Category Archives: Young Adult

‘Code Name Verity’ by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VeritystarstarstarstarA young adult historical novel, this is a harrowing adventure story set in WW 2. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The story follows two strong young women from England to the occupied territory in France. Very rarely, in all the books I have read about the second world war, have I read about the fighting that women did. In this case a female pilot and a spy. If you loved  The Book Thief you’ll like this one as well. The harsh realities of the choices that sometimes need to be made during war time are well described. I loved the scenes of Maddie flying and clever Queenie changing identities so much that’s it’s a wonder she even knew who she was at any given moment! But somehow they both persevere against the odds and considering their very different backgrounds, forge a special friendship that would never have happened if it weren’t for the war.

It’s best I say as little as possible about the plot so that you can experience it better in the reading. The book is written in two parts. The first is narrated by Verity, the second by Kittyhawk. Even though the first half is beautifully written  it seemed a bit slow going. However, I knew the reviews were stellar and the second half made me realize what all the fuss was about. The novel picks up in the middle and literally flies to the finish. It’s amazing how the author brought so many things together in the end.

The author is a pilot herself and just published a new book this year called Rose Under Fire.

‘Ketchup Clouds’ by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup CloudsstarstarIn this young adult novel, a  teenager thinks that she has done something so bad, that the only person who could possible understand, is a convicted murderer on death row. The book takes the form of letters sent to this prisoner, telling him her secrets and slowing revealing the story. It did hook me in at the start, but went on too long and fell rather flat for me in the end. The extreme guilt for the ‘crimes’ committed by herself and her mother, were not as believable as I had hoped. The novel lacked depth and redemption.

The book does illustrate how hard it is for teens to confide in anyone at all. And the author does capture well the type of angst a teen can feel when things are difficult at home or at school. Even friends can easily let you down and it is easy to feel very alone in the world. Pitcher’s other book ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’ is an award winner, so perhaps I should have picked that one up instead of this newest one.

Author feature: Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. SchmidtGary D. Schmidt is an award winning young adult author who teaches at Calvin College, my alma mater. His books are deep, well crafted and multi-layered, yet very readable, full of humour, and witty. His specialty is coming-of-age stories. In a speech, he once shared his fascination with those transitional moments when a youngster leaves childhood and heads toward adulthood. Schmidt’s books appeal to people of all ages, in fact, I sometimes wonder if adults and judges like his books better than the middle school tweens his books are pitched at. Adults reading these books will remember how hard adolescence is and appreciate Schmidt’s humour and pathos around the difficulties of this age. Someone once said, “The only thing harder than going through adolescence is watching someone you love go through it.”

Middle school boys are notoriously difficult to hook into reading. When I was working as a high school librarian, I was always looking for those gems which were compelling and readable, yet well written. Books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter are the ones which would draw reluctant readers in, while Schmidt’s books would usually only be read by those who were already avid readers.

Gary D. Schmidt Website

The Wednesday Warsstarstarstar‘The Wednesday Wars’ is a slightly exaggerated comic tale of middle school woes. It features Holling Hoodhood a 7th grade student who must spend his Wednesday afternoons with his teacher Mrs. Baker because the rest of the class is receiving religious instruction. Holling feels he is being punished because the teacher, on those afternoons, makes him read Shakespeare. The story is set during the Vietnam War which adds a sober element to the story and places everyday muddles into perspective.  Holling tries not to get into trouble, but this seems impossible when he has things like bullies and angry rats to deal with, and they’re making him wear yellow tights in the school play!

Okay for NowstarstarstarIn a companion book to the ‘Wednesday Wars’ Doug Swieteck calls his new home “The Dump” and he endures a move to a small town where he knows no one and everyone else knows everyone. It’s 1968 when the Apollo space missions were happening and the Vietnam war was going on. He suffers from a number of abuses and is barely surviving complete despair. But when Doug makes a discovery at the local Public Library, things start to turn around. Someone kind takes an interest in him and he discovers that being passionate about something can make all the difference in the world. In ‘Okay for Now’ Schmidt gets a firm grasp on a heartbreaking topic and manages to coax out some hope and redemption. But in a realistic way, since we can all relate to a time when the answer to “How are you?” can only really be “Okay for now” and that’s okay. The earthy and gritty beginning to the story hooked me in immediately, but halfway through it became a bit unbelievable. Even though the ending was not ‘happily ever after’ for everyone in the story, I did find it got tied up a bit too neatly and too sweetly. I did love the way he wove the Audubon pictures of birds into the story.

