Best Contemporary YA Novels
When I was in junior high and high school, all we had for young adult novels (it seemed to me) was “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So, curious, I spent the last few months reading recent y.a. novels to see what I might now recommend in this category. Here, in my opinion, are the four best young adult novels published in recent years.
The Higher Power of Lucky
By Susan Patron; illustrated by Matt Phelan
Atheneum: $6.99 (Paperback)
With their windswept trailers and government-check poverty, California’s desert communities are often the last stop for eccentrics and the woebegone. The Higher Power of Lucky is their novel. Here is Short Sammy (who lives in a converted metal water tank), Lincoln (a schoolboy genius keen on knot-tying), Dot (who owns the Baubles and Beauty Salon), Miles (a five year old who constantly wants others to read to him his favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?), Lucky (our ten-year-old hero who is the only person in town with a job, sweeping out The Found Object and Wind Chime Museum), and Brigitte (the woman who has flown over from France to temporarily care for Lucky after Lucky’s mother died).
Near the end of Patron’s novel, Lucky runs away and Miles goes missing; but the lost children are finally found in the desert by a search party from their hometown of Hard Pan, California (Pop. 42). Surrounded by her neighbors, Lucky uses this opportunity for an impromptu memorial service for her late mother and releases her ashes to the wind; and not long after, Lucky learns that Brigitte, her guardian, wishes to adopt her. In this way, Lucky’s worries about being abandoned and sent to an orphanage–worries present from the start of this funny and touching book–are finally answered.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie; illustrated by Ellen Forney
Little, Brown: $15.00 (Paperback)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a Native American novel that seems to bring together Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (also published in 2007) and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Junior is the wimp, a fourteen-year-old high-school student from the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is also a smart alec whose PG-13-rated mouth gives Holden Caulfield a run for his money.
Trouble begins when Junior takes his teacher’s advice and transfers to the better and white high school some miles from the Reservation; his best friend Rowdy and other tribal members see him as a traitor. But Junior is escaping the Rez’s omnipresent alcoholism and tragedy that bring, in these pages, the deaths of his sister, a family friend, his grandmother, and even his dog. Given this, what may be difficult to understand is that the book is often witty and downright hilarious, especially with Ellen Forney’s comic cartoons and pictures. This peculiar mixture of the sad and funny turns out to be a measure of Junior’s resilience and this book’s authenticity.
When You Reach Me
By Rebecca Stead
Yearling Newbery: $6.99 (Paperback)
If you like mysteries, you are going to love this book; indeed, when the pieces all come together in the end, you will want to read it a second time. If you liked Madeline L’Engle’s time-travel series A Wrinkle in Time, you are going to love this book and have a leg up on solving its mystery. And if you like stories set in Manhattan (books like E.L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), you’re going to love this story set on the Upper West Side in the 1980’s when moms wore orange turtlenecks with denim skirts and purple striped tights.
Miranda is a savvy latchkey kid. She’s good at navigating the streets by herself and dealing with friends and rivals at her school. But from the homeless guys sleeping under a mailbox, to the three weird letters she receives, Miranda finds herself in the midst of a mystery that undermines the apparent ordinariness of her sixth-grade life. There’s no way I can spoil the story by saying anything more, but here’s a clue: The puzzle begins when you read the words “the day Sol got punched.”
By David Almond
Yearling: $6.99 (Paperback)
After he moves to another house in a backwater English town and while his newborn sister languishes in a desperate way in the hospital, ten-year-old Michael encounters a strange creature sheltering in their abandoned garage. An angel, possibly, or a derelict, or some prehistoric leftover from an evolutionary experiment–Skellig, the name the mysterious creature goes by, is a man-sized creature with wings. Michael shares this mystery with Mina, a girl his own age, home-schooled and keen on William Blake’s poetry. These two–in a neighborhood of boarded-up and abandoned house, while anxiety about the hospitalized baby reaches heartbreaking levels–nurse Skellig back to health until his wings unfold and he leaves them.
Recalling the movie “Michael” (where John Travolta plays an angel fallen to earth) and Seamus Heaney’s poems about the Tollund Man (an ancient body found preserved in a bog), David Almond’s Skellig is a powerful and strangely moving novel. In the way the children share a closely guarded secret, it recalls Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden only repositioned now to contemporary times and urban circumstances. Impressive in the way it links themes and moods, touching in its music of mystery and heartbreak, this is a terrific, terrific book and my favorite of the four.
Originally published in Parents’ Choice (July 2010).