If You Like That, Try This: YA Edition

1. If you like Thirteen Reasons Why, try Every Day.

Both books are all about taking a walk in someone else’s shoes: in Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, the main character achieves this by listening to the confessional recordings of a classmate who has recently committed suicide; in Every Day, by David Levithan, the protagonist does this literally, by inhabiting different people’s bodiesIf you appreciated the way Thirteen Reasons Why made you think about the inner lives of those around you, you’ll enjoy the way Every Day places you inside a new person in every chapter. Every Day is an insightful, funny, and very moving meditation on what it means to be human, regardless of sex, gender, appearance and the other external factors that too often determine how we are perceived. It’s a welcome reminder that we must keep our judgment in check, but also a quirky love story that tests our definition of love and our notions of what it means to be in a relationship.

 

2. If you like King Dork, try The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To.

If you like your YA books humorous, but with an actual compelling story as well, look no further than D.C. Pierson’s The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. Like Frank Portman’s King Dork, this book is about a teenage boy who isn’t very popular in school, even though he is a very amusing narrator. This story, though, is not a mystery; by the end, it’s straight-up science fiction. The plot hinges upon a new friendship between the protagonist, Darren, and a likeminded outcast named Eric. Early on, however, Darren discovers that his new friend is not only a little different…he’s downright strange. As the title suggests, the boy cannot sleep and has never had to. What’s more, he’s being pursued by a mysterious man whose motives seem undeniably sinister. The action is gripping, but what really makes the story memorable is the hilarious narrative voice. The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To is a fast read, and fun, too; it’s a great choice both for those who consume YA books voraciously and those who are more reluctant readers.

3. If you like The Book Thief, try Between Shades of Gray.

By now, almost everyone has read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a novel that rightfully stands on its own as being both an inventive and heartrending portrayal of Germany during World War II. It’s difficult to recommend any follow-up to such a beloved book, but for sheer narrative brilliance and beautiful writing, Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray fits the bill nicely. The novel is set in the same time period, but focuses on a different area of the world. It chronicles a Lithuanian family’s forced relocation to Siberia and their struggle to survive the unforgiving conditions. Though both books are tough reads, emotionally draining and without tidy, happy resolutions, they are ultimately very rewarding. They highlight not only the dark side of human nature but also its strength; though the characters suffer unspeakable cruelty, they never lose their ability to love and care for one another.

4. If you like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 

try Marcelo in the Real World.

Although it is becoming more prevalent in literature, particularly in YA books, autism is a subject that is still largely underrepresented. It is rarely portrayed as accurately and as fully as it is in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, a mystery novel, of sorts, which is narrated by a 15-year-old autistic boy. One book, however, that does an equally impressive job with immersing its readers in an autistic teenager’s world is Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. One of the things that is so great about the narrators in both of these stories is how different they are: they showcase the wide range of personalities, abilities, and interests that exist on the autism spectrum. These are not caricatures or textbook examples but rather compelling human beings who happen to see the world in a way that is so uniquely their own. If you enjoyed the way The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time used autism as a lens through which to tell a story, but not as a gimmick, then you’ll like how Marcelo in the Real World is equally committed to being respectful but also realistic. Both books strive to show that their main characters have legitimate perspectives, in spite of the fact that these perceptions are not what many would consider normal.

5. If  you like What I Saw and How I Lied, try The Girl is Murder.

Mysteries and detective fiction are rare in young adult literature, most likely because they are usually more career-based, and thus do not apply to teenage characters. Hard-boiled noir, in particular, is a genre that gets very little representation: this is one reason why Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied is such a rare treat. The post-WWII setting may not appeal to all modern teenagers, but it is the perfect backdrop for stylish treachery, femmes fatales, and old Hollywood glamour. But what if you’ve already finished this book? What’s left to read? The Girl Is Murder, by Kathryn Miller Haines, may help to fill the void. Set in 1941, it tells the story of 15-year-old Iris Anderson, who takes over for her private detective father when his war injuries prevent him from sleuthing the way he used to. The style in this novel is sharp, with the boys dressed in zoot suits and everyone using the hippest slang of the ’40s. So, if you’re looking to time-travel—and solve a mystery in the process, consider The Girl Is Murder. As Iris would say, it’s a gas!

