So, the moment I read that I felt “infinite”, you know?
And with that, came a wave of fresh love for the young adult books I read when I was only beginning to write YA myself, years before I ever got a deal to publish I Know It’s Over (2006, and the book’s release date was in fall 2008).
Back in 2009 I blogged about how the TV show Party of Five inspired me to start writing YA, and that’s true, but the books that showed me what kind of young adult fiction I wanted to write were mostly realistic contemporary YAs that I devoured between 1999 and 2004. These types of books are still being released but in fewer numbers and often with less publishing support, as high concept fiction generally seems to rule the market. It’s a damn shame because the titles I’m about to name are the books my heart believes in most deeply. They’re novels that are emotionally complex and that fearlessly tell the truth about being a young person without glossing over problems or winding themselves around a splashy plotline and/or a series of high octane events.
If you haven’t read these books yet, and you love and admire realistic contemporary young adult fiction as much as I do, you might want to add them to your reading list. I have been remiss not to thank these amazing authors and their wonderful works earlier.
Here, complete with back cover blurb material, are some of the books that made me fall in love with contemporary YA and helped shape my own writing.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
Charlie is a freshman.
And while he's not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it.
Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But he can't stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.
Life is Funny by E .R. Frank (2000)
From the outside, they're simply a group of urban teenagers. But from the inside, they're some of the most complex people you'll ever meet. There's Eric, fiercely protective of his brother Mickey-but he has a secret that holds together his past and future. Sonia, struggling to live the life of a good Muslim girl in a foreign America. Gingerbread and Keisha, who fall in love despite themselves. Life Is Funny strips away the defenses of one group of teenagers living today, right now-and shows their unbearably real lives.
Damage by A. M. Jenkins (2001)
As the Pride of the Panthers, football star Austin Reid is a likable guy, good with the ladies. Lately though, he doesn't like his life -- or anything else -- so much. And the worst part is that he can't seem to figure out why.
Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn (2001)
Like father, like son.
Intelligent, popular, handsome, and wealthy, sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas is pretty much perfect on the outside, at least. What no one knows not even his best friend is the terror that Nick faces every time he is alone with his father. Then he and Caitlin fall in love, and Nick thinks his problems are over. Caitlin is the one person who he can confide in. But when things start to spiral out of control, Nick must face the fact that he's gotten more from his father than green eyes and money.
Borrowed Light by Anna Fienberg (1999)
Sixteen-year-old Callisto May feels a deep connection to astronomy. She can name all the moons of Jupiter and even tell you the dimensions of the Great Red Spot. But she feels completely alone on planet Earth. And now that she’s pregnant, her loneliness is acute. She can’t turn to her mother, who’s always been too consumed with unspoken grief to care for her children; she can’t turn to her father, who buries himself in work and pretends that life at home is normal; and her surfer boyfriend wants freedom to catch the perfect wave more than he wants to hang around Callisto. Only Callisto’s little brother loves her unfailingly, but she can’t be there for him right now. She’s got to make a huge decision—and, for a change, that means thinking of herself first. Somehow, though, as her world orbits out of control, Callisto finds the courage to fight through the secrecy and silence that are suffocating her family, along with the strength to decide what’s best for her future
The Parallel Universe of Liars by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson (2002)
Robin’s neighbor Frankie is like walking sex. He’s 23, hot, charming, and used to getting what he wants. When Janice, Robin’s stepmom, first meets Frankie, they lock eyes with an almost audible sizzle. Not long after, Robin discovers they’re having an affair. She is shocked, angry, curious, even jealous—but not really surprised. It’s just one more hurtful secret to be kept in this parallel universe of liars.
Surrounded by superficiality, infidelity, and lies, Robin, 15 and a self-described “chunk,” has a secret of her own—she can’t stay away from Frankie, either. But when a new guy ambles into her life, Robin must find a way to escape her own tangle of deception to capture something real.
Target by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson (2001)
Why had the men chosen him? Savagely violated by two strangers, sixteen-year-old Grady West retreats into silence. Some hells just can't be shared. Searing and powerful, Target shows that people can go through unspeakable things and emerge whole-- and sometimes your friends can save you.
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (1998)
Jeremiah feels good inside his own skin. That is, when he's in his own Brooklyn neighborhood. But now he's going to be attending a fancy prep school in Manhattan, and black teenage boys don't exactly fit in there. So it's a surprise when he meets Ellie the first week of school. In one frozen moment their eyes lock and after that they know they fit together -- even though she's Jewish and he's black. Their worlds are so different, but to them that's not what matters. Too bad the rest of the world has to get in their way.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers (1999)
This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve's own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.
