I could write an introduction, but y’all know what’s coming. Let’s do this!
Note: I decided to try including synopses with the books from here on out. We’ll see if I remember to do this, and if it sticks.
#4: The Friends, Rosa Guy
A powerful, award-winning novel about friendship.
Phyllisia Cathy–She is fourteen. Her problems seem overwhelming: New York, after life on her sunlit West Indies island, is cold, cruel and filthy. She is insulted daily and is beaten up by classmates. What Phyllisia needs, God not being interested, is a friend.
Edith Jackson–She is fifteen. Her clothes are unpressed, her stockings bagging with big holes. Her knowledge of school is zero. She has no parents, she swears and she steals. But she is kind and offers her friendship and protection to Phyllisia.
“And so begins the struggle that is the heart of this very important book: the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge.”–Alice Walker, The New York Times
This book offers an interesting look at what it means to reach an age where you can identify your own prejudices. Phyllisia is an extremely relatable character. She just wants to be considered normal and to fit in, and after moving to this new place, it’s not coming as easily as she thought it might. I really enjoyed her character in the sense that I think young people can look at her and see themselves.
Edith is the perfect foil to Phyllisia: Aware of who she is and unashamed of it (at least, willing to admit that nothing will change for her without her initiating the change). She’s also a character you enjoy reading about, because she so perfectly depicts goodness.
I have a few issues with how the plot of this book is carried out. In many ways, I think it is too didactic for the teenage reader. They can spot a phony solution. And the trauma that Phyllisia experiences as she’s learning to accept people who are different is almost textbook sentimental literature.
Despite its shortcomings (many of which are most likely a result of its age), The Friends is a story that offers an alternative perspective, and I can understand why it was included on this list. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for “fun” reading, but it’s one to take a look at if you’re interested in what YA was like in the Beginning.
#5: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Alice Childress
Benjie can stop using heroin anytime he wants to. He just doesn’t want to yet. Why would he want to give up something that makes him feel so good, so relaxed, so tuned-out? As Benjie sees it, there’s nothing much to tune in for. School is a waste of time, and home life isn’t much better. All Benjie wants is for someone to believe in him, for someone to believe that he’s more than a thirteen-year-old junkie. Told from the perspectives of the people in his life-including his mother, stepfather, teachers, drug dealer, and best friend-this powerful story will draw you into Benjie’s troubled world and force you to confront the uncertainty of his future.
Can I just say, I love this title?
This book is really neat due to its style. Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character (although sometimes, like in the case of Benjie, they have mutliple chapters), and each of these characters shares his or her perspectives on what’s happening in Benjie’s life. This gives the author the opportunity to personify the different ideologies and persons surrounding a heroine epidemic. The other really neat part about this book is that it’s written in dialect. It was difficult to read at first, but you quickly get used to it as you get to know the characters (and each character has a slightly different way of speaking, too).
This book, like The Friends, is from an early time in the world of YA, and therefore it has some weaknesses in terms of how engaging the plot is. When reading it, I could definitely see this one being required reading in a freshman high school classroom. Again, another you wouldn’t necessarily pick up for “fun.” Yet I can also see how it could be challenged and banned in certain communities. It’s brutally honest about how young people find and use and sell drugs, at least within the context of its day. It also deals heavily with race issues, which in the story and in history were not resolved.
It was during the reading of this book and The Friends that I started to see this list of “50 Best YA Books” in a new light. While I began reading these books because I thought they represented what teens loved, I think a more accurate description of them would be books that educators, librarians, and booksellers offer for their value to young people. It doesn’t make me want to stop reading through these titles, but it does kind of change my approach to them.
#24: Kit’s Wilderness, David Almond
The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in playing a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look to find the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors. Written in haunting, lyrical prose, Kit’s Wilderness examines the bonds of family from one generation to the next, and explores how meaning and beauty can be revealed from the depths of darkness.
I actually listened to the audiobook for this title, and I have to admit, I got lost. It was hard to follow the story. I don’t think it was the fault of the performer or anything; I just think this text is probably best read on your own.
The overall feel of the book is very weird, but in kind of a good way. I love the haunting images and rhythm to the writing. And the relationship between Kit and his grandfather is sweet and believable. Having just recently experienced the loss of a grandparent, I was able to relate to the pain behind the struggles his family was facing.
Because I got lost with the overall plot of this story, I really have no idea what was going on with John Askew. I think if I had read the story in print, I would have grasped it better. However, there are 50 books on this list and I don’t have time to reread at this point. If the title still sounds interesting to you, find it in print!
#26: Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos
In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.
In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.
I didn’t recognize the title of this book, but when I saw the cover, I had a gigantic “Aha!” moment. I’m pretty sure every single boy in my class in middle school checked out this book from the library, at least once. In my mind, it’s the quintessential book guys chose when they had to find something to do during Silent Reading (oh, how I miss that designated half hour of the day!). For that reason, I wasn’t super excited about this book. I figured it would have very little to offer me that I would find engaging.
On the one hand, after reading this book, I can TOTALLY see why a certain school demographic was attracted to it. There’s language, sex, and drugs on pretty much every page. I went to a rather sheltered public school, and so this was probably one of the first introductions to anything grungy and on-edge for these young teenagers.
On the other hand, I ended up really enjoying the “memoir” aspect of this book. Gantos is an excellent writer, and it shows through this very personal story. I love reading memoir, and this actually did not disappoint. I still struggled to really connect with any of his life experiences. But, to me, the mark of a good memoir is that you end up relating to its speaker even if you have no personal experience with what they went through.
In terms of required reading and recommending this to young people, I think this book continues to speak to young men entering into the stage of life in which Jack’s experiences occurred. And I think this one will stay relevant, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list.
#41: Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.
Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.
In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.
I’m not going to lie–this book was extremely difficult to read. It wasn’t that the prose was stilted or that the plot was slow-moving; it was just so emotional and dark. As someone who has struggled with body image issues in the past, Lia’s internal dialogue gave me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach. The blurb from Goodreads does not lie–this is the most emotionally wrenching book by Anderson I have ever read.
I personally cannot stand when serious emotional and physical issues are used for entertainment purposes. There are several very popular TV shows and movies I refuse to watch because I think there’s a limit to how much violence we should willingly take in for the sake of a good story. As I began this book, I wondered if its content would fall in the same category. In the end, though, I agree that this story is important. The struggles Lia and Cassie face are not glorified, by any means. Instead, they’re exposed for what they truly are: an illness, real and powerful, that no one can fight alone. And this story likewise highlights the important role family and friends play in combating the darkness many people face on a daily basis.
This is not a fun book, by any means. But it’s beautiful, and it’s important. I’m glad it was included on this list and that I finally was able to read it.