My 10 must-read YA books …

This morning I awoke to a tweet from the YA Literature, Media and Culture Research Network which made me a little angry to say the least. It was a link to The Telegraph‘s list of ‘The 10 must-read YA books’. What followed was a great online discussion about the limitations of this list and a promise that I would write by own list which you will find at the end of this blog.

It should be said, before I go too far off the deep end, that by their nature any list of the ‘Top 10 …’ will be subjective. Moreover, YA literature is being produced at such a rate that it is difficult to keep up with the trends. My concerns are not specifically with the choices themselves, some of which I have read and others I haven’t even heard of, but rather with what appears to be intent (conscious or not) of this list. (Nor is The Telegraph the only publication guilty of some of the issues which I will be discussing). Unfortunately, it reads like a list compiled by well-meaning authors whose intention is to prove that YA literature is ‘worthy’ of study and appreciation.

I would argue that some of these texts are not YA literature rather they are children’s literature. The boundaries of YA literature are obviously flexible but I tend to consider it to be teenagers up to people in their early twenties. (Although, there is a huge adult readership for these texts as well). Within those parameters certain texts may be suitable for older and younger teens, something which allows YA literature to be so diverse and innovative. By choosing texts that are aimed at younger readers, the list seems to be prioritising children’s literature over teen fiction. Take for instance Louis Sacher’s Holes (1998), a text which is suitable 10-12 years old children. It is a brilliant novel and one which I thoroughly enjoyed when I first read it. However, I first read it as a teenager and at the time I was felt that it was for a younger audience than myself. In the intervening years, Holes has become a touchstone for ‘good’ children’s literature. Its inclusion in this list seems to be an attempt to validate YA literature. Children’s literature has been more readily accepted into academia than YA literature and, from this list, it appears to be used to prop up teen fiction. The presence of Sacher’s work validates the discussion of YA literature as an extension of children’s literature rather than as a genre in its own right.

Similarly, many of the texts in the list seem to have been chosen because they deal with ‘issues’, suggesting that YA literature needs to be didactic in some form. This reminds me of my mother’s earnest attempts to get me to read Jacqueline Wilson so that I had a better idea of what life was like for people who were not as privileged as me. Instead, I read Enid Blyton because I wanted to be Carlotta, have midnight feasts and lashings of ginger beer. Books helped me to escape the difficulties of my own life, small though they may have been, and the ordered system of the boarding schools that Blyton presented were nostalgic fantasy. We have to be careful when talking about YA literature that as adults we are not dictating what we think teenagers should be reading rather than looking at what they are reading. Fiction can allow us to understand the world and explain complex issues but when it comes to non-adult readers, we are sometimes guilty of enforcing the political and social elements of the text over the pleasure of reading itself.

There are two other noticeable absences from this list. Firstly, there are very few fantasy, SF or Gothic (romance) texts. This surprises me. Whilst YA literature has a longer history than the past 20 years, the most recent swell in this area of publication was precipitated by texts such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay trilogy. I would suggest that this omission is based on the fact that even in adult literature, the genres of fantasy, SF and Gothic are still seen as not entirely literary. In order to legitimise YA literature, a canon has to be created. In and of itself, this is understandable and is exactly what lecturers do every time they create a syllabus. However, there is an issue when the canon becomes the means by which we can police the boundaries of acceptability. In her discussion of the genre of Gothic literature, Catherine Spooner writes: ‘While canon formation is an inevitable result of the focus of critical attention on hitherto neglected areas of literature, and helps to consolidate new fields of study as well as challenge pre-existing canons, it just as inevitably constructs new principles of inclusion and exclusion’ (Post-Millenial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic, 2017). It is important, then, that in order to be accepted into the academy, the field of YA literature does not neglect texts simply because they are in the wrong genre or are too popular.

It follows, therefore, that my next point is about female readership, especially in regard to the Gothic genre. Tellingly, there is a limited number of female authors and female protagonists in The Telegraph‘s list. Enter any library or bookstore and go to their YA section and you will discover that it is very female weighted. Meyer’s Twilight created a supremely successful blueprint for Gothic romance aimed at teenage girls. (Although, arguably, huge swathes of early Gothic novels have always attracted a young female readership. Hence Jane Austen was able to successfully parody the Gothic romance in Northanger Abbey [1817]). Collins’ Hunger Games was similarly successful although using a dystopian framework. However, as with my comments about legitimate genres in the previous paragraph, female readers and authors are often dismissed as niche. Young, female readers in particular are derided for their bad taste and slavish following of popular trends. Thus to ensure that YA fiction as a genre is respected, it appears that young women have been extirpated from this list in order to make it more palatable. As with the other problematic elements of this list, we return once more to matters of taste regarding literature and the wider issue of what is ‘good’ literature. YA literature finds itself in the peculiar position where the taste makers are often not those who judge what is deemed to be literary and worthy of study. Although this is only a brief discussion of the issues facing the study of YA literature, hopefully, it has acknowledged some of problems in policing a genre and offered some ideas for moving forward in this field.

