catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 1 :: 2008.01.11 — 2008.01.25


Move over, Sweet Valley High

Over the past few years, the Harry Potter phenomenon has made it kosher for responsible adults to carry around literature intended for kids. And not only to be seen reading children’s books in public—to obsess over them. Grown people—normal, tax-paying citizens—don’t hesitate to discuss the finer points of quidditch on electronic discussion boards, compose songs about wizardry as an intelligent career move, or dress up as teenaged sorcerers in anticipation of each new book’s release.

All this is quite a relief to me, personally. Although I read a lot of fiction intended for adults, I have failed to abandon—and, in fact, often prefer—the types of books I read in high school. These days I have a bonafide professional reason for it: I’m four credits away from becoming a public librarian, and public librarians need to know What The Kids Are Into. But that aside, I don’t think I could give up the world of young adult fiction anyway. It’s too fun, too morbidly humiliating and exhilarating, too emotionally complex—and, these days, too well-written.

Young adult fiction, or “YA” as it’s known by those who love it, has come into its own as a successful publishing market—some are even calling this a “golden age”—so vast resources are being pumped into cultivating novels with young protagonists facing familiar teen woes. While that means a lot of chaff clouding the wheat, it also means that talented authors can afford, literally, to devote all their creative energy to the genre.

Some adults may question the desire to revisit high school through recreational reading, but the fact is that being a teenager is usually a completely transformational developmental stage—thus making for fantastic literature. Identities are tested out and embraced; friendships experience dramatic highs and lows as a result; sex, drugs, and rock and roll are experimented with for better or for worse; and social problems are laid out in stark relief against a background of family drama, clique dynamics, and societal expectations, usually as hilarious as they are heart-breaking.

Following are ten books intended for the high school set that, in my opinion, stand up just as well to adult reading. Although the protagonists are teenagers, the quality of writing and the vulnerability in these books makes them equal to the task of entertaining and challenging anyone, regardless of age. I should also emphasize that these are not necessarily my personal favorite books, but the ones I find most accessible for adults who may not have read teen fiction since Judy Blume’s Forever. Not to disparage the latter, which remains a marvel of frank body talk—so much that it’s the centerpiece of Tanya Lee Stone’s acclaimed 2006 teen novel in verse, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl. But that’s a title for another list!

1. PUSH by Sapphire

16-year-old Precious Jones is pregnant for the second time with her own father’s child—and things only go downhill from there. This raw novel gives the reader a brief but intense immersion in the life and mind of a young woman with every strike imaginable against her. She is illiterate, yet she’s been passed mindlessly through each grade in her public school; she has been abused by both of her parents, who are on welfare and seem to view Precious as yet another commodity to be used and discarded. In the midst of the AIDS and economic crises of the 1980s, Precious seems unlikely to avoid the cycle in which her family and peers are trapped. As in similar novels, education and self-reflection provide the escape hatch, but Precious’ halting, slang-laden, and poetic voice negates any trite tendencies. I read this book in one sitting, despite its difficult subject matter, because I was so absorbed in Precious’ two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey towards realizing a decent life for herself and her children. PUSH is a rebuke against turning people into statistics.

2. Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Block’s weird, other-worldly book about emancipated teenagers in L.A. was iconic for Gen-Xers who felt caught between childhood and adulthood. A short and breezy read, Weetzie Bat chronicles the evolving friendships in an eclectic group of ambitionless, smart, and loving young people who make a coherent life out of scraps of happiness. Block’s unusual reliance on neologisms and sentence fragments can be tough to get used to, but her writing style is part of what makes this book so distinctive and relatable for teenagers who feel disoriented and abandoned. Some plot points and messages seem idealistic and overwrought to me now, especially the utopian setting where no one demonstrates any kind of prejudice. But I know I would’ve loved Weetzie and her friends when I was a teenager—and reconnecting with that sense of belonging and hope was vital for me as an adult. Weetzie’s adventures continue into adulthood in several other volumes, which are collected as Dangerous Angels.

3. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson

Despite the tragic and sometimes grisly subject matter, this is another book I simply could not put down. In pre-Revolutionary Boston, a young boy realizes the terrible truth about his elite upbringing in a community of philosophers and scientists—he is a slave whose physical health and academic performance are being tracked to determine how African bodies and minds are different from European ones. When his keepers push their experiments too far, Octavian joins the patriot force to secure his own freedom. The style is engrossing, with Octavian’s story told through his adult memoir, newspaper articles, and the letters a young soldier in his company writes to his sister. Anderson’s historical research is impeccable and anything but dry, so naturally does the fictional story draw truth from the realities that marked the nation’s birth. I also appreciated a narrative study of slavery set in a period other than the Civil War. White Americans-to-be embracing their right to property while failing to recognize their “property” as human beings with rights is a shocking hypocrisy, and one rarely covered in fiction of any kind.

4. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

I know this is shallow, but one of the things I like about graphic novels is that they're such fast reads. It was extremely satisfying to complete Yang's funny, engaging, and wise tale in under an hour—which included ample time lingering over the simple, colorful artwork. Yang weaves together three distinct stories that generate deft insights into racial identity, adolescent anguish, and the folly of hubris. Although I found each storyline interesting, my favorite was the legend of the Monkey King, whose astounding self-confidence first immortalizes him as god “equal to heaven,” then brings him low as a stubborn but eventually devoted servant of the One Who Is. In the end, ancient symbolism, Christian imagery, and pop culture merge seamlessly to showcase a particular American experience in the form of brisk, compelling mixed media.

5. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

I love a good novel about dystopian futures, and Uglies is a standout in the young adult world. Set hundreds of years after Americans finally self-destruct at the hands of foreign oil dependency, Westerfeld’s future seems, at first glance, a neo-liberal paradise. Energy is clean and renewable, materials instantly recyclable; everyone is vegetarian. There is no war, no hunger, and no poverty. And there is no racism or discrimination—because everyone looks the same, thanks to an operation that renders each 16-year-old “pretty,” with biologically perfect, symmetrical features. The idea is that because everyone is the same, there is no basis for hate. But on the verge of her surgical rite of passage, 15-year-old Tally meets a community of rebels who persuade her that being pretty isn't all it's cracked up to be. Uglies, like all the best science fiction, has implications for how we live now, and reminds us that even noble humanitarian principles can have a dark side. Follow up with Westerfeld’s equally gripping sequels, Pretties, Specials, and the recently released Extras, for the conclusion of the rebel faction’s reversal of an economy based on the most generic form of equality.

6. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

What can I say—Westerfeld is undoubtedly YA’s crown prince of the moment, and I’m as dazzled by his style and content as anyone. It’s not the most famous teenaged vampire series going right now, but I preferred Peeps and its sequel, The Last Days, to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight trilogy in almost every regard. Peeps hypothesizes that vampirism is actually a parasite spread through bodily fluids, so when Cal discovers that he’s a carrier, he must track down every girl he’s ever kissed before she surrenders to cannibalism—in order, it turns out, to avert the apocalypse. Interspersed with absolutely disgusting and totally non-fictional accounts of how parasites spread, the book adapts vampire folklore to explain concepts like anathema. (Don’t bother with a crucifix anymore unless your target is a Christian; today a t-shirt with her favorite band is the ticket, since vampirism makes her hate her former life.) If you’re a Buffy fan, you’ll appreciate the creativity and humor in this fast-paced battle between good and evil.

7. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Green’s 2005 debut Looking for Alaska may have received the YA industry’s illustrious Michael Printz Award, but Katherines is funnier, more mature and, in my opinion, the superior novel. After being dumped by yet another girl named Katherine on the eve of his high school graduation, Colin, a washed-up child prodigy, embarks on an epic road trip with his best friend, Hassan. Along the way, Colin devises and tests a mathematical theorem that explains why he has been dumped by 19 Katherines—and predicts how he and others can avoid the humiliation in the future. Clearly, Colin is the ultimate nerd, but you really can’t help but root for a guy on a quest to end humiliating break-ups. The characters in this book are uniformly likeable without being bland; in particular, the friendship between Colin and Hassan is dead-on in how guys communicate with and care for each other. After you read Katherines, check out Green and his brother’s miracle of an online community, Brotherhood 2.0, where they’re assembling an army of Nerdfighters. DFTBA!

8. King Dork by Frank Portman

Another nerd-hero, Tom “Chi-Mo” Henderson is keenly aware of his place in the high school pecking order. He’s a loser, a bottom-feeder, a major dweeb who eases the alternating cruelty and monotony of public education by constantly reinventing his non-existent band. When he stumbles on a stack of mildewed books in the basement, Tom begins playing detective as clues about his father’s death literally fall from their pages. Tom is a funny, smart, self-deprecating narrator, and his cynical acceptance of his status is painfully true to life. With Tom's honest observations at its core, King Dork honors the central nerd by refusing to attribute easy YA conventions to him. In any other book, Tom would find an ally in Holden Caulfield, rather than rolling his eyes at the “Catcher cult” his teachers worship. The contours of Tom’s high school hell are well-crafted and universal, especially in terms of the spectacularly low-quality education he is receiving, his first forays into sexual experience, and his step-father’s ill-conceived bonding techniques. Author Portman also draws on his cred as the frontman of indie band The Mr. T Experience to flesh out the quest for fame that any former teen can relate to.

9. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

I tend to avoid “sports books,” because I can’t follow the action and most sports seem even more boring to read about than to watch. But although T.J. Jones is a dedicated athlete, he has an intriguing disdain for meathead politics, and Crutcher’s snappy, irreverent style, mediated through the protagonist’s smart-ass narration, hooked me right away. Anti-authoritarian T.J. lives to piss off the jocks at his sports-obsessed high school—he can’t deal with the rigid expectations of coaches or the mob mentality of teams, so he simply opts out. But when his favorite teacher recruits him to start a swim team, T.J. agrees because he knows the spectrum of losers and outcasts he signs on to earn letter jackets will unseat the teenage hierarchy. T.J. is a misfit himself as an adopted, multiracial “UNICEF posterboy” in a small town, and some of the bigoted residents finally catch up with T.J. and his family. This book, generally considered Crutcher’s opus, is emotionally complex and snidely humorous in a way that will appeal to adults who remember rolling their eyes at pep rallies—and understanding for the first time that their parents were fragile and fallible.

10. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

Following the release of the movie version over the holidays, this fantasy of parallel universes enjoyed a great deal of publicity. It also endured the usual right-wing media attacks, which targeted Pullman’s atheism and asserted that the heroine kills God. I was pretty disappointed, then, when I got to the end of the trilogy (which also includes The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) and discovered that the only things annihilated were death, evil, and hatred themselves. Not a bad little Christian allegory, despite Pullman’s best efforts! Lyra is one of the best female protagonists I’ve encountered in any genre, and her journey into adulthood is marvelous to watch over the course of the trilogy as she grapples with the interplay between good and evil forces that can’t be pinned down as one or the other. (Sound like any worlds you know?) The Golden Compass and its companion books are an excellent follow-up for adults suffering post-Harry depression.


Interested in more teen angst and adolescent adventure? A few bonus lists to light your way:

Five YA authors to trust with your life (i.e., read everything they’ve published):

  • David Levithan
  • Maureen Johnson
  • Sarah Dessen
  • Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Gary Schmidt

Five to grow on: My short list to read in 2008

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
  • The Boy List (sequel to The Boyfriend List, which I loved) by E. Lockhart
  • Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty – Trilogy by Libba Bray
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Kate Bowman-Johnston is a children’s librarian in northwest Philadelphia. She has never read past Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

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