The borders of young adult fiction have become increasingly blurry. Mothers and daughters debate the merits of Edward versus Jacob, and adult readers have unabashedly embraced Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. At the same time, authors like Jodi Picoult and James Patterson, who are known for their best-selling adult fiction, are producing YA novels in increasing numbers.
Before Lee Child turns up with Jack Reacher: The Teen Years, it’s worth considering the merits of young adult fiction that speaks to its audience directly and captures the elusive “reluctant reader.” These five novels feature action and adventure, deal with topics that kids will connect with, and encourage further literary exploration. If adults like them—and they will—it’s merely a fortunate side effect. These stories are for young readers of both genders, and they speak to them on their terms.
Cal Armistead’s Being Henry David (Albert Whitman & Company, 978-0-8075-0615-8) opens with a bang. “The last thing I remember is now,” says our hero, who has just awoken in Penn Station with only ten dollars and a copy of Walden to his name, but no idea who he is. Taking Henry David or “Hank” as a handle and the book as inspiration, he finds his way to Concord, Massachusetts, and slowly begins to piece together his identity and what he’s running from. He makes friends, meets a girl, and begins to build a new life, but the past dies hard, and Hank has several layers of reckoning to pass through before finally coming home to his true self. Walden and Henry David Thoreau are peripheral to the main story here, but solitude, contemplation, and simplicity may hold a degree of rebellious potential for readers who were raised to be plugged in 24-7. Let’s hope so, anyway.
From relative realism we move to a dystopian tale. With The Crossing (Pyr, 978-1-61614-698-6), Mandy Hager introduces a trilogy that refreshes the genre while still playing by its rules. When Maryam reaches puberty she leaves her island home to join the chosen on board the shipwrecked Star of the Sea. The ship is the Holy City overseen by the Apostles of the Lamb, and it is one of the last safe places on earth after the Tribulations (a combination of disease and weather events) wiped out most of the population. The white Apostles keep the islanders in line with some pretty twisted theology, but what exactly are they doing to the people who cross over to the ship, “the Lord’s most beautiful and sacred place”? When Maryam finds out, she’s faced with a thankless choice: Follow protocol, which will most likely kill her, or leave the ship … an even more dangerous prospect. Hager creates a believable world and moves the story along at a brisk clip. Upon reflection, what at first reads as breakneck action raises tough questions about religion, racial disparity, medical ethics, and the appropriate uses of power.
The Crossing is set in the future, but the primitive island culture and destroyed cruise ship give the novel a sense of looking backward in time. The Adventures of Radisson: Hell Never Burns (Baraka Books, 978-1-926824-54-3) begins in 1651, when instant messaging was achieved with smoke signals. Martin Fournier recounts the exploits of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who moved from France to New France (in Canada) as a teenager in search of adventure in the fur trade. One day his impulsive nature leads him far afield while hunting. Before he knows it, his two friends have been brutally murdered and he’s kidnapped by the Iroquois, who are fighting the French for control of trade routes. Fournier explains, “Radisson’s face was painted half red and half black, meaning that his fate remained in the balance: black for death, red for life.” He lives among the tribe and is ultimately adopted into a family that he loves and fights with as a son and brother. The action here comes fast and hard, and the violence is sometimes shocking; torture was common, and when taking a village by storm no allowances were made for women and children. Hunting scenes are also thick with gore. Radisson has a lengthy journey among the Iroquois but is never completely safe among them. When he makes a bid to return to his birth family, his conscience awakens, and he begins to confront his violent acts. Readers will wonder what happens next; thankfully, this is the first volume in a series, so we can see how Radisson matures.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick Press, 978-0-7636-6354-4) is of the present moment, but rivals Radisson’s exploits in terms of violence. Piddy Sanchez hasn’t even settled in at her new school when she’s called out by a total stranger. Missing her best friend and the neighborhood her nervous single mother moved them away from, Piddy ends up pushing the boundaries of identity to find her place while trying to avoid a bully with a chip on her shoulder. She dreams of living among elephants as a scientist; her mother wants her to learn just enough French, cross-stitching, and cooking to prepare “for the future,” which is clearly free of women with careers. Author Meg Medina depicts a violent and humiliating assault on Piddy that is filmed and posted online. Piddy’s desire to hide her wounds and her fear of being labeled a snitch are compounded when her beat-down is publicized. She edges toward creating a take-no-prisoners persona similar to that of her attacker before finding middle ground that feels more like home. The school finds an imperfect but workable solution for Piddy that students and teachers should discuss. What’s fair punishment for a bully, and what does the victim deserve as compensation? Yaqui doesn’t have all the answers, but it raises questions every school should be prepared to act on and introduces a character who learns to face her demons with integrity.
Historical fantasy makes learning a treat in P.T. McHugh’s Keeper of the Black Stones (Glass House Press, 978-0-9816768-0-7). Science geek Jason learns that his grandfather discovered a set of stones that enable time travel. Wouldn’t you know, gramps’s colleague’s son jumped back in time and decided to alter the course of history, potentially bringing on the end of the world. Jason and his best friend need to travel back to the Middle Ages, refight the War of the Roses, save his grandfather and, oh yeah, all of humanity. After that, finals should be a breeze. The action here is charged, and Jason is a likable, funny hero. “Last week I was worried about my Physics midterm. Now I’ve got a body guard,” he muses. The book has a wicked twist at the end that you’ll wish you saw coming; it turns out to be a teaser for the second volume in this planned series of seven. Literature, history, and science are whipped into the mix here and can inspire a lot of outside reading. A historical note at the end of the book helps readers make sense of which parts of the story are based in fact. It’s clear that McHugh researched the history well; the battle scenes and villages feel real, despite looking like a misplaced Renaissance Fair to Jason and his friends. Like Radisson, Keeper is a bright beginning to what looks like a promising series.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer and the author of the ebook, 7 Gateways to Self-Published Success. She lives and works in Ukiah, California.