Fade In: Interior: Early Morning In Cell Block D, Manhattan Detention Center.
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I'll call it what the lady prosecutor called me ... Monster.
Slam! by Walter Dean Myers (1996)
Seventeen-year-old Greg "Slam" Harris can do it all on the basketball court. He's seen ballplayers come and go, and he knows he could be one of the lucky ones. Maybe he'll make it to the top. Or maybe he'll stumble along the way. Slam's grades aren't that hot. And when his teachers jam his troubles in his face, he blows up.
Slam never doubted himself on the court until he found himself going one-on-one with his own future, and he didn't have the ball.
Bringing up the Bones by Lara Zeises (2002)
Bridget Edelstein is taking a year off before she goes to college, to try to recover from the the recent death of Benji, her longtime best friend-turned-reluctant boyfriend. Rather than accept support from her friends or family, Bridget turns to Jasper, a wonderful guy willing to nurse her broken soul–when she lets him. As she comes to terms with life without Benji, and the truth about their relationship, Bridget learns that being able to love deeply and truly is essential, even if the one you love doesn’t feel the same. More importantly, she discovers that happiness pinned to another person is only an illusion–now it’s time to find happiness on her own.
Make Lemonade (Book #1) by Virginia Euwer Wolff (1993)
An award-winning novel about growing up and making choices.
Virginia Euwer Wolff's groundbreaking novel, written in free verse, tells the story of fourteen-year-old LaVaughn, who is determined to go to college--she just needs the money to get there.
When she answers a babysitting ad, LaVaughn meets Jolly, a seventeen-year-old single mother with two kids by different fathers. As she helps Jolly make lemonade out of the lemons her life has given her, LaVaughn learns some lessons outside the classroom.
True Believer (Make Lemonade #2) by Virginia Euwer Wolff (2001)
LaVaughn is fifteen now, and she's still fiercely determined to go to college. But that's the only thing she's sure about. Loyalty to her father bubbles up as her mother grows closer to a new man. The two girls she used to do everything with have chosen a path LaVaughn wants no part of. And then there's Jody. LaVaughn can't believe how gorgeous he is...or how confusing. He acts like he's in love with her, but is he?
After January by Nick Earls (1996)
Alex Delaney is waiting for the beginning of the rest of his life. Marking time till his tertiary offer, he's not expecting much, just the usual holiday in Caloundra. So he's not prepared for the girl with the nose-ring who cuts past him on a wave and draws him into a new way of looking at himself and the world.
48 Shades of Brown by Nick Earls (1999)
Australian teenager Dan Bancroft had a choice to make: go to Geneva with his parents for a year, or move into a house with his bass-playing aunt Jacq and her friend Naomi. He chose Jacq’s place, and his life will never be the same. This action-packed and laugh-out-loud-funny novel navigates Dan’s chaotic world of calculus, roommates, birds, and love.
Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (2000)
Ever since she started going out with Rogerson Biscoe, Caitlin seems to have fallen into a semiconscious dreamland where nothing is quite real. Rogerson is different from anyone Caitlin has ever known. He's magnetic. He's compelling. He's dangerous. Being with him makes Caitlin forget about everything else--her missing sister, her withdrawn mother, her lackluster life. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?
Someone like You by Sarah Dessen (1998)
Halley has always followed in the wake of her best friend, Scarlett. But when Scarlett learns that her boyfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident, and that she's carrying his baby, she was devastated. For the first time ever, Scarlett really needs Halley. Their friendship may bend under the weight, but it'll never break--because a true friendship is a promise you keep forever.
Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia (2002)
Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchex (2001)
Jason Carrillo is a jock with a steady girlfriend, but he can't stop dreaming about sex...with other guys.
Kyle Meeks doesn't look gay, but he is. And he hopes he never has to tell anyone -- especially his parents.
Nelson Glassman is "out" to the entire world, but he can't tell the boy he loves that he wants to be more than just friends.
Three teenage boys, coming of age and out of the closet. In a revealing debut novel that percolates with passion and wit, Alex Sanchez follows these very different high-school seniors as their struggles with sexuality and intolerance draw them into a triangle of love, betrayal, and ultimately, friendship.