the old song Scarborough Fair. Lucy Scarborough discovers from her mad mother’s teen diary that all the women in her family have been cursed by the evil Elfin King to become pregnant and bear a child at eighteen, and then go insane, unless they complete three impossible tasks. A victim of rape at her prom, Lucy is now pregnant with her own child, and with her loved ones, she must unravel the riddles in the song to defeat the curse. Lucy’s contemporary, sardonic voice often speaks for the reader, and makes this blended genre story believable. Those who dislike the Twilight novels will find some plot points controversial and unsettling, for similar reasons. But I’ve spent too many years under John’s tutelage to dismiss a novel for its surface story elements alone. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t have the depth of the two above.

Some other fairy tale reimaginings I’ve enjoyed over the years: Donna Jo Napoli’s marvelous, gritty fairy tales (Zel and Spinners are favorites), and Gail Carson Levine’s 1998 Newberry Award Winner Ella Enchanted (and others). Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the first of the contemporary reimaginings, gave me a love for this kind of novel; she later wrote a deeper version of the story called Rose Daughter.

If you like dystopian fiction, I recommend Lois Lowry’s outstanding Giver trilogy—The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger; these books are deep and the Christian symbolism in Messenger is beautiful. Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies series, and his non-dystopian, fantasy Midnight series, are excellent.

I still have some other imaginative YA books in the pile I have yet to read and am looking forward to them. And I welcome recommendations.


  1. Thanks for the YA recommendations! I have been looking for something good to read. I find that I read almost exclusively from the YA section….nothing else really interests me.

  2. Thank you so much – I can’t wait to get my hands on your recommendations. You may have seen this:

    it is nice to know we are not alone. I am in two bookclubs and have read my share of bestsellers which required a fair amount of time trying to forget what I’ve read. The YA stigma is hard to overcome – the others in my bookclubs are very resistant to picking one as a read even though they all raved about The Book Thief. Thanks again and keep the recommendations coming!

  3. Perelandra says

    I’ve long felt the same way about YA fiction. My daughters and I love Garth Nix. Robin Mckinley’s YAs are fine but DEERSKIN is not for the young! Her SUNSHINE is a vampire novel very different from TWIGHT.

    Lots of old Andre Norton titles are still in print if you’d like to try the Grande Dame of the genre.

  4. My fondest memory of working in our town library’s Jr. Dept was in having unlimited access to the YA fiction shelves! Thank you, Arabella, for reinforcing my opinion of currently popular adult literature. Now if I could just remember some of those titles….ah, well.

  5. I guess this is part of the reason I love YA fiction too. But I also just am fascinated with the sense of ‘becoming’ that is inherent in the genre (as it is in fairy tales). I believe that we are all of us, as long as we are in this life, in that process of becoming what we are meant to be.

    A series I recommend, particularly for boys, is Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn trilogy. Sort of a steampunk setting and an old-fashioned adventure story with a really decent, likeable hero who nevertheless struggles with his own less admirable traits.

  6. Well, stated, Arabella. YA books, because of their slim size and youthful protagonists, can often be overlooked…and since when did happy (or at least non-tragic) endings become a crime? The best YA I’ve read of late were The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig and Slam by Nick Hornby.

  7. Thanks for the book list. I’ll have to check it out later. I completely agree with your view of adult fiction. My other complaint about adult fiction is that it’s “more adult” than I want to read. I just want a story with interesting and compelling stories and characters. I don’t need the X-rated content, thanks.

    I remember trying to read “Angela’s Ashes” and found it so depressing that I didn’t get more than a chapter into before I set it aside. I later just gave it away, which I rarely do with a book I haven’t read.

    Lately I’ve been reading historical fiction (which I used to read all the time when I was in school) and 19th century novels (“North and South”, “Cranford”, and “Wives and Daughters”) – Dickens, Gaskell (love her books), and re-reads of Austen and Hardy and “Jane Eyre”.

    Thanks again!

  8. Fantastic post, Deborah. I’m totally with you on both YA and adult fiction. 🙂

    I want to read a number of these books, especially the first two you mentioned. The story East of the Sun and West of the Moon has haunted me for years, though I think I first read it as Whitebear Whittington.

    Making myself a list…

  9. Arabella Figg says

    I knew I wasn’t alone! Thanks for the enthusiastic response. And, a2paper, thanks for the great NY Times article; I loved it. I loved these quotes in particular: “A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart,” and “At last, I have found my people!”

    Donna, you really hit something key with: “I also just am fascinated with the sense of ‘becoming’ that is inherent in the genre (as it is in fairy tales). I believe that we are all of us, as long as we are in this life, in that process of becoming what we are meant to be.” We’re all still “growing up” as we move through life. We experience the same basic internal challenges of our youth but in different ways. This is why I resonate with YA books because they’re about me and people I relate to.

