Kirstin Cronn-Mills writes young adult novels and adult poetry. She teaches at South Central College in North Mankato, MN, where she is the faculty advisor for SCC PRIDE (People Really Interested in Diversity Education). She lives with her husband and teenage son and very much enjoys goofing around. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is her second novel.
DISCLAIMER #1: Some of these writers are my friends. They are not paying me to mention them. They just write great books.
DISCLAIMER #2: I’m stealing this line from my publisher, Flux, but it’s eternally true: YA is a point of view, not a reading level.
DISCLAIMER #3: I am biased toward contemporary realistic YA. I realize it’s not the fad right now, but I don’t care.
DISCLAIMER #4: I will always suggest the Harry Potter series as a great way to get into YA. Yes, the series starts with a middle grade voice, but that has more to do with the concerns of the characters rather than whether the books are easy to read (see disclaimer #1). These books are deceptively complicated, and they take time to unpack. However, they’re also just plain fun. If you want an introduction to YA, they’re worth your time.
In my day job, I’m a college teacher—literature, academic writing, creative writing, critical thinking. All of those classes require some exploration of “what does this piece of communication DO?” And of course, communication can do different things for different people. But it’s the first question I ask when I decide what to teach (or write): what do I want this book/idea/film/discussion to DO? I decided to approach this post with the same spirit: if you’re going to read YA, what do you want it to DO for you?
First, as an aside—do you want your book to be a favorite of mine when I was young? Probably not, but if you do, you need A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, or The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger. I don’t know if any would be considered YA (I’d call them middle grade), but they’re still awesome books.
Back to today. Do you want your book to scare you? For me, that’s dystopian YA—books set in the real world with a futuristic or science-fictiony or fantasy twist. The scariest book I’ve read lately is Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Love is illegal, and it becomes very scary business when Lena discovers what it means to be in love. My next-to-be-read dystopian is The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe. Virus books like this one—blabbing secrets! Hallucinations! Death!—scare the crap of me, because they seem possible.
Do you want your book to amuse you? There are plenty of funny YAs out there—too many to list—though humor isn’t a subcategory of YA as much as it is a delightful spice in in the YA mix. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is my suggestion here. A double author book by John Green and David Levithan, the story revolves around Tiny Cooper (“It takes a village to date Tiny Cooper”) and two Will Graysons. When you’re a teenager, EVERYTHING is either deadly serious or highly hilarious. I like my novels with a mix of both, and this one delivers nicely.
Do you want your book to send you to other worlds? I’m not much of a fantasy reader, except for Disclaimer #2. However, my thirteen-year-old son has recently loved Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima. We also enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, though those are more middle grade/early YA. In fairy tale retellings, I loved Ash by Malinda Lo. The easy tag line is “a lesbian version of Cinderella,” but it’s so much more lush and complex than that. I was also astounded by The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which isn’t fantasy as much as a reimagining of Nazi Germany through the eyes of Death (the character) and a girl named Liesl.
Do you want your book to remind you of your own teenage years? There are oodles of choices. Were you an athlete? I’d send you to Chasing Alliecat by Rebecca Fjelland Davis (competitive cyclists find a dead body) or anything by Chris Crutcher. I also loved Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach. Everyone can sympathize with oddly athletic Felton Reinstein and his grew-too-fast body (and mind). Stupid Fast is also hysterical. Are you a fan of mean girls? Find Cracked up to Be or Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers. She’s one of the best writers out there for yanking you back into the halls of high school, and Some Girls Are will freak you out with the lengths the mean girls go to in order to remain queen bees. Yowza.
And speaking of freaking out, do you want your book to reveal the grit in teenage lives? Man oh man, is there some great edgy YA out there! Be warned, however: these books often contain rough language, sexuality, drugs, and sketchy situations. My most recent love is Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff. It’s love without restrictions in some dangerous places. Anything by A.S. King is solid and wonderful as well, and she often slips in some magic realism, which I like. Will Grayson, Will Grayson also falls in this group, because of its gay characters. I’ve also appreciated Beautiful and Clean by Amy Reed. The intensity of the girls in her fiction will echo for many grown-ups. A book I’m looking forward to is Narc by Crissa-Jean Chappell. The title alone tells you it’s not going to be an easy read.
Personally, I want a book to be my pal.
Obviously, books are for entertainment, but they were also my first friends as a child. I relied on them for escape, comfort, and general companionship, and it’s still true today. When I stop reading and start writing YA, I do it for the joy of telling stories about awesome and hilarious people who happen to be teenagers. But I also do it with the secret hope that someone will pick up my book and think, “I love this story, and I can see myself in here. This book is my ally.”
Hopefully one of these books will become your friend, too.
Want to win an ARC of Kirstin's BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN? Fill out the form below and I'll pick a winner on or around Friday, August 3. Trust me when I say this is a book you will want to read.