YA Favorite

WHY WE BROKE UP by Daniel Handler

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Ed is likely sitting at home, heartbroken.  Still, he probably won’t even notice when Min drops the box on his doorstep.  Inside the box are all of the things that she saved from their relationship, all of which tell the story of why they broke up.  But in case he doesn’t see the objects the same way she does, Min is writing Ed a very detailed letter explaining each item and its significance.  As a future film director, Min is poetic and visual in her writing, conjuring scenes from their relationship, beginning with Al’s Bitter Sixteen Party that Ed crashed, continuing through the adventures of planning a birthday party for an elderly movie star, faltering at the challenges of balancing a relationship with friendships and individual interests, and finally ending with the pain, the heartache, and the realization that so many things just shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

This book surprised me.  In fact, it blew me away.  I do not generally enjoy reading books about relationships.  But Why We Broke Up is perhaps the most genuine, realistic depiction of first love and the heartache of a broken relationship that I have ever read.  Min is a beautifully human character: cynical yet naive, confident in her individuality yet insecure, “different” and “arty” yet ultimately the same as any other teenage girl in love.  There is explicit sexual content in this book, but the author portrays both the fun and positive intimacy of the physical relationship as well as the awkwardness, vulnerability, embarrasment, and ultimate emotional devastation of a premature physical commitment.

I will reiterate that this book has mature content and is not for all readers.  But older teens (particularly girls) who have dealt with love and a break up, who enjoy reading books about relationships, or who just want a sobering dose of reality after reading romance novels like Twilight may find Min’s story as captivating as I do.

If you liked Why We Broke Up, you may like Eleanor and Park.  You may also like Thirteen Reasons Whywhich has different subject matter but a similarly creative narrative style.

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

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High school has very defined social rules.  Most of them are comical.  People divide into cliques that all have absurd dress codes and behavior expectations.  Everyone is supposed to be incredibly enthusiastic about the school’s crappy sports teams and the mascot that seems to change every other day.  Melinda can see the absurdity of the high school social environment because she is an outsider.  She has no clique.  She has no friends.  The people who used to be her friends will barely even look at her after what happened at the party over the summer.  It had been Melinda who called 911, but not because of the drinking.  She called because of what happened to her outside, that no one knows about except her and the boy she now thinks of as “It.”  Melinda has not told anyone what happened; she doesn’t say much of anything anymore.  Her grades are slipping, attempts at friendship failing, and even the desire to have friends seems to be slipping away.  Only something about art class still seems compelling to her, though she isn’t much of an artist.  As her parents and teachers get increasingly frustrated and concerned, Melinda struggles to navigate the rules of high school and to find a way to express what happened over the summer.

Melinda is a wonderful narrator.  Her observations about the high school world are snarky and 100% accurate.  You may not expect to laugh at a book with as heavy subject matter as this one, but Speak is about more than just rape.  This incredibly well-written and nuanced novel will be accessible to anyone who is or has ever been in high school, and Melinda’s journey toward finding her voice is a powerful one.  The subject matter is heavy (though not graphic) and may be upsetting to some readers, so use your judgment.  But this is one of my favorites–possibly because Melinda and I have a very similar sense of humor and reaction to high school.

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

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The first time Death met Liesel Meminger, the book thief, she was on a train with her mother and her little brother, traveling to a foster home near Munich where the children could escape the shadow of their father’s identity as a Kommunist. It was the little brother’s soul that Death had come to collect.  As he cradled the little boy’s soul in his arms and watched the living grieve, Death did not know that he would meet the book thief two more times during her childhood, nor that he would find her journal in the wreckage of a bomb-torn city and would read it again and again, memorizing her story and always carrying it with him.  He shares Liesel’s story with the readers in his own way–recounting the mischief she concocts with Rudy Steiner, the complicated but ultimately loving relationships in her foster family, the struggle of learning to read, poverty and hunger in the Third Reich, the terrifying business of hiding a Jew and the powerful friendship that results from it, the complex intertwining of patriotism, loyalty, and morality–all over-layed with Death’s observations of the tragedy of war and the enduring hope and beauty of life.

