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Young Adults: What to Read?

February 5, 2012

One morning last week I opened my PC to the news that The Highest Frontier had made the Locus 2011 Recommended Reading List. Then I squinted and rubbed my aging eyes (time for my annual trip to the optometrist). My book had actually made the Young Adult list. This despite including an adult VPC and vocabulary like “semiochemical” and “nerve growth factor receptor.” It’s great to see YA stretch to a challenge, despite publisher guidelines that can be limiting.

This occasion led me to reflect upon what constitutes Young Adult reading. Back when I was a teen (we won’t say when, but if you must you can look me up in Wikipedia), a cool YA book I read was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Having a brother myself, I could definitely relate to having three. Another great read, and more practically useful, was Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. It was science then, though some call it fiction now. But my all-time teen favorite was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. What a revelation to learn that contemporary Russians didn’t just wave red flags like in Time Magazine; they even got sick with American diseases. A girl had to give up her breast, at an age when I’d just acquired mine.

For Honors English, I decided to attempt Grownup Literature. I chose Henry James–and slogged through Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. I never identified with any characters, nor got the jokes. What’s so wicked about Paris anyhow? I must confess to my teacher, Mr. Hernandez, that I never quite made it through The Golden Bowl. I had to watch Masterpiece Theater to find how it ended.

What did you read as a Young Adult?  What would you recommend now?

14 Comments
  1. February 5, 2012 7:24 pm

    I read a lot but the favourites were: The Hobbit, The Secret Garden, Animal Farm, and everything I could find in my little school library by Asimov, Heinlein and Harry Harrison.

    What I would recommend beyond those above (depending on the YA): The Bug Wars, The White Mountains, The Many-Coloured Land, Enders Game (and Shadow), The Time Machine.

  2. February 5, 2012 7:42 pm

    I read a lot. I hit Lord of the Rings around 12, about the same time I was reading through the Barsoom series. What else? I worked my way through a good chunk of my parents’ collection, including a lot of classic science fiction and fantasy, most of it out of print: Conan, L. Sprague de Camp, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lovecraft, McCaffrey, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov., Retief, Ursula LeGuin, Harry Harrison… I could keep going for quite a ways, I think. Did I mention that my parents bonded over their shared love of science fiction and mysteries?

    I’m not sure what young adult science fiction was back then. By the time I was a young adult, I was reading adult literature. Looking back, I can see I didn’t get a lot of the subtext, but that didn’t get in the way of a good story.

    My recommendation (especially for people giving presents to young adult readers) is a really good flashlight and a lot of books to explore, preferably if they’re adult and slightly off limits. It’s ever so much more fun if you’re tip-toeing into the library, late at night, to get something to read.

    • February 5, 2012 9:09 pm

      Yes I read most of those too. Some of them, like Conan and McCaffrey, were too “shocking” for our local library, but I got them from the school bus driver. I used to ride in the front seat so I could read whatever he was reading.

      I think for me, for future development as a writer, it was really key that I read “the classics” mixed inbetween the science fiction. The cross-fertilization helped me develop my own original material.

  3. paws4thot permalink
    February 6, 2012 5:39 am

    Very similar experience to Heteromeles (qv). I don’t propose to do a list of “authors I still have affectionate feeling about”; just observe that in the mid-1970s I don’t think there was any such thing as “young adult” fiction.

    • JamesPadraicR permalink
      February 6, 2012 10:29 am

      There certainly was ‘Young Adult’ in the 70s. I spent a good deal of my summers, late 70s-early 80s (age 6-15), in a bookstore where my father worked. The YA section consisted mostly of Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and the like–basically teen angsty stuff with some fantasy and not much that could considered real SF. I hung out at the SF and Science books, and was reading mostly Bradbury, Clarke, and Tevis, with a little P.K.Dick and Heinlein. My late teens I was reading Japanese Lit., before getting into 18th century & gothic Victorian fiction, then back into SF.

