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8 YA Novels/Authors High Schoolers Should Read Before Graduation

I have several posts that I SHOULD write but none of them are really speaking to me right now. So yesterday I asked the Twitterverse what I should write about and I got a couple of suggestions. Two of the suggestions from friends @mrami2 and @Stardusted214 overlapped, so that made up my mind. @mrami2 wanted suggestions for 12th grade choice-reading selections and immediately THE BOOK THIEF by Marcus Zusak came to mind right as @Stardusted214 mentioned wanting to know my thoughts on the very same book. As I started to think about Zusak’s book, I began to think about other titles that high schoolers should read and this post was born. These suggestions are for older readers: juniors and seniors with the occasional mature sophomore thrown in due to complexity of text and maturity of content. So, I’ll begin with THE BOOK THIEF.

1. Zusak’s book is an award winner but that’s not the only reason students should read it. Told by Death, the story is somehow poignant in its seeming detachment. Zusak also has incredible talent with unorthodox description. As Death follows Liesl to her foster parents’ home and through the Nazi occupation of her small little town, his unique take on humans, their interactions, and their successes and failings, readers find a little of themselves in, not only the living, but also in Death.

The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have beaten hearts. They have punctured lungs… It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind. It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
*A girl
*Some words
*An accordionist
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fistfighter
*And quite a lot of thievery

I saw the book thief three times.

This impeccably quirky writing continues throughout the book. Liesl’s story is one of sorrow and suffering and loss. But it is also a story in which a girl’s resilient spirit brings hope to a small town, a lonely woman, a grieving couple, and, ultimately, to Death himself.

2. Anything John Green has written needs to be on a list of choice reads for high schoolers. Green’s humor camouflages some potentially controversial issues that teens should be thinking about. His books range in topic from drinking and driving in Looking for Alaska to homosexuality in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan) to cancer in The Fault in Our Stars. Particularly for teens about to be truly independent for the first time, Green’s books present scenarios that allow readers to experience teens in extremely stressful situations that test their character and integrity. Readers get to watch these teens make decisions (right or wrong) and the effects of those decisions. Green’s snarkily intelligent narrators and emotional and humorous plots will have readers thinking and discussing long after the last page.

3. Readers get much the same benefits from Laurie Halse Anderson’s books. The major difference between Green and Anderson is the approachability of their books. Anderson’s books seem to have a simpler feel to them while the issues are still intense and fraught with emotion. While I wouldn’t recommend but one or two of Green’s titles to freshmen, I would feel more comfortable doing so with Anderson’s books. If there was one book of Anderson’s I had to choose, it would be Wintergirls. Her handling of the dark world of eating disorders and depression is respectful while emphasizing the need for attention.

4. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher deals with the equally dark topic of teen suicide. The brilliance in this book comes from the dual narratives. Asher is able to show readers the sense of isolation and lack of alternatives that so often accompany suicide victims while also bringing light to the guilt, shame, and confusion felt by those left behind.

5. Chbosky’s awkward narrator in The Perks of Being a Wallflower strikes a cord with every echelon of teen society. All the groups are there: jocks, nerds, goths, skaters; encompassing the engaged and the disenfranchised. The appeal of Charlie’s letters is in their simplicity. Charlie presents his experiences matter of factly and allows his new friends to help him navigate the rough waters of his first year of high school. The book is a somewhat traditional coming-of-age tale that can provide readers with a glimpse into the tough situations high schoolers face every day.

6. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is one of the best books I’ve read this year. The book is about friendship; no more, no less. Queenie and Maddie are thrown together in impossible historical times and must navigate through morally ambiguous situations. The girls quickly become dependent on each other in the best possible way and must eventually rely on one another to endure and survive. The raw and vulnerable nature of their friendship is emphasized by Queenie’s capture. The lack of a love interest, much less a love triangle, is a refreshing departure from a lot of current YA and the strength of these two female characters is phenomenal. This one is a can’t miss for all types of readers.

7. Mark Haddon’s quiet novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is another title that blows readers away with its unassuming narrator. Christopher Boone is a witty and intelligent and curious 15 year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. This mystery-novel-of-sorts follows Christopher’s investigation into a neighborhood dog’s death while also exploring the mystery that is Christopher. Readers get a unique glimpse into the mind of someone with autistic tendencies and the resulting compassion and understanding of someone in Christopher’s life circumstances is priceless. Not to mention that the story itself is an entertaining mystery.

8. Chris Crutcher has been a force in YA literature for years and he just keeps getting better. Any book (if not all of them) by Crutcher could be on a choice list for high schoolers. Crutcher also has a range of titles that would work even for middle schoolers. Coming from a counseling background, Crutcher tackles hard topics like child and drug abuse. But Crutcher also tackles more ambiguous issues like abuse of authority and censorship. His deliberate peeling back of the layers of denial and complacency adults use to marginalize teens’ problems is eye-opening and empowering. Again, if I had to choose, I would insist that all teens read Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Making every day count is never so well-illustrated as in these two titles.

All of these titles have made an impact on the teens to whom I have recommended them. They made an impact on ME as an adult. I wish I had had such variety and brilliance from which to choose and LEARN when I was in high school. The best hope for our teens in growing and making good decisions is STORY. The stories of decisions, people, places, events, and relationships – GOOD OR BAD – from which to discover who they are, what they think, and how they will live.

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