This year I read many excellent adolescent and young adult books. Many of these books have a common theme: they take readers on a journey alongside someone very different from themselves—a good theme for students to engage in.
I organized these books in order of how much I enjoyed reading them (from the ones I felt were unbelievably amazing in every way down to the ones I thought were fantastic and glorious), but the bottom line is that they are all wonderful. You really should take this article to your favorite independent bookstore right now, get everything on the list (even if it means you won’t be eating out or going to the movies for a while), then come home, sit down, and enjoy them all.
- Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Echo. Scholastic, 2015.
What exactly are you waiting for? We both know that several people you really respect have recommended this book to you. Listen to them. Go get it.
Still here? Okay, you need some convincing. Pam Muñoz Ryan, author of the wonderful novel Esperanza Rising has crafted a delightful tale—or four tales actually. Otto gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon three magical women who give him an enchanted harmonica, which plays a part in the three stories that follow.
Friedrich is a teenager with a facial birthmark who lives in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. When his father is arrested and sent to a concentration camp for playing in a string quartet with a Jewish friend, Friedrich and his uncle devise a courageous plan to save him.
Mike and his little brother, Frankie, are orphans during the depression in the United States. Although they desperately wish to escape the orphanage and get adopted, they also want to stay together. One day the lawyer of a wealthy heiress arrives at the orphanage and asks if any of the children can play music. Mike’s piano skills lead to an offer of adoption and Mike convinces the heiress’s lawyer to adopt Frankie too. But when they arrive in the opulent house, they are met by a cold woman who has no use for children. Mike devises a way to guarantee a home for Frankie, but it will mean splitting up.
When Ivy’s dad gets an offer to manage the irrigation for a family farm in California, it seems like a dream come true. The job even comes with a house for them to use. Ivy befriends the neighbor girl, but Ivy then discovers that her friend’s father suspects that the owners of this family farm may be Japanese spies looking to sabotage the war effort. If that proves true, the neighbor will buy the land and Ivy’s family will be put out of their house.
All three stories seem to end without resolution until, in the final chapter, all four stories come together in a very satisfying ending. This book is ideal for reading out loud to grades four and up and has enough thematic depth that it would be excellent for middle school English or history.
- Shusterman, Neal. Scythe. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Some books have characters that are so good and stories that are so gripping that when you read past the halfway point, you start to panic because you know the book will end, and you will have to leave the world of the book. Neal Shusterman’s Scythe is one of those books. Shusterman also wrote The Schwa Was Here and Challenger Deep, so we know we are in good hands.
The story is set in the future. Nanotechnology has eliminated sickness and injury, allowing the body to recover from almost anything. Consequently, the average human life spans centuries. A computer system called the Thunderhead has taken over simple matters of law, transportation, and food distribution, rendering governments unnecessary. To control world population growth, society has created the Scythes. Each scythe is responsible for reducing the population by culling a quota of random people each month.
Rowan and Citra are high-school-age students chosen for training as scythes. Though both enter the training with reluctance, their mentor, Scythe Faraday, is a kind and good teacher. When Faraday apparently commits suicide, Citra is turned over to wise and compassionate Scythe Curie, and Rowan is apprenticed to headstrong and pathologically violent Scythe Goddard. The two are then told they will need to fight to the death to determine who gets the positon.
This may sound like a Hunger Games rip-off, but coming from Shusterman’s hands, it is a much more well-written and compelling book than the Katniss saga, and it tackles more interesting moral dilemmas as well.
- Agosin, Marjorie. I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Atheneum, 2014.
When Chile is taken over by a dictator and her family threatened, Celeste flees her parents’ beloved house on Butterfly Hill and travels to the United States to live with her Tía Graciela in Juliette Cove, Maine. It is a different world with a different kind of beauty (though Celeste initially mistakes the cold and gray solitude for sterility). Though she misses her friends in Chile, Celeste meets new friends. When she learns that she can return to Chile, she is overjoyed. But, she soon finds out that it is not the same place she left, and besides, her parents have never returned from hiding. Celeste and her friend Cristóbal set out to find them, bring them home, and restore the world she once knew.
This book does an amazing job of immersing the reader in both of Celeste’s communities and allows the reader to see both the shortcomings of each community and what makes them strong. Plus, there’s a hidden room of forbidden books, a blind sailor, and many splendid reunions.
- Moon, Elizabeth. The Speed of Dark. Ballantine Books, 2004.
It is the near future. Lou Arrendale is autistic but thanks to new therapies, he holds down a well-paying job working for a pharmaceutical company. Lou and the coworkers on his unit are very productive, and they sing the advantages autism gives them to analyze data patterns effectively. The company gets a tax break for employing them and accommodates Lou and his coworkers with facilities for isolation and controlled movement, music, and the freedom to make changes in their offices, which is typically beyond normal company policy (for Lou that means fans and pinwheels—the spinning soothes him when he gets agitated).
