Book Bytesby Marylaine Block
Books Young Adults Will Enjoy
I've chosen these books because in one way or another they key into certain adolescent preoccupations and developmental tasks -- trying to figure out what is happening to their bodies, trying to separate from and forgive their parents and the entire adult world, trying out different ways of being male or female, figuring out how men and women can relate to each other, etc. But they also respond to sheer zaniness. Young adults often cherish a strong sense of grievance and injustice, and many of these books play into that sense of being unfairly treated, unloved and unappreciated, and that the adult world has made far too many compromises.
NOTE: Some of these books will be out of print, so plan on using your library, or click on Finding Out of Print Books.
Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a 4 volume trilogy (the fourth volume, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish came much later). Also Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. These should appeal to lovers of Monty Python. They're very weird and very droll. Hitchhiker is one of the three funniest novels ever written about the end of the world.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Along with Jane Eyre this book has done a lot over the years to make shy, plain, bright girls hopeful that despite all evidence, they can find a man who loves their mind. Tell them this is the book all regency romances are modeled on.
Barton, Frederick. Courting Pandemonium. About a girl who plays basketball so well the coach puts her on the boys' varsity team. Which upsets feminists and good ol' boys alike. Should appeal to male and female athletes alike.
Blume, Judy. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. And any of her other stuff. Her books tend to be controversial, perhaps because Blume is especially good at answering the questions teens need answers to, like "Who am I?" and "What in God's name is happening to my body?"
Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. In a future society, books are outlawed, but they live on nonetheless, kept alive by a dedicated band of booklovers who have become living books, having each committed a complete book to memory. You can burn a book, but you can't burn it out of people's minds. A booklover's nightmare, redeemed by booklovers.
Amanda Brown. Legally Blonde. Sharp and funny. When Elle Woods is dumped by her boyfriend Warner because he thinks she's too ditsy to be an asset to his career, she follows him to Stanford Law School, where her greasy grind classmates put her down. One of them secretly helps her keep up, but all by herself she wins an internship with a criminal lawyer defending the beautiful young wife of a rich old murder victim, because Elle has an unusual understanding of the suspect and the blonde issue.
Caroline B. Cooney. Flight #116 Is Down. Well-done story of a couple of underestimated teens who become heroes when a 747 crashes nearby. Heidi Landseth, whose family owns the land it crashed on, is a fast thinker who opens her home to the survivors and solves many logistical problems for the rescuers; Patrick, an EMT, helps save many lives. It's also the story of several people on board, some who made it and some who didn't.
Gene Brewer. K-Pax. Dr. Brewer is a psychiatrist confronting a man who calls himself "prot" and swears he is from the planet K-Pax. Brewer assumes the man is insane. When prot describes the benign conditions on K-Pax, the doctor reads this as proof of prot's fear of this world, and hostility to his parents. He puts prot into a mental institution, where his tales of K-Pax help to cure all Dr. Brewer's patients; they all want to go there with prot when he returns. But prot also cures the humorless Dr. Brewer.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Despite a sluggish Victorian pace, this book will also appeal to your shy plain girls. From the moment we first see 10 year old Jane, hiding from a vicious bully, and wondering why nobody loves her, we are immersed totally in her consciousness, and we share her conviction that, plain and insignificant though she is, she is valuable. She of course finds a dark, attractive, dangerous man who loves her mind and spirit. Every romance about a governess is based on Jane Eyre.
Terry Brooks. Running with the Demon. If you didn't know who this was by, you'd guess Stephen King--thematically it bears a lot of resemblance to The Talisman and It. The world is at a crisis point, with the forces of evil on the verge of complete triumph, drawing their strength from the worst impulses of human beings and intensifying them. A young girl with magical powers and protection is the only one who can and will stand against the forces of darkness.
Brown, Mary. The Unlikely Ones. A quest novel about an unlikely set of creatures, accompanying a young girl. All have been enchanted by a witch, who has left each with one special power in place of what she stole from them, and each creature must use its special power to rescue the entire party and become itself once again.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. Ender is a young boy, immensely skilled at playing what he believes to be video games. As we watch him growing up, going to increasingly difficult games to save the planet, we realize that he, and all the other boys, are not, in fact, playing games at all. They are being used ruthlessly as tools by a government seeking to defend itself against planetary enemies. This book is the beginning of a series that includes Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. I would also recommend Card's alternative history series about Alvin Maker, starting with 'Prentice Alvin.
