Growing up, I was that kid who brought a book everywhere. I sat in the cart at the grocery store while my mother piled items on top of me. I ordered food at a restaurant and immediately began reading instead of pretending to understand adult conversation. I brought the novels Santa gave me to my grandmother’s house on Christmas. A book was always open inside my desk at school so I could sneak a few pages during class. I spent hours after school at the public library skimming through the adult fiction, trying to find something appealing in the age when Young Adult was just beginning to gain traction, so there wasn’t a separate section yet.
I went to high school in the age of Twilight vs. Harry Potter (in which HP was the clearly superior option), where I took a Reading for Appreciation course and made several friends. There, I learned how to read manga and discussed great books, both classic and contemporary.
Our library was small, but we had a great librarian committed to providing quality books, even using a grant to curate an extensive manga/graphic novel section. I found some exceptional books in high school, books that have stayed with me over the past ten years, that I return to read again, that I recommend to both teens and adults at the bookstore.
I left Harry Potter out because, I mean, come on. Too obvious. Plus I have a word count limit.
The Worlds of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones
Nearly every fantasy reader has at least heard of Diana Wynne Jones. A legend in the industry and a favorite of A-list authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, she also wrote the novel that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle. As much as I loved that book, the Worlds of Chrestomanci stuck with me a little more.
The series is made up of six novels and four short stories, all taking place in a multiverse where parallel worlds and magic are commonplace. The name “Chrestomanci” refers to a powerful enchanter who supervises the use of magic in one of the worlds.
My favorite in the series is Witch Week, especially good for those who prefer a little more contemporary with their fantasy. In a present-day setting, witchcraft is punishable by death, and at a boarding school for the orphans of witches, it is revealed that one of them is following in his or her parents’ footsteps. Chaos ensues as a literal witchhunt begins, and students trying to suppress their inherent magic are unable to control it anymore. The novel is fun and fast-paced while also encouraging readers to overcome prejudice, a message that helped me in high school and is still relevant.
Clemence McLaren books
Okay, so I’m more of an author or series person than an individual title person. What can I say? I read voraciously.
Clemence McLaren wrote several books inspired by the women of Greek mythology, telling the side often left out by history books. She wrote about Helen and Cassandra in Inside the Walls of Troy, two young girls surrounded by conflict where no one will listen to them, so they strike up an unexpected friendship. Waiting for Odysseus retells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of the four women in Odysseus’ life on his long journey: his wife, Penelope; lover and sorceress Circe; the goddess Athena; and Eurycleia, Odysseus’ former nanny who recognizes him despite his disguise when he returns home.
Because I am a self-proclaimed sap, I preferred Aphrodite’s Blessings: Love Stories from the Greek Myths. McLaren retells three famous love stories from the perspective of the women. I grew up hearing the tale of Eros and Psyche, but McLaren’s version brought a freshness and excitement to the old favorite as Psyche ventures to Hades. I learned a new tale, that of the athlete Atalanta, who refused to have an arranged marriage and instead ran a race to change her fate. Last is Andromeda, as beautiful as any goddess but devastated by her father’s choice of husband. These women are each in turn blessed by Aphrodite to find their own happiness, with a little true love to boot. If you enjoy unique takes on classic stories, McLaren couldn’t be better.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
If I had the authority to make every high school freshman in the country read this book, I absolutely would. Yes, it is important. But beyond that, it is actively good.
The summer before high school, Melinda Sordino calls the cops on a big party, making enemies of her closest friends as well as complete strangers that intend to make her high school life difficult. But no one but Melinda knows just why she called, and she is definitely not talking – to anyone, about anything. Her parents can’t figure out why she won’t speak anymore, and most of her teachers are fed up with her lack of participation, except her art teacher, who encourages her to use her artwork as an outlet of speech.
The entire book is Melinda’s sarcastic voice, as if talking to a friend in her head. She tries to navigate the confusion and frustration that is freshman year without the help of anyone around her while also struggling internally with her trauma.
There is no big mystery – the reader will figure out the big “secret” pretty early on if not immediately, so it’s no spoiler to say that this is the best novel about rape I have ever read (and I’ve read it four times). It is raw and emotional without being graphic, and incredibly realistic as Melinda faces Post-Traumatic Stress while trying to maintain a normal high school life.
Even if this novel weren’t such an important topic, the writing style is entertaining without losing its poignancy, and the pacing could keep even a reluctant reader engaged. Seriously, read this book. Then go give a copy to a teen in your life.
Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play by Yuu Watase
I mentioned earlier that high school was my introduction to the wonderful world of manga and anime, and Fushigi Yugi was one of the first I dove into on my own (and didn’t stop until eighteen volumes later).