For something a little more enjoyable, below then is my purely subjective, based entirely on my own interests, list of my top 10 must-read YA texts. These are the novels that opened my eyes to new worlds, the books that bonded me with my friends and the works that I still read now.

  1. How I Live Now (2004), Meg Rosoff – I agree with The Telegraph on this choice. Rosoff’s novel is heart-breaking. I stayed up until the early hours reading How I Live Now and it ended with me sobbing into my pillow so my parents wouldn’t be woken up by the sound. I have only been able to read it four times in my life because it still affects me so deeply. It’s about WW3 but it’s also not. Just read it.
  2. Twilight (2005), Stephenie Meyer – It’s the novel we all love to hate! Most people I’ve met who critique Meyer, however, have never read it. Despite all the furore it’s caused and the debates about literary merit, let’s not forget that The Times (pre-paywall) described this text as ‘recounted in hypnotic, dreamy prose, [and] encapsulates perfectly the teenage feeling of sexual tension and alienation’ (Amanda Craig, ‘New Age Vampire Stake their Claim’, The Times, 14 Jan. 2006). It deserves to be part of both the YA and Gothic canon – think of it as Ann Radcliffe for the twenty-first century but with a lot more of the female gaze.
  3. Stargirl (2000), Jerry Spinelli – In many ways, now that I look back, Stargirl is a classic MPDG but at the time I read it I didn’t know what that meant. Instead, it seemed to be that she was a joyful, original being, just this side of the fairy kingdom. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be her but she let me see the lightest, brightest parts of being a teenager. Also, I had never been to Arizona and Spinelli’s descriptions brought the desert to life for me.
  4. Tithe (2002), Holly Black – This book is another one where I can remember exactly where I was when I finished it: leaning over the back seat of our family car whilst my parents were doing the family shop in Morrisons. I begged to be left in that car so that I could read my new favourite book. Tithe opened a whole new world for me, a world of dark fairies, a reality that existed on the edges of my world. On some level, I’m still waiting for Rath Roiben Rye to let me know that I am a changeling. (Or get my letter for Hogwarts).
  5. The Replacement (2010), Brenna Yovanoff – I love changelings! I can’t think of a better vehicle to describe and explore the alienation of being a teenager. As with Black, Yovanoff makes her fairy world darker than the one I had read about as a child. It’s enticing and cruel, and the adults do little to protect their children and teenagers from its worst excesses. Yovanoff also writes excellent male characters who are well-rounded and do not conform to the typical ‘Brooding YA Hero’ tropes.
  6. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (1999), Louise Rennison – This was the book that got me thrown out of a library for laughing too hard. It’s funny and clever. The heroine isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but she’s funny and resilient. No other book I have read manages to capture the amount of laughing that is involved in groups of female friends. It also spawned a whole new lexicon for my friends and me.
  7. Generation Dead (2008), Daniel Waters – Like How I Live Now, this book hurts to read. It’s a book about zombies that makes you go online and almost end up ranting about zombie rights. (*Almost*. I only came close to it once). It’s angry and political without ever losing the central story line or undermining the world it has created. The characters are well written and even the bad guys are given complex internal lives that help you understand how they end up being so cruel.
  8. Carry On (2015), Rainbow Rowell – I love this book because it is pure twenty-first-century metafiction. So, this novel is based upon a novel that Rowell talks about in her other novel Fangirl (2013). Fangirl is about fandom. The lead character is a huge fan of Carry On, a highly successful series of novels about a boy wizard and his arch nemesis. As you may have realised, Carry On is an homage to both Harry Potter and the fanfiction which it has inspired. This book has layers. So many layers. In many ways though, the success of fanfiction and the parodic quality of Rowell’s novel confirms that the YA genre has come of age.
  9.  The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things (2003), Carolyn Mackler – When I was 16, I had a huge Mackler phase so I also recommend Love and Other Four-letter Words (2000). However, I have chosen The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things because it was one of the first texts I read that dealt with rape as well as binge-eating. Obviously, it’s not an easy read but one of the things that is good about this text is the fact that it doesn’t give you easy answers. Instead it acknowledges the hypocrisy at the centre of a culture that sexualises young women and then punishes them for what they wear.
  10. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul (1997), ed. by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Kimberly Kirberger – I got given this book as my Year 10 prize for academic achievement. I was a total nerd before nerds were cool. We can all admit that being a teenager can be horrible. My teen years involved my first bouts of depression, an eating disorder, and a lot of self-hatred. Chicken Soup might be schmaltzy and mawkish but it spoke to me at a time when I needed a bit of love and comfort. I ended up passing it on to my sister who loved it as much as I did.
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