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Archive for July, 2010

My Top 10 Favorite YA Books (So Far…)

I’ll admit it. I was one of those people who was judgmental about the YA genre at first, even though I later realized it’s what I wanted to write all along.  All I knew were the silly stories for tween girls that were around when I grew up, the ones whose plot lines consisted of the following: crushes on boys, insecurities about pimples, dates with boys, insecurities about weight, hearts getting broken by boys, insecurities about hair, and, um…babysitting? I didn’t read these books.  I tried a couple of times, but I just couldn’t do it.  The only books about young people that really meant anything to me were Go Ask Alice and Girl, Interrupted.  Stories of a runaway drug addict and a girl in a mental institution—fun stuff, right?  I guess you can say my taste for gritty, realistic teen fiction was decided early on, before the genre really existed.

When I was sending Beautiful around trying to land an agent, I was shocked when one finally informed me I write YA. How dare he lump me in the category of those silly books I grew up with? Sure, my characters were teenagers, but they weren’t exactly babysitting and cheerleading and crushing on the quarterback.  And, like, I wanted to write literature.

I have to admit my ego was slightly crushed. My definition of “writer” was based on fancy conversations in my MFA classes where people used words like “meta” and “juxtapostition” all the time and wrote experimental poetry I could barely pretend to understand.  I didn’t even know what “Young Adult Author” meant.  So I decided to do some research.

I scoured the internet for information about YA, bought the books I saw mentioned over and over again.  And then—well, all I can say is WOW. I was floored.  It was like someone had just opened the door into an entirely new world, a world I had been longing for, a world that immediately felt like home. I had been walking around with these tortured teen characters in my head for years, and I had no idea there were more like them.  These were the books I desperately needed when I was a teen. These were the books I wanted to write since I was thirteen years old.

The following ten books (in no particular order) speak to me in a way few adult books have. I am proud to be in company of these brave, brilliant authors. And hell yes, these books are literature. But most importantly, they tell the truth.

Speak—by Laurie Halse Anderson: I think this might have been the first YA I picked up. And thank God! So began my devotion for Ms. Anderson. An achingly honest portrayal of what a girl must do to emotionally protect herself, and begin to heal, from the memory of sexual trauma.

Wintergirls—by Laurie Halse Anderson: Haunting is the best word to describe this book.  It’s about a girl’s struggle with anorexia, but it’s so much more. I’ve said before elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: If anyone doubts the literary merit of YA, they must read this book. Some of the more beautiful prose I’ve ever read.

Luna—by Julie Anne Peters: The story of a girl whose brother is transgendered.  At its essence, I think this story is about how incredibly brave people can be in their journey to find and love themselves.  And thank God such an amazing book exists for kids going through similar things.

Punkzilla—by Adam Rapp: According to Goodreads: “a searing novel-in-letters about a street kid on a highstakes trek across America.”  One of the most memorable voices I’ve ever read.

Looking for Alaska—by John Green: You’ve read this, right? Don’t tell me you haven’t read this. That’s just completely unacceptable. All I’m going to say is I have never cried so hard on public transportation as when I was reading this book. Just thinking about it is making me teary. This man can sure tell a story. Someone should combine John Green’s DNA with Laurie Halse Anderson’s and make a The World’s Greatest YA Author EVER. Anyone out there know anything about genetics?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower—by Stephen Chbosky:  I hate trying to summarize books because a description of the plot could never encompass the feelings I had while reading it. I guess I’d say this one’s about a sensitive outcast’s journey toward finding himself. I just loved this kid. Plus, this book was banned all over the place, so that gives it major cool points, right?

Girl–by Blake Nelson: I kind of hate this description from Goodreads, but it’s pretty accurate: “A Catcher in the Rye for the “Grunge” generation, this instant classic will speak to anyone who has ever had to choose between the suffocation of conformity and the perils of rebellion.” And if it took place in Seattle rather than Portland, it could kinda be my teen years. Ah, vintage dresses with fishnets and big boots, how I miss you.

King Dork—by Frank Portman: Quite possibly the funniest book I have ever read. In contrast to Looking for Alaska, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed this hard on public transportation. The main character is one of the weirdest, most loveable characters I’ve ever read.

Cracked Up to Be—by Courtney Summers:  I guess you could say it’s about a “perfect” girl’s fall from the top and the horrible secret that causes it, but the most amazing thing about this book is how realistic the characters are, how complicated, and how brave Courtney is for making the MC so incredibly unlikeable at times. The way she crafts the story so that the reader learns to like the MC as she learns to like and accept herself—just genius.

Hunger Games—by Suzanne Collins:  Which one of these books is not like the others? Not really though. Dystopian adventure and gritty realism aren’t really that different when you think about it.  The edgy fiction I love explores the psychology of troubled characters, while good dystopian fiction explores the psychology of troubled societies.  Plus this series is also just plain entertaining adventure. Who says an emo girl doesn’t just want to be entertained sometimes?

So I guess my taste is pretty obvious. You won’t find many happy families or well-adjusted characters in these books (and don’t even get me started on vampires and werewolves). I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful YA there is to read. So I’m curious—judging from this list and the kind of stuff I like, what books do you think I need to read next?

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Guess what? I’m 1/4 Filipina.  Bet you didn’t know that. Bet you assume most YA authors are white. Don’t feel bad–you’re probably right.  People don’t talk about it much, but YA is pretty darn white. I don’t have any real statistics for you, but I bet if you did a survey of a random sampling of YA novels, the vast majority (like in the 90th percentile) would have white main characters and white authors. And even though I’m technically not 100% white, yes, I’m guilty–I write white characters too.

It just happens to be the world I know. Even though I’ve looked in the mirror my whole life and seen someone who didn’t quite look like everyone around me, I’ve always pretty much identified as white. Until 7th grade, I grew up on an island that was almost completely white, with only a handful of Asian families and one, count ‘em ONE, black family.  My grandfather married a white woman and raised his daughters to reject their ethnic heritage. He even instructed them to marry white men. He managed a grape farm in Delano California, right in the middle of the birth of the farm workers movement, but he was on the wrong side. While the Filipino and Mexican farmers organized around him, as they protested and marched and demanded their rights, my grandfather was firing men who looked like him for trying to take a sick day. He was hiring security guards to protect him from Cesar Chavez. He was punishing his daughters for speaking Tagalog. He was hating himself for being brown.

And a couple generations later came me, a mutt with a no knowledge of my ethnic heritage, with a mother who didn’t look like any of my friends’ mothers. As I grew up, I wanted to learn more, but my mom’s memories were suspect. She remembered pig roasts, volleyball games, the men she called “tio”.  But transcripts from a case the United Farm Workers brought against my grandfather’s farm tell a different story.  They tell the story of a man who always sided with the white farm owners. They tell the story of a man who treated the men who worked for him like animals.

This is the only story I know–the idyllic memories of a devoted daughter mixed with a history of social justice that does not paint a nice picture.  This is my schizophrenic heritage.  This is all I have. That, and I tan nicely.

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