My manga and anime favorites tend to fit similar molds – a little bit of humor, romance, action, and magic all tossed together is the best bet to gain my approval.
Fushigi Yugi is about a Miaka, a Japanese girl who is headstrong and loves food, but isn’t always the brightest. She and her best friend, Yui, fall into a book, The Universe of the Four Gods, which transports them to a China in a parallel world. Her friend goes back to their reality almost immediately, but Miaka is left behind, where she is proclaimed the Priestess of Suzaku. She is destined to unite the seven Celestial Warriors so they can summon the god Suzaku, who will grant three wishes.
Of course, a few of the Celestial Warriors are total hotties who fall in love with (and compete for) Miaka, but she never sees anyone but Tamahome, the man who saves her in the very beginning.
We had a check-out limit at my library, so I would get the allotted four volumes every day, read them at home, and return the next day for the next four. I lamented the oncoming weekend when I had to wait two entire days to get my Tamahome fix. Buy them all at once or get the e-books, because you’ll want to read them all as fast as possible.
Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block
Okay, yes, this is technically five novellas in one edition, but at least they’re all together!
Dangerous Angels was one of my cross-researched library titles, where I would look for young adult lists online, then try to find them in the public library’s adult shelves; it was one of the few I actually found. It was unlike anything I had ever read before, experimental in writing style and characters, with magical realism and unique confrontations of taboo topics like infidelity, homosexuality, and addiction. Beyond the tough stuff, the books also address common struggles such as self-acceptance, love, and finding your identity.
Francesca Lia Block’s beautiful writing had me scribbling down lines and phrases that made me pause just to re-read them – “He kissed her. A kiss about apple pie à la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat. A kiss about chocolate, when you haven’t eaten chocolate in a year. A kiss about palm trees speeding by, trailing pink clouds when you drive down the Strip sizzling with champagne. A kiss about spotlights fanning the sky and the swollen sea spilling like tears all over your legs.”
The Weetzie Bat books are all set in Los Angeles, where Weetzie, her husband Secret Agent Lover Man, her best friend Dirk and his boyfriend Duck, and their children are filmmakers, actors, musicians, and just generally living and loving in their happy hippy lives. There’s a touch of magic everywhere, but the real story is in the family’s dynamic, and how the characters grow and support each other. This collection is a real classic, one of the first in the young adult genre, and well before its time in its inclusion.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
I am from the middle of nowhere, so my only understanding of transgender people came from episodes of Oprah my mother used to watch. I discovered Keeping You a Secret, also by Julie Anne Peters, while figuring out some things about myself, and I loved it so much, I wanted to read everything else she wrote. I never suspected that Luna would be the novel that made the biggest impact on me.
Regan doesn’t tell anyone her brother Liam’s secret – that he comes into her room at night and transforms into Luna, the girl he longs to be. Regan lets Luna put on her dresses and makeup while everyone else is asleep, though she doesn’t understand why. Now, Liam is ready to introduce Luna to the rest of the world, but Regan worries their family is not ready for such a dramatic change. Luna must fight for both self-acceptance and the acceptance of people she loves.
Luna is especially good as an introduction for teenagers who are not necessarily struggling with their own sexual identity, but they know someone who is. Since the entire story is told from the sister’s point of view, it focuses more on Regan’s personal struggle to accept her sibling’s identity and support her coming out to their family and the rest of the world.
Today, there are many more books that are from the perspective of a transgender character, but at the time (man, am I old), just telling this story at all was bold and uncommon. It also follows the frustrating pattern of early LGBT novels by not having a very satisfying ending, but there is still hope. There is always hope.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Words cannot describe the emotion this book gave me when I read it for the first time. Just as the narrator, the voice of Death, is haunted by humans, so am I haunted by this magnificent novel. It is to this day one of my favorite life-changing books of all time, and I have the spine tattooed on my leg.
I read The Book Thief for the first time in my final year of high school, and I immediately made everyone I knew read it as well. My former English teacher teaches it as a contemporary supplement to Night by Elie Wiesel.
Death tells the story of Liesel, one of the few humans he sees three times instead of just the one he usually sees them, when he comes for their souls. First, when her younger brother dies on a train, and again when the bombs come, he sees her and cannot forget her story. Set in World War II Germany, Liesel is adopted by a kind family that she soon comes to love, as her new father teaches her how to read from a Grave Digger’s Handbook she steals on the day her brother is buried. From that day on, she cannot help but steal books that catch her eye so she can continue learning. The Jewish man her family keeps hidden in the basement even writes her a book, telling his story.
This is a novel about the healing power of reading, the strength of love, and the devastation of World War II for everyone who suffered through it. The voice of Death and the unique format make the entire reading process feel like a slow simmer that can’t end until the last page. And if you’re anything like me, you will cry. A lot. But it will be well worth it.