This week's guest post for our "So You Want to Read YA?" series comes from one of my favorite authors, CK Kelly Martin.
C. K. Kelly Martin began writing her first novel in a flat in Dublin and finished it in a Toronto suburb. By then she was thoroughly hooked on young adult fiction and her fifth YA novel, Yesterday, will hit shelves on September 25th, while her first 'new adult' novel, Come See About Me, will be available as an ebook in late June. Her online home is www.ckkellymartin.com. She's also on Twitter @CKKellyMartin.
When I started reading young adult books again, around 1999/2000, it’d been a long, long while since I’d digested any books for teenagers. Discovering the breadth of fantastic YA books on library and bookstore shelves felt sort of like finding buried treasure because, although the novels were not in fact buried and were widely available, it seemed very few folks outside of the teen demographic (unless they were YA writers or future YA writers) were seeking them out. Happily, that’s changed over the last decade or so and more and more adults are showing an interest in reading books about teen characters. My favourite YA reading material tends to lean towards weighty true-to-life contemporary offerings but I’ve tried to recommend a cross-section of books here, all stories that I believe will endure the test of time.
Life is Funny (E.R. Frank, 2000). If I had to recommend a single YA book it would be this one – the intersecting stories of eleven New York City high schools students of different genders, race and class. Writer E. R. Frank is also a social worker and her experience shows in spades. Each of the eleven characters has a completely distinct voice and Life is Funny is the most nakedly honest, perceptive book I’ve ever read about teenagers.
Finnikin of the Rock (Melina Marchetta, 2008). Generally I’m not a huge fan of fantasy (I know, I know, it just doesn’t happen to be my thing) but I’d enjoyed Melina Marchetta’s contemporary books so much that I felt compelled to try this one out too. Several years earlier the royal family of Lumatere were murdered and their throne seized. Now young Finnikin must help a young novice named Evanjalin and others, in the hopes that a Lumatere heir might one day be restored to the throne and the land’s many exiles be returned to their home. Full of magic, bloody battles and tinged with romance too, Finnikin of the Rock is as smart as it is riveting. If you pick this book up you won’t want to put it down.
Broken Soup (Jenny Valentine, 2008). A warm, original, intelligent novel about loss, friendship, family, and memory. Main character Rowan has suffered the death of her older brother and her remaining family is falling apart in the aftermath, but there’s also a mystery to be solved. Who is the boy who hands her a negative in a shop one day and what will the developed photograph reveal? This contemporary story is conveyed with a timeless feel and features three dimensional characters that you'll admire and be sorry to say goodbye to.
Stolen: A Letter to My Captor (Lucy Christopher, 2009). When sixteen-year-old Gemma is snatched from an airport and smuggled to a remote part of Australia where she’s held captive by attractive, familiar looking Ty, the story doesn’t play out like you’d expect. It’s mesmerizing, often beautiful and extremely unsettling, a real journey of the mind. Like Gemma, I felt off-balance, fascinated and fearful throughout the whole ordeal. I also felt as though I’d never, ever read anything like this.
Saints of Augustine (P. E. Ryan, 2007). Best friends Sam and Charlie are no longer on speaking terms but need each other now more than ever. After the death of Charlie’s mom, his father is in free-fall – drinking too much and generally dropping out of life. Charlie himself has developed a drug problem and owes his dealer money. Meanwhile Sam (who is not yet out) is falling for a boy named Justin while having to endure homophobic remarks from his mother’s tool of a boyfriend. It’s a shame that we still don’t get to read nearly as much about boys’ friendships as we do about girls’ ones, but this is some excellent writing on the subject. The story is told from both boys’ points of views and is pointedly truthful and organic in feel rather than the melodrama it easily could’ve been reduced to in someone else’s hands.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan, 2009). I adored each of the books in Carrie Ryan’s zombie series but this first one perhaps the most. The Sisterhood. The Guardians. The Unconsecrated. And the creepy medieval-like village where the action begins. I get the shivers just thinking about it all. Our world feels so long gone in The Forest of Hands and Teeth that it’s almost like glimpsing a parallel world’s past – if that world had been overrun with zombies, that is. Would it be weird of me to call a bunch of zombie books delightful? Because that’s how I felt about Carrie Ryan’s series.