Troublestarstarstar‘Trouble’ grapples with the idea of how to live in a world with trouble. There are some very Calvinist themes in this book.  The story begins with a tragedy that sparks racial tension between two communities. One night Henry’s older brother Franklin is accidentally hit by a pickup truck driven by his Cambodian classmate Chay Chouan. Henry’s father alway said, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” But what now? It is a study in contrast and is all about grace.  Forgiveness and grace make things ok again, at least for now. Henry feels helpless in the situation but decides to act. After rescuing a Black Dog from drowning, he attempts to climb Mt. Katahdin, something he and Franklin were planning to do together. It becomes for him, not only an adventurous challenge, but a journey of redemption and self-discovery.

‘Stolen’ by Lucy Christopher

StolenstarstarstarWhile on vacation with her parents, Gemma is kidnapped in the Bangkok airport. It went so fast. Ty, a rugged and tan stranger with ice blue eyes but with a gentle manner who looked vaguely familiar, bought her a coffee, slipped something into it, and the next thing she knew she was in a far away land with no chance of escape.  ‘Stolen’ is written as a letter from Gemma to her captor.

This is an award winning young adult novel which did keep me on the edge of my seat. Since I lead a reading group for 15 year old girls I am always on the lookout for thought provoking stories and adventures that easily draw the reader in. This one also has a thrilling emotional twist. The desolate setting of the Australian outback is vividly portrayed as both beautiful and dangerous. So is the kidnapper, who expects Gemma to fall in love with him.

‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness

A Monster Callsstarstarstarstarstar

This captivating, beautifully written, and moving story is about a boy whose mother is struggling with cancer. Complete with unique and dynamic illustrations it is not just something to read, it is an experience not to be missed.

Although written for tweens (9 – 13), this is an important book for adults to read because it gets to the heart of how a child’s thoughts and feelings can be conflicted and confused at a time of grief and loss. It is a sad story but not sentimental. The purpose is not to upset, but to bring about understanding and healing.

The backstory makes the authorship even more poignant. Patrick Ness was given an original idea from YA author Siobhan Dowd, who tragically died of cancer before she could write it herself. Here follows the book’s description, it is better that I don’t say more.

“The monster showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming….. This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.”


‘Between the Lines’ by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

Between the LinesstarstarstarJodi Picoult is one of those famous authors whose name is printed larger than the title on the cover of a book. Many have read at least one of her bestselling novels. She is a master at taking a difficult issue, representing all aspects of it through her character’s perspectives, and delivering a good storyline with lots of plot and conflict.

‘Between the Lines’ is Picoult’s first young adult novel and it is unique because she wrote it together with her teenage daughter Samantha. What they set out to write was a timeless, ageless, old fashioned fairy tale with a modern romantic twist for a new generation. It would be visually pleasing as well, with beautiful illustrations and a story that would stand the test of time. In this I think they succeeded except that I think the target audience would be younger than typical YA age, more like 9 – 12 range.

In the introduction Picoult writes about how she and her daughter worked together on the novel, not only doing the hard work of imagining how the story would be written and where it would go, but taking turns typing and saying most of the lines out loud.

Imagine if characters had a life of their own when the reader wasn’t around? And what if the characters were tired of being stuck in a story that always had the same ending? What if the reader could help a character escape? This of course is fantasy. By definition a fantasy is imagining the impossible or improbable. Fantasy is important, especially for children. It allows children to vicariously experience things like love, longing, fear, failure, anger etc., all  in a safe environment so they can wonder about how they themselves would react.

Picoult says her fans asked her to write something for their children, to introduce them to her writing until they were old enough to handle her heavier adult books.   She has delivered, and this one will live happily ever after with all of her other novels.

‘Gone’ by Michael Grant

GonestarAlthough this book might get high marks from many for action and imagination, I found it painfully cliché with poorly crafted writing and a disjointed plot line. However, that is not to say that it has no value for readers.

‘Gone’ is the first in a series, followed by ‘Hunger’, ‘Lies’, ‘Plague’ and ‘Fear’. The end of the series is coming out in 2013 and will be called ‘Light’. The ending of this first instalment definitely does not end and sets up for a sequel. So, this dystopian series might be a good choice for a reluctant teen reader who will be swept up by it and will enjoy carrying on with the series. Arguably, everyone needs a series from time to time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gone was picked up for the movies, it almost reads like a movie already.