      • paws4thot permalink
        February 6, 2012 10:37 am

        Qualifiers:-
        1) I’m British; you probably recognise the usertag from Charlie’s Place like I recognise yours, Heteromeles and a few others.
        2) I’m older than you; I was 18 in 1980.
        3) I was using the “young adult” label as a marketting category, rather than trying to imply that there weren’t books (even SF books) aimed at US Middle and High School ages available.

        • JamesPadraicR permalink
          February 6, 2012 10:59 am

          True, I’ve no idea what would have been in a British bookstore then.

          I was simply pointing out that there was a YA category, in the US at least, at the time. Though it was nowhere near as big as it is today.

      • JamesPadraicR permalink
        February 6, 2012 10:40 am

        I should clarify, that age range was when I spent time at the bookstore, I wasn’t a heavy reader until I was around ten.

  4. February 6, 2012 10:01 am

    In the mid 70’s, I was lucky to have one of the great middle school librarians of all time (Thank you, Mrs Stenn!) (for that matter, my elementary school had a nice selection including Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien — the two books that got me started on SF — but back to middle school). We read “The Hobbit” in 6th grade English, so I jumped at the chance to read LoTR which was on the middle school library shelves — took a while, but I got hooked. The library had Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain chronicles and Lewis’ Narnia, which I found much less engaging (Religious allegory? Really? This 11-year-old secular Jew saw none of it). Others I remember include Alan Nourse’s “The Blade Runner” (long before the unrelated movie) and John Christopher’s Tripods series… I can remember exactly where these were on the shelves.

    But the mindblower, what hooked me on SF pretty much permanently, was the two Heinleins on the shelf: “The Star Beast” was shorter so I read it first. Fun, worth reading another by the same author. So I grabbed the other: “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Sex, drugs (but no Rock ‘n’ Roll) and a lot of mindblowing hippie stuff.

    The real punch line? This district still had arguments as to whether Huckleberry Finn was appropriate reading material. It never got pulled, but at the time, there were arguments nearly every year.

  5. February 6, 2012 10:16 am

    Fast forward a whole bunch of years: My wife starts an online children’s bookstore (we folded it a few years ago: didn’t have the volume to keep up with the big guys. Profitable over its run, but we got out before going into debt). Our original goal was to sell YA, but tweens and teens don’t have credit cards, and don’t want their parents buying them stuff — we sold a lot to grandparents. My wife is also a big SF/F fan, cut her teeth on Burroughs and Norton.

    So we saw a lot of YA SF/F in those years (and still get sent the occasional galley). Things we’d highly recommend include:

    Just about anything by Garth Nix, especially the Sabriel trilogy and Keys to the Kingdom
    Card’s Ender’s Game. The rest of the books are more mature, and of varying quality.
    Clive Barker’s Ararat series
    Hunger Games, of couse
    Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence (meant to list that as one of my influences)
    Doctorow’s Little Brother
    Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Peeps series
    Just about anything by Justine Larbalestier, especially Liar, How to Ditch your Fairy
    Absolutely anything by Daniel Pinkwater
    Same goes for Dianna Wynne Jones

    SF is tougher than fantasy, it seems: there’s lots more YA in the fantasy realm. Westerfeld, Collins, Doctorow are among the few. Nobody’s doing the solar system-spanning juvies of Heinlein and Asimov anymore.

    • February 7, 2012 9:56 am

      Maybe it’s hard to do the solar system because we know too much now about Mars and Jupiter and what it will take to get there. And yet, there are some kids building rockets and orbiters; there’s a near-orbit cam on Youtube, some kids posted.

      We now push kids so hard to be “social” that we lapse on expecting them to “build things.” When I was little, Lego sets were a thousand identical bricks you had to build something with. Now they’re full of Star Wars figures.

  6. Frank Caesar Branchini permalink
    February 9, 2012 12:04 am

    As a young adult I was reading a lot of science fiction but the one book I remember most vividly and have the fondest memories of is Treasure Island. With the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean this is still a book which I would think might still be popular.

  7. February 9, 2012 9:28 am

    Yes, I certainly remember hiding in the apple barrel. I think Treasure Island is the source of most of our “pirate” fantasy, the parrot on the shoulder stuff that started the movie series.

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