Michel Chabon. Summerland. Young Ethan Feld is a terrible ballplayer, but it's his bat and his friend Jennifer T.'s pitching that is needed to save the world from Coyote, whose first blow in his campaign to destroy the world was the designated hitter rule. Aided by ferishers and miniature giants, Ethan and Jennifer T. embark on an expedition to the Well Coyote plans to poison, hoping to rescue Ethan's father, a scientist who experiments with dirigibles, along the way. Wonderful.
Cockrell, Marian. The Revolt of Sarah Perkins. In a small western town in the 1800's, where women were scarce commodities, the school board is desperate to find a teacher who won't get married, so they set out to hire an unattractive woman. What they get is Sarah Perkins, who is plain, but far from shy. She is, in fact, a warm, interesting woman with a gift for loving, and an inspired teacher as well. Also, try her Mixed Blessings, another historical novel about a young woman left on her own to finish raising her brother, with not much in the way of money. She starts a boarding house, and then has to manage not only the work but the conflicts between an amazing set of characters. It's charming, and the heroine is wonderful.
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Were it not brought out as an official "young adult" book, this would be considered serious literature, about young people in a boarding school who learn how easy it is to become a monster.
Crichton, Michael. Jyurassic Park, or indeed, any of his other novels. The fact that kids have seen the movie of a book is often a good way to suck them into reading the book, and the advantage with Crichton is that the books, while telling a rousing good story, are packed unobtrusively witha lot of science, and even more philosophical and ethical speculation.
Cronley, Jay. Quick Change. Possibly the funniest caper novels ever written, certainly about the most inept crooks of all time. They have good ideas, like wearing clown suits to rob a bank, but there are so many things they just didn't really think through, like the getaway route, which is why they end up in a dangerous urban ghetto when they make the wrong turnoff, and things go steadily downhill from there. Cronley also writes about sports; his book Screwballs is one of the three funniest baseball novels of all time, and his book Fall Guy is about big time college football.
Carolyn Cushman. Witch and Wombat. The creatures of fairy tales are in danger of extinction because they require human belief in them to exist, and in a world of television and computers, children are not being told fairy tales anymore. A troll named Bentwood decides to inveigle humans into visiting Fairyland by pretending it's an ultimate virtual reality game. He hires Hali (a witch) and her familiar, Bernie (a crow, converted into a wombat because he's cuter that way) to guide the first four adventurers, an oddly assorted lot of three teenage game experts and one sneering middle-aged game reviewer. Wonderful fun, and a terrific read-aloud.
Francis, Dick. Any of his books, which will appeal to both sexes. The specific plot doesn't matter, since all his books follow a standard pattern: a connection with horse racing, a hero who is likable but uncompromising and moral and willing to take an enormous amount of physical pain, which is just as well since the bad guys are always beating up the hero viciously. The hero always manages to figure out what is going on and bring the bad guys to justice.
Esther Friesner. Majyk By Accident. Kendar Gangle is the lowliest and least ept student of wizardry the world has ever known, but, while chasing a cat, he goes through the cloud of majyk escaping the dying chief wizard, and it sticks to him. He now has amazing powers without a clue how to use them, and a host of wizards determined to kill him and claim the majyk for themselves. Fortunately the cat (an American animal accidentally trapped in Kendar's dimension in which cats are mythical beings) is sharp and funny and full of ideas. Very amusing. She's written a number that are equally funny, as well as co-written a book, with Lawrence Watt-Evans, Split Heirs. The Hydrangean king has been beheaded by the barbaric Gorgoreans, and his over-genteel court has been overthrown. The daughter of the old king has married the new king and given birth to triplets. Since myth has it that triplets indicate three fathers, the Queen has to send two of her children into hiding. Problem is, the maid takes both the boys, leaving the daughter by mistake. Before the situation can be rectified, the maid has died, leaving the 2 boys in the care of a shepherd (who sells one of them to a wizard for an apprentice). So the queen has to raise the daughter as a prince, hoping to find the boys before it becomes too obvious that she is not a he. Farcical, fast-paced and funny.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. One of the two funniest books ever written about the end of the world. (Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide is the other.) Armageddon is scheduled to occur, but the 11-year-old anti-Christ was switched in his crib with the wrong baby, and the demons have been carefully training the wrong child, who is ordinary, and totally lacking in the required powers. When the demons track down the correct anti-Christ, he is unwilling to play his part--he likes the world just fine and wants to see a lot more of it. The motorcyclists of the apocalypse, who are seriously annoyed that all the good scourges were taken by the four horsemen, are not to be missed. Both Pratchett and Gaiman have written a number of other equally funny books. They both have an extraordinary gift for the droll.