    While my husband was out of town this week I rented the film Mean Girls. Although I read about it, I hadn’t seen it in 2004 because I thought it was more a teen movie. It’s become an iconic and oft-referenced film so I thought I should see it. Oh yes, I knew every one of these girls–“queen bees and wannabes”–very well, and I still know them. It’s a deep film about the way women treat each other that I liked a lot.

    I’ve got another rec coming.

  10. Good post!

    I’ve been doing quite a lot of research/presentations lately on the current trends in and explosion of young adult dystopian fiction. My bibliography of YA dystopias and the secondary works about them is available here.

    Recently I also posted a list of recommendations of YA dystopias here.

    I hope these links are useful!

  11. Thanks for the post! I’ve been looking for more good YA fiction to read, since I tend to avoid the adult stuff for the same reasons people have mentioned. Somehow I missed reading The Giver growing up so I think that is next on my list.
    And I agree about Mean Girls. I wasn’t expecting anything when some friends rented it back when I was in college but it turned out to be surprisingly deep. If you have other movies to recommend I’d love to hear it. 🙂

  12. Arabella Figg says

    A very different and unforgettable book is Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral, a Printz Honor winner. Narrator Shawn, 14, born with such severe cerebral palsy that he is trapped within a completely nonresponsive body and unable to communicate, is a brilliant, funny boy with a keen appreciation of life. But he’s beginning to worry that his father, believing Shawn’s life is a torment, is thinking of a mercy killing. This sounds like the total downers I condemn, but it’s not. (Trueman’s own son has cerebral palsy.)

    As far as films, ironically I also rented Napoleon Dynamite for the reasons I rented Mean Girls. I didn’t get too far in before popping the DVD back out; I thought it painfully awful. For fantastic storytelling as a springboard to great discussion, you can’t beat Pixar films, and The Truman Show.

    I’ve just started another YA novel, Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall by ALA Schneider Family Award winner Wendy Mass; it’s written in free verse and looks very promising.

    Amy, thanks for all the dystopian recs; I look forward to reading your lists.

  13. Lisa Bunker says

    Some of those look like exactly what I enjoy! Thanks for the list!

    I am a long time fan of Robin McKinley. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Beauty.

    I would add these to the list:
    Sabriel and the rest if the Abhorsen series, by Garth Nix. Set in a world where mages are necessary to keep the dead — dead. I don’t normally read horror-tinged books, but these are exceptional. I especially love the second book about Lirael because she’s a librarian.

    Megan Whalen Turner’s series about Eugenides, which begins with The Thief. Turner is a master of subtle intrigue.

    Hmmm. My iPad is behind oddly so I’ll stop here.

  14. Arabella Figg says

    On Saturday I was ordering Keturah at Borders. The woman who assisted me told me she reads a lot of YA, too, especially because it’s not as graphic. I gave her this and The Hog’s Head’s addresses, told her about THG, HP, and other discussions, and she was really happy to have them. So Shannon might be popping up here someday.

    On the featured book table was a novel about an adoptive couple and the birth father who wants to get custody of their child. I want to read this for pleasure and relaxation? I can’t even bear to read news stories about stuff like this!

    Thankfully, I still do find some great books in adult fiction, but the pickings are slim.

    If you like the books I mentioned, please come back to this post and share your thoughts.

  15. Impatiently awaiting Keturah from the library and looking so forward to reading as many of these recommendations as possible! Keep them coming!

  16. The Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden is the top of the dystopian novels for the YA market in Australia, and has been since I was a YA for real. I suspect with the upcoming release of the movie of the first book (the series has 5 or 7 books, with the Ellie Chronicles following after with at least 3 more) will help them sell a few more copies. It’s a long time since I’ve read them, though, so I can’t comment on the alchemical content, unless it’s to say that fire plays a major role in each novel and there is a sacrificial death in several. Sacrifice is a major theme throughout.

  17. Arabella Figg says

    Thanks for your recommendations, Sharon. I forgot Marsden’s excellent Tomorrow series, which I read in June.

    As I read them back to back, my comments must be taken in that light. In the Tomorrow series, an unnamed Asian country invades and occupies most of Australia. A group of teens camping in an isolated place avoid capture and internment. Homeless, they become resistence insurgents against the occupiers.

    The writing is great and the story riveting, especially the sabotage sequences. The seven books have basically the same plot–struggle with occupiers, plotting sabotage, carrying it out, struggling with the aftermath, and relational issues. I had story fatigue with the last two books, feeling this story could have been told in five or even three books. I thought the first and last books were the best. 

    That said, these were among the best YA dystopian I’ve read because they deal so much with the kids’ feelings about the occupation, their struggles over what they’re forced to do and the morality of their actions, and the emotional ramifications of war. I recommend them (I haven’t read the followup Ellie series.)  

  18. I can’t say enough good things about Marsden’s work. He does a great job, too, of illustrated how the moral lessons of literature, in particular, relate to “real life” experience. I highly recommend the follow-up Ellie Chronicles, as well.

    (I include both series in my two links listed in my reply above.)

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