Ultimately, it is the words—of the author, of the characters, of the past—that bring the story to life so vibrantly and unforgettably.  This is a book to be savored.  It is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.  There are no real plot twists; Death tells you the ending at the beginning.  The book is about the journey of the characters and their complex, beautiful relationships.  Zusak does not neglect even the minor characters, making them all irresistibly complicated and human.  I warn you, you will fall in love with characters in this book, and their stories will stay with you–as they did for the narrator, Death.  Your heart will likely break at some of the tragedies they endure.  But it is worth it for the journey you share with them, just as Death demonstrates that even the shortest lives captured in Liesel’s journal have profound and enduring beauty and meaning.  The Book Thief has been my Favorite Book Of All Time since I first read it in 2006, and it will take an extraordinary book to ever supplant it in my affection.  I cannot recommend it highly enough for teens and for adults.

If you liked The Book Thief for its themes and characters, you might like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

If you liked The Book Thief for its subject matter and narrative style, you might like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

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Hazel does not particularly enjoy support group.  It consists of sitting in a church with a bunch of other teenagers with cancer of various kinds at various stages, all in the process of dying–even those in remission.  All humans are in the process of dying, after all.  But it is at support group that she first meets Augustus Waters, an incredibly attractive guy with an unrelenting wit and an affinity for metaphorical cigarettes.  Their friendship forms quickly around conversations about nuances of language, action movies, video games, and in particular a somewhat philosophical novel by a reclusive author.  Peter Van Houten’s novel has had a profound influence on Hazel and her worldview, but there is one problem.  It ends mid-sentence with the main character’s death.  Not a very satisfying conclusion.  As Hazel tries to balance her feelings for Augustus with her reluctance to begin a relationship that must inevitably soon end with her death, Augustus tries to track down Van Houten to find out how the novel ends.

The Fault in Our Stars is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.  Through an exploration of love, family, hope, disappointment, and loss, John Green captures the infinite beauty, tragedy, and potential of finite human life.  Hazel and Augustus are witty, intelligent, imperfect, and so utterly human that I could not help but fall in love with them.  Although it is heart-wrenching, I would not call this book depressing.  In fact, I would describe it as uplifting, a reminder that the transience of human life does not diminish its beauty or its meaningfulness.  Thank you for this book, John Green.  It is truly a masterpiece.

If you liked The Fault in Our Stars, you might like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

PHINEAS GAGE: A GRUESOME BUT TRUE STORY ABOUT BRAIN SCIENCE by John Fleischman

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In 1848, a railroad worker named Phineas Gage was in a horrible explosion that drove a 3.5 foot long, thirteen pound, spear-like iron rod through his skull and brain–and he survived!  He never even lost consciousness. For eleven years after his accident, Phineas Gage was a marvel of human physiology and taught doctors an enormous amount about the brain.  John Fleischman’s book tells the story of Phineas Gage’s accident in all of its gory detail and then traces the scientific explanations of his survival and the personality changes that happened after his accident, as well as how his case influenced the history of neuroscience.  This book will be most interesting to middle and high-schoolers, especially those interested in science, but also has a strong “strange-but-true” and grossness factor.  Even upper elementary-schoolers who enjoy the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books will enjoy the first chapter of this book (the story of the accident) and all of the cool photos and illustrations.  This book is fascinating!  I highly recommend it!

If you liked Phineas Gage, you might like Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland or Extreme Scientists. 

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

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The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

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Junior was born with “water on the brain,” an excess of spinal fluid which caused brain damage and physical problems, including having an abnormally large head, occasional seizures, and very poor eyesight.  Despite these disadvantages and the poor treatment he receives from many of the other kids on the Reservation, however, Junior has a witty sense of humor and great talent at expressing himself through his cartoon drawings.  He is also very intelligent and frustrated by the inferior education he receives in the poverty of the Rez.  When he has the opportunity to attend a school off the reservation, Junior suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar environment where everyone else is white.  As he struggles to fit in with his new classmates and make peace with the traditions, pressures, and familial dysfunction he faces on the Reservation, Junior comes to a better understanding of his own identity and the new potential he sees in his future. 
 
Alexie’s novel is a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy.  Based on his own experiences growing up on an Indian Reservation, he paints an harsh and unapologetic portrait of teenage life amid poverty, alcoholism, and racism.  But it is the narrator’s endearing and sarcastic sense of humor that makes the novel irresistible.  I highly recommend this book to teens and to adults!
 
There is an audio book read by the author; the story is enhanced by Alexie’s great performance, but also somewhat lacking, since the cartoons illustrations which appear throughout the novel cannot be experienced in the audio format.