But changes are coming. Newly hired senior manager, Gene Crenshaw, thinks the accommodations are a waste of money and wants to get rid of them. The company has also been working on a therapy program that uses nanotechnology to rewire the brains of autistic people so they are not autistic anymore. Through subtle suggestions, Mr. Crenshaw makes it clear that Lou and his fellow workers should agree to be test subjects for the new therapy program. He implies that if they do not, they might lose their jobs. The workers meet and are divided about what they should do.
There is more to Lou than we see at first. One night a week, Lou attends a fencing club, held at the home of two married university professors, Tom and Lucia. He has friends there too, including Marjory, who he likes talking to, and she seems to like talking to him too. When someone slashes Lou’s tires and later smashes the window of his car while he is at fencing practice, Lou needs to figure out who is after him before he gets hurt.
This is an interesting enough plot, but what makes the book spectacular is that the story is told through Lou’s point of view. This means that, through his eyes, we see patterns in things that most people would miss. It also means that we have trouble understanding the nuances of what people are saying to him. Lou’s voice is as captivating as his character.
Yeah, but how is this a YA book? you might be asking. Well, I am not sure it is, actually. Lou is not a teenager, nor is anyone else in the book. The themes the book wrestles with apply to pretty much anyone, regardless of age. But it is a book high school students would enjoy and a book high school students should be reading. The language is not particularly vulgar. Though it does contain some violence, including a brief hostage scene, the book manages to be gripping, thoughtful, and hopeful all at the same time.
- Sanderson, Brandon The Rithmatist. Tor Teen, 2013.
Instead of being set in the United States we know, a group of islands hosts the trained Rithmatists who fight the wild chalklings. The chalklings are ravenously destructive creatures confined to the isle of Nebrask. Rithmatists keep the chalklings at bay using a kind of geometry-based magic (yes, you read that right). Joel is a remarkably smart boy who performs poorly at Armedius Academy and is really interested in the Rithmatists, even though he can never be one. When he gets a position working as the assistant to a kindly Rithmatist professor for the summer, Joel meets Melody, herself a failing Rithmatist, and soon all three of them become involved in a murder mystery with serious implications for the continued survival of human beings.
This book keeps you guessing about who the bad guy is (and the ending is satisfying in that you might be able to guess part of it, but by and large, you won’t see it coming). And it turns out that geometry is actually pretty exciting when it is a matter of life and death. There is also a hint that something romantic might develop between Joel and Melody—just enough to be intriguing but not to distract from the story.
I know some smart fourth and fifth grade readers who would enjoy this, but it is ideal for sixth grade readers and older—and for math teachers looking to build up their classroom library. Run to your local independent bookstore and buy it today. Your students will love it (but you will love it even more). In fact, you might consider using it as a read aloud. There is nothing particularly offensive in the book, though it is scary in some portions and occasionally the violence can be graphic. Nothing compared to prime-time television though. Read it and have your students read it.
- Hatke, Ben. Mighty Jack. First Second, 2016.
Summer is beginning, but since his mother has to work and his dad isn’t on the scene, Jack’s job is to watch over his autistic sister, Maddy. At a farmers’ market, a sketchy guy sells Jack some magic beans in exchange for the keys to his mother’s car (the con artist will look awfully familiar to readers of Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series). Police recover the car eventually, but Jack’s mom is angry. Eventually Jack and his sister plant the seeds in the backyard and this crazy alien garden grows. Soon both of them (and Lilly, a neighbor girl who likes sword fighting) are battling plants with tentacles, exploding fruits, and a creature that is far harder to get rid of.
The book is incomplete. So what? It leaves you waiting for the sequel. That isn’t a bad thing. It gives students something to look forward to. You certainly know middle school kids who need to read this. Actually, you know fifth graders who need to read this. Maybe some high school students too. In fact, I think you need to read this book.
- Bell, Cece. El Deafo. Harry N. Abrams, 2014.
After contracting spinal meningitis, Cece discovers that she is deaf, and what happens next is amazing. The best books in the world let you enter the mind, body, emotions, and life of another person. Bell’s drawings and writing take you inside Cece’s life. You see her triumphs and losses as she struggles to fit in while wearing a clunky hearing aid around her neck. Bell draws all her characters as rabbits. While I have no idea why she chooses to do this, I can tell you that it works.
This is a story of a little kid trying to fit in and having a hard time of it. So yes, it is valuable as a way to live inside the shoes of a deaf person for a while, but it might be even more important as a story about how schoolmates can be jerks, but also how things eventually get better.
Fourth graders and older students would enjoy this graphic novel. At one point in the story, Cece discovers that she can listen in when her teacher leaves the room but forgets to take off the mic that hangs around her neck, and as a result, Cece becomes invaluable to the class as a lookout when they are engaging in mischief of one sort or another. I suppose some parents might object to the rule breaking, but it makes a point about the difficulty of fitting in socially with a difference when you are in late elementary school. Buy this one too.
- Acampora, Paul. I Kill the Mockingbird. Roaring Brook, 2014.
