What I Read for Love

For my inaugural blog entry, I had written a piece about Word Count, and why you don’t need to worry about it if you’re a writer.  And then I thought “Word count? Do I really want my first blog entry to be on such a groundbreaking, exciting topic as word count?”

I started thinking about what I want my blog to be.  I do want to draw back the veil on the mysteries of the publishing world, yes, but even more, I want to bang the drum for things I love, especially books.

So just in time for summer reading, here is a list of ten young adult novels that I adore and that you may not be familiar with.  I have deliberately stayed away from some of my favorite authors, like Laurie Halse Anderson, Maggie Stiefvater, and Rainbow Rowell, on the grounds that you probably know them already.  (And if you don’t, look 'em up!) I hope you’ll feel free to list a favorite or two of your own in the comments.    

Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia.  A few years ago, Rita came to visit my troop of teenage Girls Scouts in East Harlem and read from Sisters. You could have heard a pin drop.  The book is about Gayle, an urban 14-yearold, whose mother sends her, and her baby, Jose, down to Georgia, to live with Uncle Luther and his family.  Gayle is stuck with nothing to do and no friends except her kneesock-wearing, Jesus-praising cousin Cookie.  Torture, right? Until Gayle meets Great, the family matriarch, and begins to learn things about the family’s past that might change her own future…

The Language of Goldfish by Zibby Oneal.  Sharyn November and I were talking about how much we love this author’s three YA novels, which are no longer well known.  So I reread this one, and I found it more moving than I even remembered. From the Booklist review: "With a taut thread that winds ever tighter, Oneal pulls readers into the mind of 13-year-old Carrie Stokes, a sensitive artist and talented mathematician who is suffering a mental breakdown.” As I reread it, with its depiction of a WASPy family who doesn’t want to speak about what’s going on, the book recalled another favorite of mine, Judith Guest’s Ordinary People.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. Ok, this was actually published as an adult novel, but it features a heroine who is mostly a teen during the course of the novel, and YA fans will love it.  It’s about orphan Beth Harmon, neglected and raised in an institution, who stumbles into the janitor’s basement to clean erasers, sees a chessboard, and is mesmerized.  From that moment, a huge innate talent is unlocked.  I don’t want to give much more away, except to say, you think chess is boring? This thing is more taughtly-constructed and suspenseful than most thrillers. 

Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have  by Allen Zadoff.   I don’t know why there isn’t more funny YA, but maybe I wonder that because Allen Zadoff makes it look so easy.  High school sophomore Andrew Zansky is 307 pounds of fat, and as a result he doesn’t fit in anywhere—even into the new desks at school. When Andrew falls in “love at second sight” with new girl April, he decides, much to his best friend’s Eytan’s chagrin, to join the football team—partially to impress April. Since this is an Allen Zadoff novel, the story is both agonizing in parts and funny as hell.

One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox.  A masterpiece. Legendary editor Richard Jackson calls this the best book he ever published, and it’s one I take down and reread every few years. 11-year-old Ned gets an air rifle that he is forbidden to use, but one night he shoots it into the dark…and he thinks he sees something.  A few days later he sees a cat with one eye missing and the socket still bloody.  Ned is convinced he shot that cat, and he has to find a way to save it.  Roger Sutton points out, “that book is not remotely YA,” and he’s right, but I love the book so much I want everyone to know about it.


Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma.  As soon as I tell you the subject of this book, you’re not going to want to read it.  But it is an enormously compelling, engaging, thought-provoking and moving book on the taboo subject of incest.  I loved this plot summary on Yahoo answers: “The main characters are Maya (16) and Lochan (17), brother and sister. They've grown up with their three other siblings and together have tried to be the ‘parents of the house’, because their mum is always out and their dad left them a long time ago. They are also best friends. They fall in love and they try and keep it a secret.”  Pick it up, you’ll be so glad you did.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.  Following the extraordinary success of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, there seemed to be a lot of YA novels set in the immediate aftermath of a death, and this one is superb.  When Lennie’s charismatic older sister, Bailey, dies, Lennie is bereft, till she begins to find herself comforted not just by the sweet, musical new guy who has moved into town but, awkwardly, by Bailey’s boyfriend Toby.   Heartbreak and desire—it’s an amazing balancing act that Nelson pulls of here.


Selling copy from the massively-popular UK edition.  

Selling copy from the massively-popular UK edition.  

Black and White by Malorie Blackman.   (Also titled Naughts and Crosses.) Simply, this book is brilliant. Told from the alternating viewpoints of teens Callum and Sephy, what’s different about these black and white star-crossed lovers is that despite our mind’s subconscious expectations, Sephy, in the privileged class, is not white. It is Callum, in the repressed class, who is.  The author takes all our expectations and turns them upside down, throwing up a mirror at our own subconscious beliefs—while telling a helluva story of romance, terrorism, and racism in the meantime. A huge hit in Britain, this book should be better known in the US.  Read it.

The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn.  I wanted to put something with at least a hint of fantasy on this list, and this is such a good ‘un.  Only, every time I try to describe a fantasy novel, my description sounds stupid.  So, from the blurb: Nell is a wild child. She is the village cunning woman's granddaughter: herb gatherer and healer, spell-weaver and midwife...and, some say, a witch. Grace is a Puritan minister's daughter: beautiful and refined, innocent and sweet-natured...to those who think they know her. But she is hiding a secret -- a secret that will bring everlasting shame to her family should it ever come to light.  A merrybegot and minister's daughter -- two girls who could not have less in common. Yet their fates collide when Grace and her younger sister, Patience, are suddenly spitting pins, struck with fits, and speaking in fevered tongues. And all signs point to Nell as the source of the trouble...

Great book. But if you don't know the series, you probably want to start with The President's Daughter

Great book. But if you don't know the series, you probably want to start with The President's Daughter

Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White.  This book completes a 4-book series that began in the 80s with White’s popular book The President’s Daughter. 20 years later White gave us the final installment, which deals with Meg, daughter of the sitting US President, in her first semester at Williams and suffering from PTSD.  I read Reign on vacation 3 years ago and am still thinking about it, but if you don’t know the series, start with President’s Daughter.  Another neat thing about Reign: it is one of very few YA novels set in college.