Five YA Favourites

Young Adult writer and avid reader Margot McGovern names the top five books she wishes she’d read as a teenager and still loves as an adult.

I feel old admitting this, but the books on this list weren’t published back when I was at school. Even if they had been, I wouldn’t have read them. In early high school I was far too preoccupied with trying to curry favour with the popular girls to be caught dead doing anything so deeply uncool as reading. When my efforts to turn Plastic proved a spectacular failure I went all out in the opposite direction and ponced about with copies of Nineteen Eighty-FourA Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the collected works of Bertolt Brecht tucked conspicuously beneath my arm. I declared myself first an expressionist and later a modernist, and spent long evenings memorising T. S. Eliot’s poetry (you’re as shocked as I am that the cool kid thing didn’t work out, right?). I had no interest in anything written after 1965 and even if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have bothered with anything so juvenile as teen fiction. My poor teachers, I’m so sorry.

Fortunately after arriving at university and finding that no one could care less that I knew ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by heart, I relaxed a little and allowed myself to enjoy a much broader range of fiction and belatedly fell in love with Young Adult literature.

It’s not nostalgia that draws me to these stories, or a symptom of Peter Pan syndrome. I love YA because it reminds me that life is wonderful, confusing and awful all at once and that mistakes are inevitable and change is always possible. It’s a genre filled with big emotions and ideas, and peopled with characters who are full of energy—awed and overwhelmed by the new freedoms and responsibilities held out to them. The best YA writers speak with bold, original voices  in language that is precise, distilled and engaging. Coming-of-age is not a one time experience, but a cycle we repeat in endless variations throughout our lives. As such, for me, it seems impossible that we can ever outgrow or fail to connect with these stories.

So here are five of my favourite YA novels that I fell in love with as an adult and will time machine back to my teenage self as soon as the technology becomes available. I am always, ALWAYS on the hunt for new YA reads. If you have suggestions, post ’em in the comments below.

Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)

Book Award covers.

A lonely misfit with a love of famous last words, Miles ‘Pudge’ Halter transfers to Culver Creek boarding school in search of new friends and ‘the Great Perhaps’. There he becomes one of the infamous Barn Night Crew, a band of outcasts like himself with a taste for pranks and mischief. Leader among this rag-tag group is the enigmatic Alaska Young. To Pudge’s mind Alaska is ‘the hottest girl in all of human history’, a girl with a mysterious past and a Life’s Library, a girl who teaches him about ‘crawfish and kissing and pink wine and poetry’. But while Pudge believes he loves Alaska, he doesn’t really know her and it never occurs to him that she is not the person she seems.

Looking for Alaska is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about friendship, grief, forgiveness and (to steal a phrase from Green’s later novel, Paper Towns (2008)) learning to ‘imagine others more complexly’. Of all the YA I’ve read, the final two pages of this book are my absolute favourite.

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Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor and ParkIt’s a big call, but this may just be the greatest story of first love ever. That’s right, Shakespeare, time to shuffle over. The story is shared between the two title characters, frizzy-haired, full-figured Eleanor who just wants to go unnoticed until she can escape her stepfather, and Irish-Korean Park, who is better off than most of his school friends and wants to help Eleanor in any way he can. They meet on the school bus, sharing a seat, then comic books and mix tapes. They explore their love slowly, stealing time together when they can. But Eleanor and Park are star crossed lovers from different worlds, and while Park offers Eleanor a refuge from an abusive home life, he can’t make her problems go away, and she can’t love him until she finds a way to save and love herself.

Eleanor and Park is a refreshingly ‘real’ story of teenage love, and, as well as being an excellent read, it’ll get you all goosebumpy remembering how it felt the first time you fell.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)

Code Name VeritySet during World War Two, Code Name Verity is narrated by Scottish Spy, ‘Verity’ and English pilot Maddie. After a botched landing over occupied France, Verity is captured by the Nazis, while Maddie is rescued and hidden by resistance fighters, with neither girl knowing what has happened to the other. The first half of the story is Verity’s written ‘confession’ to her captors and the second half is a collection of Maddie’s diary entries from her time in hiding.

Wein is a meticulous researcher with a keen eye for detail and a robust imagination, and Code Name Verity is a brilliant work of historical fiction that sheds light on a largely unseen side of the war. However, it’s the characters who really make the story. Verity and Maddie are smart, brave (and at times hilarious) narrators who share an unlikely friendship.

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2009)

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksAfter getting herself some womanly curves over the summer, fifteen-year-old Frankie is thrilled to become the girlfriend of the oh-so-dreamy Matthew Livingston, but when Matt starts spending all his time with his friends and fellow members of their school’s all-male secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, Frankie feels rejected and sets out to best the boys club.

E. Lockhart has a talent for endearing characters and clever plotting and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a smart and funny coming-of-age caper with a feminist theme.

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How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)

How I live NowIn the near future fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent to live with her cousins in England after war makes it unsafe for her to remain in New York. She soon finds herself falling in love with her cousin Edmond and the bucolic lifestyle he and his siblings lead. But the war advances across Europe, scattering the family and changing their lives forever.

Original, complex and daring, How I Live Now was awarded the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Printz Award for young-adult literature.

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