We are big fans here at Biblio-therapy of YA books, and we’re big fans of sci-fi/fantasy/urban magic/werewolves and vampires/teenagers living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland books. And after The Hunger Games, the publishing industry turned out so many YA fantasy novels that you could have used them all to build a compound to protect yourself from the inevitable zombie hordes. There’s even a parody Twitter account–Dystopian YA Novel, brought to you by them same writer as the genius Guy in Your MFA account that Anna mentioned recently–gently mocking some of the Katniss stereotypes that have popped up. I have read many many many of these books, and the recent Divergent movies have reminded me of my love for world problems that can only be solved by teenagers. But sometimes you don’t want to read about the savior of the remains of the human race and her love triangle, you just want an old school YA romance book. I’ve recently read three YA books that are, well, it’s not fair to call them simple, because they’re all well-constructed, thoughtful books, so let’s say straightforward. Teenage boys and teenage girls and high school and parents and all that stuff we’ve all dealt with, minus any future overlords or factions or teenage warriors.
How To Love by Katie Cotugno tells the story of Reena and Sawyer, long-time family friends, who get together in a terribly romantic fashion, but she gets pregnant, and he leaves homes without realizing that she’s having the baby. Two years later he shows up again–how will Reena and Sawyer and their complicated, prickly families put all these messy pieces back together? (The story moves around in time, so this isn’t really spoiling anything.) My favorite thing about this story is that it would be very easy for the book to be judgmental about Reena getting pregnant as a teenager. And there are characters who judge her for it, and she sometimes judges herself, but the book itself is very neutral and (thankfully!) does not turn into an anti-teen pregnancy PSA.
Althea and Oliver by Cristina Moracho first won my love by being set in the mid-1990s, time of my youth. But that’s really secondary to the plot, about two childhood friends who might be moving towards more. There’s a whole thing where Oliver has a weird sleep disorder, and Althea might have another boyfriend, but their relationship is the heart of the book and it rings true. Althea and Oliver also both feel real, while at the same time being unlike other teenager characters I’ve read.
Finally, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Nevin is the book I am wariest of recommending for a couple of reasons, but I’m including it because I’ve kept thinking about it days after finishing. This is another boy-meets-girl story, but it starts out from a darker place that you might expect and doesn’t get much brighter, despite the title. The point of view alternates between high-school students Violet and Fitch. Violet, in particular, came across as a very cool girl I would like to be friends with, and the politics of high school were felt painfully accurate. But I also found the character of Fitch unbelievably annoying–like, every smart-ass guy I have ever hated all rolled into one. I also hesitate because something happens at the end of the book that I found very upsetting. I know not everyone is a delicate flower like I am when it comes to books, but I hate to recommend something that will be disturbing to readers. I don’t want to give away any critical elements of the book, but if anyone wants more spoiler-y details, I’m happy to be more specific in the comments. So, as long as you’re prepared for things to turn a bit dark and Afterschool Special, the writing and characters definitely stand out.
I should say here that all of the books get pretty R-rated. Characters have sex. I mean, I’d rather my hypothetical children read any of these well-written, full-of-heart stories than Twilight or the Sweet Valley High books that I read as a kid. But I probably wouldn’t give these to any of the children I know without making sure their parents had read them first.
Finally, have you read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell yet? If you haven’t read Eleanor and Park, go start your YA reading with that, since it remains one of the best things–YA or anything else–that I have read in years.