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January 26, 2015

The YA Gems That Time Forgot

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Time recently released their list of the 100 best YA books. Like all “best of” lists, it can be taken with a grain of salt, especially because the category of YA only really became a thing in the last 15 years or so, and many of their selections predate that.

There have also been grumbles over their inclusion of some titles that are decidedly not YA. For example, they included Roald Dahl. Everyone knows his books are for disturbed children, how dare Time suggest them for innocent teenagers?

In any case, all of this raises the questions of what makes a good YA book. The years between ages 12 and 18 are about exploring one’s sense of self: changing worldview, shifting relationships with family and friends, burgeoning sexuality. While CHARLOTTE’S WEB and THE PRINCESS BRIDE (both included on Time’s list) are great books, neither features teen protagonists or explores teen issues. The Twilight series (which Time also included) has characters that are more or less teens, but that arguably shouldn’t be on the list either, because while I’m not saying that a good YA book needs to feature sex without a Mean Girls-style message (“Don’t have sex. You will get pregnant. And die.”) --- it can obviously impart any message it wants --- it does, however, need to address teen issues in a way that isn’t condescending.

That brings us to my criteria for what constitutes Good YA: books that feature teen characters and teen issues, written about in ways that don’t feel like the authors are talking down to their readers or preaching to them. So, I submit these as titles that should have been included on Time’s list. (Honorable mentions also go to authors Kristin Cashore, Neal Shusterman and Maggie Stievfater’s Raven Cycle books, all of which I’m only leaving out because I’ve talked about them before). Also, if there are classic YA books it seems I’m leaving out, that’s because Time included them; they did get some things right.

POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN’S LAND by Aidan Chambers
Y It's A-mazing: If teenage years are about exploring your sense of self and the changing world, this book has it all: The protagonist travels to Amsterdam to learn about his family history, and along the way becomes exposed to non-traditional lifestyles and ideas that clash with his upbringing and his idealized notion of who his grandfather was. This is a book that truly respects teenagers as smart, capable people --- both in the way it treats its characters and readers alike. Of the books on my list, this one is perhaps the most egregious exclusion from Time’s.

LIFE IS FUNNY by E.R. Frank
Y It's A-mazing: As the title suggests, this book is occasionally funny, but it’s also quite sad and, above all, thoughtful. It follows a cast of characters from all backgrounds at an inner city school who cross paths in surprising ways over the course of several years. Brimming with authenticity and realism (partly because Frank has a background as a social worker) this book takes the reader on a walk in a variety of other shoes and depicts every single issue that could ever be pertinent to teenage life without coming across as preachy or like an episode of “Degrassi.” 

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klaus
Y It's A-mazing:
Before sexy misunderstood monsters became old hat, there was BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE, the teen werewolf version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE --- not in any plot similarities, but in the way it approached the genre and affected it. Also in the way that it’s written, simple yet elegant, and in the way it’s darkly erotic without actually featuring sex (which makes it somewhat baffling that it’s been banned several times). Of the books on this list, this has perhaps the least universal appeal to people who are not teenage girls and/or read it when they were one. However, it’s notable for being among the first in the recent supernatural craze, and yet it subverts many of its usual tropes.

BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray
Y It's A-mazing:
LORD OF THE FLIES meets Heathers in this sharp satire about beauty queens and fake pirates stranded on an island where all is not as it seems. Bray is occasionally too heavy-handed, but overall she finds a nice balance between cynicism and earnestness. This is the perfect book for the generation of teens who are oversaturated with reality TV and social media.

NICK & NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Y It's A-mazing:
As a public-service announcement: This was made into a movie that is even less true to the book than movies usually are, so if you saw it, don’t let that inform your opinion. (Now that I think about it, the same applies to BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE above.) This is the ultimate carpe-diem story, taking place over the course of one night that is the accidental first date of the two protagonists. It pulses with music, and the split narrative lets you into each character’s insecurities. Cohn and Levithan are both clearly teens at heart.