48 Shades of Brown (Nick Earls, 2004). There’s a scene involving an irate goose that made me laugh out loud while reading 48 Shades of Brown, a slice-of-life, funny but realistic novel about Aussie teenager Dan going to stay with his young aunt and her cute roommate while his parents spend the year in Geneva. Pure charming! I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve actually bought it twice now.
Tyrell and Bronxwood (Coe Booth, 2007 and 2011). Back in 08 I wrote a review of Tyrell on Amazon under the heading “Tyrell's one of the best YA novels I've ever read.” The review simply says, “I was utterly convinced by Tyrell's character and situation” and I felt exactly the same way after reading the sequel, Bronxwood. When we first meet Tyrell he’s awash in problems that many people with more years and life skills under their belts wouldn’t be able to handle. His dad’s in jail, his mom’s on drugs and he’s living in a homeless shelter with the little brother he tries to look out for. But Tyrell never gives up. Instead he fights like hell to stay afloat and whatever he does, however brave or screwed up he is at the time, and wherever his relationships with various girls takes him, it all feels on hundred percent genuine.
Jumpstart the World (Catherine Ryan Hyde, 2010). Sixteen-year-old Elle’s unhappy family life has resulted in her living in her own New York apartment, down the hall from a couple named Molly and Frank. As a group of diverse kids from school befriend Elle, she’s also drawn into a close friendship with her next door neighbours. The thing is, she feels more than friendship for Frank and when Elle learns Frank’s transgender she’s shaken to the core. Catherine Ryan Hyde seems to specialize in writing caring but confused and wounded three-dimensional characters. She has such talent for finding genuine (not forced) hope in tough situations that I’ll gladly read anything she writes.
Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993). Last year I finished off the entire seven-book Tomorrow series and although this first book was released almost twenty years ago, it feels both completely fresh and like an instant classic. The Tomorrow novels centre on a group of teenagers who are camping away from home in the bush when Australia is invaded by a foreign army. Main character Ellie and her friends are left to survive and battle the invaders on their own. The story’s not told in a way that glorifies war, nor does it portray the young characters as action heroes, but they are fighters – courageous, intelligent and yet far from invincible. The emotional veracity of each of the books makes it clear that even if there’s a victory at the end of book seven and the invaders are forced to abandon Australia, this band of young people will never be the same – and some of them won’t survive at all.
Target (Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, 2003) Six-foot-three sixteen-year-old Grady West starts eleventh grade at a new school after being raped by two strangers. This is the unflinching story of the heavy emotional toll the attack takes on Grady and his slow steps towards healing. I greatly admire Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson’s sensitive but truthful handling of this material (a story you rarely see told).
Let’s Get Lost (Sarah Manning, 2006). Manning’s books have such a nice vibe but this is my favourite so far. Mean girl Isabelle isn’t as she appears. There are hurtful secrets she’s covering over with her bad behaviour – some involving her mother’s death. Smith, a college student she picks up in a club and lies to about her age, seems to guess there’s more going on beneath the surface. All the lies and pain are bound to come to a head but, for me, each step of the journey was so compelling that I was in no hurry to reach the destination. Well, except that naturally I wanted to see what happened between Isabelle and the charismatic Smith!
CK Kelly Martin is the acclaimed author of I Know It's Over (2008), One Lonely Degree (2009), The Lighter Side of Life and Death (2010), My Beating Teenage Heart (2011), and the forthcoming Yesterday (September 2012). She's also taking a stab this summer at e-publishing her novel aimed at the "new adult"/20-somethings market, titled Come See About Me.