Lucy, Elena, and Michael had this amazing teacher who they called Fat Bob. Fat Bob died at the end of the previous school year, and they have been trying to figure out how to do right by him. When they read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, they decide that everybody should read it. Further, they believe the best way to make people want to read it is to make it scarce and hard to find. So they visit bookstores throughout their area and take all the copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and hide them elsewhere in the store. Their scheme picks up momentum as other people start to do the same thing, and soon it is out of control. But solving that problem is only part of the book.
Lucy also has to figure out how to convince her mother to eat better so she will recover from her chemotherapy, and she has to figure out what to do about her friend Elena who thinks that Lucy likes their other friend Michael as more than a friend. Along the way the story includes a scary Santa with an axe, major home runs, Uncle Mort’s bookstore, graveyard talks, and a movement that sweeps the country. Fat Bob would be proud. It is a fine book.
There is some mischief in the book, but nothing that would get it challenged. This one would be best for fifth grade and up—but would work really well for middle school. It might make a good read aloud too.
- Anderson, M. T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Candlewick, 2015.
In Symphony for the City of the Dead, M. T. Anderson (author of Feed, the Octavian Nothing series, and the hilarious Jasper Dash books) takes us to the depths of despair and starvation and to the unlikely possibility that a nervous and starving Russian composer in the besieged city of Leningrad could, through the music of a symphony, give Russians enough hope to turn the tide of the war. Anderson has never underestimated the ability or maturity of an adolescent or young adult reader, and make no mistake, this nonfiction regular-text book (that is to say, it is not a graphic novel) is a challenging one.
From the opening story of Allied spies smuggling Shostakovich’s symphony out of Russia past the Germans to the flashback story of Shostakovich and his struggles to survive as a musician in the schizophrenic world of Russian fine arts under the paranoid and monomaniacal Lenin—this book is gripping. In these pages, you will find the tragic story of Lenin, who trusted no one, except Adolph Hitler, who had promised not to invade Russia. Even as the Germans struck deep into Russian territory, killing Russian soldiers and destroying Russian planes and airfields as they went, Lenin forbade Russian soldiers to return fire. Here you will find the story of the desperate conditions within the besieged city of Leningrad and how people ate furniture glue, shoe leather, and eventually some turned to cannibalism to survive. Here you will also find the hope of a symphony which kindled Russian hope and encouraged the Americans to come to their aid.
This book might work as a supplemental text in a high school classroom, but I think it would be far more successful as a go-to book for that student reader in your class who is obsessed with history or music and wants to read a powerful story without any sugarcoating.
Though there is some talk of cannibalism, it is certainly not celebrated. Though there is despair, there is also hope. While not well suited to younger students, this book is ideal for high school students and would fit well in history, music, and English classes. The writing is superb. The story is gripping.
- Anderson, M. T., and Andrea Offermann. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. Candlewick, 2017.
Yes, another book by M. T. Anderson. When I see a book with his name on it, I buy it without hesitation. I know Anderson as a remarkably gifted and versatile writer.
But I never could have guessed that he would write this graphic novel. In Yvain Anderson takes a nearly eight-hundred-year-old poem by Chrétien de Troyes and, working with artist Andrea Offermann, turns it into a remarkable adventure that will grab the imagination of a new generation of readers. The story concerns Yvain, one of the knights in King Arthur’s court, who rides out to avenge his cousin’s honor, enters a strange land, and accidentally kills the king of that land. When he falls in love with the grieving queen, he sets out to prove his honor and win her hand. What follows has all the magic, heroic battles, intrigue, and excitement that I remember from reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
Offermann does a nice job with a style that reminds the reader of tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, while also showcasing Yvain’s strength and skill in battle—and his insecurity and confusion when he realizes he has done wrong.
There is a bit of violence here, but nothing excessively gory. My guess is that this book is best for fourth grade and up. Although there are some heroic female characters, the book may appeal slightly more to males than females. Nothing here would cause any reasonable person to challenge the book.
Did I mention that Yvain rescues a lion from a dragon and the lion becomes his companion? What could be cooler than a knight in armor going into battle with a lion at his side?
Acampora, Paul. I Kill the Mockingbird. Roaring Brook, 2014.
Agosin, Marjorie. I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Atheneum, 2014.
Anderson, M. T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Candlewick, 2015.
Anderson, M. T., and Andrea Offermann. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. Candlewick, 2017.
Bell, Cece. El Deafo. Harry N. Abrams, 2014.
Hatke, Ben. Mighty Jack. First Second, 2016.
Moon, Elizabeth. The Speed of Dark. Ballantine Books, 2004.
Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Echo. Scholastic, 2016.
Sanderson, Brandon. The Rithmatist. Tor Teen, 2013.
Shusterman, Neal. Scythe. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Bill Boerman-Cornell is professor of Education and English at Trinity Christian College. He blogs about books for K–12 students at http://bookcommercial .blogspot.com/. He likes to read.