The set up for the story is interesting enough. One day, in the blink of an eye, all of those fifteen and older disappear, leaving a generation of youngsters bent on survival. Gone. Just take a minute and imagine that. Immediately getting rid of the adults is a popular device that many authors use eg. Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Flies.  In some cases it help to declutter the world of adult issues, allowing the fantasy to breathe freely, and of course in Lord of the Flies, it was to expose human nature in its most basic form, focusing on tendencies such as individualism vs. the common good.

‘The Fault in our Stars’ by John Green

There are some Young Adult genre books written for teens which appeal to adults as well,  such as Hunger Games and The Book Thief.  ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is beautifully written and touched me deeply. Written with a great deal of humour and panache, Green takes a difficult subject and makes it not only easy to read, but unforgettable and wise. Although it is an edgy love story about two teenagers with terminal cancer, it is also honest and real about how to live life in any circumstances, in a way that only a book about death can be.

Augustus and Hazel meet at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Some members of the group are survivors and some are dying of cancer…but wait, let me rephrase that….living with cancer. That is an important distinction in this book. It’s about living because the reality is that we are all going to die. The focus is on living as normal a life as possible in the meantime, something which is so important to those struggling with illness.

John Green has written two other books for young adults and I am looking forward to enjoying his writing again. I’m also curious to test-drive his books on the teenage reading group that I lead, to see if young adults are as impressed with his writing as adults are!

‘Theodore Boone: The Abduction’ by John Grisham

This is the second instalment in the story of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, YA novels written by John Grisham in his adventurous legal thriller style. You can see my earlier post on the first in the series. (Just click on Young Adult in the Genre Categories sidebar on the right).
Theo’s good friend April goes missing under mysterious circumstances. She is believed to be in danger and Theo wastes no time using his legal knowledge, investigative skills, and family connections to solve the case. Though this series is rated for 9 – 14 year olds, Grisham provides an intelligent read which I enjoyed thoroughly. Grisham’s gift for adventure and humour are as evident in this read, as in any of his adult legal thrillers. His writing is clean and straightforward. And there is a third in the series which has just come out.’ Theodore Boone: The Accused’.

Taking a Walk on the YA Side

Why is it that so many adults these days are reading and enjoying YA novels?   Series like ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Harry Potter’, and books like ‘The Book Thief’ and ‘The Thief Lord’ are examples of  YA books that are written in an approachable style, are fast paced, and have intriguing story lines. I don’t believe it is a “dumbing down” of reading choices for adults, since the successful cross over ones are usually good literature, with the exception of things like the Twilight series. The best cross over books address tough subjects without talking down to kids.

The young adult genre is a strange one and I don’t think all YA books fall into the ‘crossover to adults’ category. Some YA authors write juvenile type books for teens, which are flat and cliché and far too uninteresting. Others go to the opposite extreme of including as much bad language and high risk behaviour as possible, since they think this is what teens want to read. So it is important to keep an eye on the genre and know what your teens are reading. Perhaps that is how it happened…parents were checking what their children were reading and got hooked! Or perhaps they are enjoying the nostalgia of reading ‘coming-of-age’ stories! David Leviathan,  editor at Scholastic says,  “Issues of identity and belonging and finding your way in the world are new when you’re a teen, but they never actually go away.”

It is exciting that the best of YA can stand up to anything for adults. Perhaps authors who write for children are more conscious of how they craft a novel to engage the reader quickly and capture the imagination well. I compare it to a high school principal who likes to hire elementary school teachers, because not only do they know their subject, they also know how to teach.

‘The Thief Lord’ by Cornelia Funke

This young adult “tween” novel (9-12), will delight anyone at any age. Set in Venice, it is the story of a group of ragtag homeless and runaway children who fend for themselves by hiding out and surviving on the streets and canals. Translated from German, the story has beautiful illustrations done by the author which adorn each new chapter. There is mystery, suspense, and a magical outcome which is not at all predictable. Everytime I thought I knew what was going to happen, there would be a fresh and unexpected little twist.

Read this story yourself, buy it for a tween, or better yet, read it out loud to a tween you know and love. You will both be captured by the story and the setting. And then visit Venice. 🙂 Note: the Italian names won’t roll off your tongue if you don’t know how to pronounce them. Courtesy of wikipedia, here are the trickiest ones: Scipio (Sip-ee-oh) and Riccio (Ree-chee-oh).

Cornelia Funke’s website is an adventure in itself. Be sure to visit there and have fun clicking on the various parts of the opening screen. Make the chair move, the globe turn, and the mouse squeak. Watch letters fly into the mailbox, and is there really something hiding in the garbage can?
Cornelia Funke’s Website