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.
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.