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Marcelo in the Real World

At the beginning of Marcelo in the Real World, 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval is leading a life that is safe, contained, and uneventful. He is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, though he does not have Asperger’s, so he attends a special school where he is shielded from the outside world. He enjoys working with horses, and plans to spend his summer—and potentially the rest of his life—taking care of the Haflinger ponies at his school’s stables. His father, however, believing that Marcelo is capable of much more, wants his son to work with him at his law firm: that is, in the “real world.”

The book takes place over the course of Marcelo’s summer in the real world, which ends up being a time of awakening, not only to adult responsibilities, but also to the occasional ugliness of adult relationships. In three months, Marcelo learns more about jealousy, competition, and injustice than he has learned in his entire life. He makes friends—like the fair but no-nonsense Jasmine, who helps him both with his tasks in the firm’s mailroom and in his personal development—and enemies—like the conniving Wendell, the son of Marcelo’s father’s partner, who, believing Marcelo to be slow-witted, attempts to use him in his various schemes—and ultimately learns that the person he must be most reliant on is himself. He discovers what it means to fight for what he believes in, even at the risk of alienating the ones he loves. In short, he learns that the “real world,” though complicated, uncertain, and often very ugly, is a place of rich possibilities and great fulfillment.

This book was beautifully written, so much so that it almost seems a shame to classify it as young adult literature. I believe that adults can appreciate it just as much as teenagers (maybe more), but I fear that few will discover it because of its categorization. The inside flap claims that it is “reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and I only wish that it had been marketed the same way as that book. Marcelo in the Real World is touching, challenging, and profound: it is a universal story that feels absolutely genuine, both in its characters and its situations. Marcelo Sandoval is the type of narrative who, through his keen observation, his clear voice, and his unwavering kindness, draws readers in and inspires them. He is memorable, and will linger in one’s psyche even after the book is over.

I think many of the unexpected, but perfect, details are really what help Francisco Stork’s book capture the essence of real life. For one, Marcelo, at the beginning of the novel, hears internal music, which, he later clarifies, is actually “the feelings of music without the sound.” This IM, as he calls it, immediately qualifies him as different. Different, that is, but very, very special. This music is an effective marker of Marcelo’s development: early on, he can conjure it at any moment, but later, when he is entrenched in the politics of the law firm, he finds he can no longer hear the music at all. The neat analog of this is that Marcelo discovers his new friend Jasmine is a budding musician, improvising her own melodies on a keyboard in her tiny apartment. And so, in a way, the music returns.

There are many other such examples of Stork’s keen eye for detail, such as Marcelo’s special interest in religion, which has him quoting religious texts at inappropriate times and engaging in deep, philosophical conversations with his good friend, Rabbi Heschel. Then, of course, there is Marcelo’s Mexican heritage, which is important but nicely understated. Stork does a great job of illustrating the unique struggles of being a Mexican-American in a high-powered corporate law environment without letting it dominate the rest of the story. At the end of the day, Marcelo is just Marcelo, as complex and unpredictable as anyone. He is completely believable as a unique human being, which is what makes his story so powerful and enduring.

It seems all-too-rare that a book, or a movie, convincingly portrays the mental processes of someone who is, to steal a line from the excellent Temple Grandin biopic, “different, not less.” I was impressed by Stork’s ability to create a narrator who is in no way a caricature. His treatment of Marcelo is respectful but also realistic: he understands Marcelo’s strengths and his limitations, and he allows him to make choices that are true to his character. If you like this book, I would also recommend catching the movie Adam, starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, which also deals with a high-functioning autistic man trying to navigate the “real” world. (And, if you missed it, Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes.) Such fictional representations, while perhaps not completely accurate, still do a great service to people who are misunderstood merely because they perceive reality differently. As we find in Marcelo, sometimes a different perception of reality simply means that one can perceive it more clearly.

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