David Gerrold. When Harlie Was One. About an artificial intelligence that effectively becomes God, somewhat to its own dismay, because Harlie is fond of his creator, David (Yes, he is aware of himself as Harlie, David's son). A fascinating dialogue between Harlie and David, exploring the capabilities of, and relationship between, man and machine, is the essence of the book. Harlie is a wonderful creation, an unusually lovable machine.
Sarah Gilbert. A League of their Own. A novelization of the movie, but a reasonably good story in its own right about two competing sisters in the women's professional baseball league. There are several books that posit a rabid reaction to the first female player in major league baseball, although that is often accompanied by fan acceptance when the women show themselves to be outstanding team players. Among the best of these are Barbara Grigorich's She's on First, Michael Bowen's Can't Miss, and Gorman Bechard's Balls.
Gilman, Dorothy. The Tightrope Walker. A young woman in the process of recovering her sanity after a very painful childhood discovers a note from a woman who thinks she is going to be killed very soon, and wants to find out whether this was real, and if so, what happened. In solving the mystery, she learns that the woman was not only real, but the author of the book that helped her survive her childhood, The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. Which, as it turns out, is a book that Dorothy Gilman also wrote, a kind of Pilgrim's Progress for a 16 year old boy. It's an amazing and beautiful book, which is different every time you read it.
Grant, Charles. The Pet. A book which plays on every teenagers' sense of grievance, of being insufficiently loved and appreciated. The hero is a neat kid, a teenage boy is neglected and ignored by his parents (who are teachers). Much to his surprise, he has a supernatural ally who exacts hideous revenge on the people who have treated him unjustly.
John Grisham. The Pelican Brief. This is much better than the movie. Skullduggery in high places always seems to mean an unlimited amount of power and violence is available to protect important reputations. The heroine, a law student, has few people to trust with the information she has discovered about a Supreme Court nominee, and they have to work hard to stay a few steps ahead of the people who want them dead.
Groom, Winston. Forrest Gump. Better than the movie.
Hallberg, William. The Rub of the Green. About a boy who finds golf much easier to figure out and master than the mysterious behavior of people, so he immerses himself in the game. Until his obliviousness of people causes him to commit an act of violence that changes his life and others'.
Shirley Jackson. Life among the Savages. Also, Raising Demons. Shirley Jackson wrote her amazing, haunting stories and novels ("The Lottery", We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House) while raising four children in a large house that kept shrinking as more books, bookcases, children, and animals kept being added. These books are her very funny stories about their family life. Young adults should also enjoy the spooky We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which leaves you with the question of whether the young heroine really did murder her family.
Jenkins, Jerry. The Rookie. Unlike most baseball novels, this is centered inside the consciousness of a young boy, son of a former baseball player who is now in prison. The boy is determined to make himself a great batter and pitcher, and puts himself through an unbelievably exacting regime, becoming the youngest player ever in the major leagues. But excellence does not relieve the pain.
King, Stephen. It. Also, Carrie and The Talisman. King has never forgotten what it is like to be picked on in school. He understands about bullies and victims. In these books, we are rooted inside the consciousness of young teenagers. Carrie, of course, has extraordinary powers, which she neither understands nor is able to control, and takes inadvertent but hideous revenge on the casually malicious popular kids who have caused her pain. In both It and The Talisman, adults are oblivious to a danger only the kids are able to see, and therefore, they have the burden of saving the world. They feel hopelessly inadequate, but they know they have no choice, so they do it. These are wonderfully realized characters, and again, we are fully immersed in their sense of righteous grievance with the world.
Koontz, Dean. Watchers. Koontz is pretty far gone in paranoia these days, but many of his earlier books, especially this one, will be appealing. Some medical experiments have created two very unusual animals, the extraordinarily intelligent hero dog, who is capable of language and reasoning, and another animal, equally intelligent, who is entirely depraved and cunning, And determined to kill the good dog. Since kids often find animals much more appealing and easy to understand than humans, they will empathize with this dog.
Korman, Gordon. One of the funniest people who ever lived, Korman writes both for kids and for teens. Some of his books can be read by both (No Coins, Please, The War with Mr. Wizzle, Go Jump in the Pool), but the specifically young adult ones are Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny, Don't Care High, Losing Joe's Place, Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, Son of Interflux and Who Is Bugs Potter. What characterizes all of Korman's books is funny bright heroes, and an ever-increasing pace ending in wild farce. The best of the lot are: Don't Care High, in which the hero takes an utterly bored and boring student body and creates intense school spirit by creating a legendary figure, a personification of cool, who wants them to do things like play basketball and enter city-wide competitions; Son of Interflex in which a talented young artist learns that his own father's company plans to take over land that belongs to his school, and uses one inventive tactic after another to save the school's property; and Who Is Bugs Potter, about a kid who is unfit to do anything but be one of the greatest drummers who ever lived.
Lamott, Anne. Crooked Little Heart. The consciousness here is divided equally between 13 year old Rosie and her mother. Rosie is a tennis player, nervous about herself and her game, desperate to win. And she cheats. And gets away with it, so she cheats a little bit more, and then agonizes over cheating and the fear of getting caught and the irresistible temptation to do it again. Her mother is a recovering alcoholic mired deep in depression and craziness. Teens will be interested in being inside both of these minds.
Jeremy Leven. Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. Satan is feeling pretty down about the horrible reputation he's been stuck with, and he goes to a shrink and tries to justify himself. You see, God really is in charge--not just of the record-keeping, though it stands to reason that the guy who writes the history determines what we think about the players in it. But God needed Satan to do evil things, in order to demonstrate His own power and goodness, in order to teach moral lessons about temptation and resistance and obedience. Dr. Kassler does his best to make Satan well-adjusted, but ends with the sinking suspicion that he has converted the only sane person he has ever known to the common irrationality we accept as reason.
MacLeod, Charlotte. Maid of Honor. The heroine is bright, talented, and completely ignored by her family, which is busy planning a wedding the father cannot possibly afford for the heroine's spoiled sister. While the money that would pay for her college is being frittered away, she is busy winning herself a scholarship with her performing talent, her family completely oblivious to her success the while. This book plays into that elemental fantasy of attending your own funeral and seeing your friends and family berate themselves for never having appreciated you enough.
Matheson, Richard. Shock and Shock II and Shock III. Wonderfully eerie fantasy/horror stories. Stephen King's Needful Things is a 750 page version of Matheson's 8 page story, "The Distributor."
Morrah, Dave. Me and the Liberal Arts. If you liked Forrest Gump, you'll love this story about a sweet good natured rube who follows his true love to a college campus.
Norman, Geoffrey. Blue Chipper. A chilling novel about the corruption of college sports, and its alignment with local politics. The coaches and politicians are willing to do anything to get a "blue chipper" to sign. And if he doesn't, well...bad things happen.
Parker, Robert B. Early Autumn. Series hero Spenser, a private investigator, is hired by a woman and gets caught up in a battle between herself and her husband. Caught in the middle is a hopeless 15 year old boy. He is so used to being both used and ignored that he has become a cipher, without personality or interests or ambition. So Spenser hijacks the kid and takes him off to teach him how to be a man, and teach the parents how to be human. He doesn't succeed with the parents, but he does with the kid.
Peters, Elizabeth. The Camelot Caper. A wonderfully funny English hero and American heroine join forces to figure out why she is being stalked. They hit all the tourist spots in southern England on the way to the home of her distant relatives, and exchange delightful witty conversation. The villain turns out to be equally amusing. Teenage girls are looking for models of how men and women can relate to each other, and this is a splendid example.
Pinkwater, Daniel. Young Adults. Also The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. All of Pinkwater's stuff is weird and funny, and ideally suited to class clowns.
Reiter, B.P. Saturday Night Knife and Gun Club. About a young, hippie-sort of guy, in his year of internship, who can't quite distance himself from the pain of the people whose lives he's supposed to save.
Caryl Rivers. Virgins. You don't even have to be Catholic to enjoy the adventures of these two hellions who forever disrupt the peace of a Catholic girls' school. Even though they do try, at least from time to time, to concentrate on being "Mary-like," more often they find themselves doing things like setting the schoolyard on fire, or writing a feature story about a saint called Leon Skorytt (that is, Leon Trotsky) or staging the greatest show on earth in their underwear (no tights). The sequel is Girls Forever Brave and True
Kevin Robinson. Split Seconds. Paraplegic reporter Nick Foster discovers the murdered body of his friend, a NASA scientist. He also finds a small laser disc; it turns out to be a backup disk for the guidance program for the rocket launches, and both the FBI and the bad guys are determined to get their hands on it. He finally realizes, after a number of attempts on his life, that the disk contains the secret of a terrorist plot. Pretty exciting stuff..
Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye. Still a classic, and with good reason. Holden Caulfield holds the grownup world up to examination, and finds it without merit or truth.
David Shields. Heroes. An outstanding novel about a college basketball team (Iowa readers will have no trouble identifying the college as the University of Iowa, and the town as Iowa City; whether the team is the Hawkeyes is another question). A sportswriter sees a point guard on this team who, if he were used properly, would be a great player, the Magic Johnson kind of player who makes everone around him better. But the coach wants him to be a shooter, not a playmaker. And, unfortunately, this player has no business being in college. The sportswriter finds out the truth about the kid's high school and junior college records, which have been doctored, and has to choose which he cares about more--his journalistic ethics, which would compel him to tell this story, and his love of basketball excellence. This man knows and loves basketball, and it shows.
Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. Cassandra is 17, the daughter of a writer who can't write anymore, but who is allowed to live free of charge in a castle. Her family includes a stepmother (an arty ex-model), Cassandra's sister who is desperate to marry and escape their poverty, and her 15 year old brother. When the American brothers who own the castle come to visit, they set off a chain of events that includes Cassandra's touching first love; also, she and her brother force their father to start writing again. She is a charming heroine, a would-be writer who narrates the story in a whimsically humorous style. Also try Dodie Smith's other books, notably The New Moon with the Old, about the Carrington family, who have to fend for themselves when their father is taken off to prison. The Carringtons are very odd, very funny, and very likable.
Norman Spinrad. Little Heroes. In a future world, computers have learned to do almost everything human beings used to do--up to and including producing popular music and music videos. The majority of humans live in squalor, unemployed, eating people kibble provided by the government. But a pimply computer genius, rejected by the human race, and an over-the-hill rock queen manage to disrupt and triumph over the system.
Neil Steinberg. When in Doubt, Involve a Cow. A history of college pranks, paying particular attention to the competition between Cal Tech and MIT for really high-tech stupidity.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings. Especially for teens who love language, for there are all kinds of beautiful languages here, spoken by elves and fairies and other strange denizens of a beautiful and dangerous world. The hobbits may be thought of as honorary adolescents, entrusted with the task of saving the world, which they feel desperately afraid they are not up to. But they succeed nonetheless, and are forever touched by their awareness of the temptations and dangers of power.
Trahey, Jane. Thursdays 'Til 9. A woman's version of How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying. The heroine is bright, funny, good at her job. She works for an absolutely awful boss, and schemes to show her up and dislodge her.
Weesner, Theodore. Winning the City. This book also plays into that sense of teenage grievance. The hero, a talented basketball player who has worked at becoming good, and at making the players around him better, through no fault of his own is denied a place on the school team. Together with the difficulty of dealing with an alcoholic father, the blows are hard to bear. He tries to "win the city" anyway, with a different team, against the team he should have been on, but injustices continue to be dealt him.
John Welter. I Want To Buy a Vowel, features an illegal immigrant who comes to a small Texas town (knowing only a few English words he has learned from television), the pimply awkward would-be Satanist minister's son (who can't bring himself to sacrifice chickens, and settles for sacrificing Vienna sausages), and Eva, an 11 year old girl who prays to Ted Williams (because "no one knew what God looked like. God didn't have a face. There weren't any photographs. ..she couldn't pray to someone without a face, so because her father loved baseball and had a baseball card signed by Ted Williams, just because she knew what Ted Williams looked like, and also because she once heard her father say 'Maybe Ted Williams couldn't walk on water, but then, Jesus never hit .406.'"). Eva befriends the immigrant with some difficulty, since she doesn't speak Spanish, and his knowledge of English is pretty much limited to the knowledge that good things happen to people who buy vowels. When he is discovered hiding out in an abandoned house, the town is convinced that he is the mysterious Satanist, who they would like very much to punish if the sheriff didn't keep pointing out that Satanism isn't actually against the law. It's just as well I wasn't reading this book in public, because I was ROTFLSTC (rolling on the floor laughing, scaring the cat). You should also try Welter's earlier book, Night of the Avenging Blowfish: a Novel of Covert Operations, Love and Lunchmeat. No, I'm not even going to try to explain it. If that title doesn't grab you, nothing I could say would.
Wynne-Jones, Diana. Archer's Goon. A wonderfully funny fantasy. A family arrives home to discover an 8 foot tall creature in their kitchen, who has come on behalf of Archer, to get something that belongs to Archer, and will not leave until he gets it. But since nobody knows who Archer is, and what they're supposed to have of his, life gets a little complicated. Fun and fantasy, with a whole lot of magic thrown in.
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