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!

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To

If you’ve ever seen D.C. Pierson’s work with DERRICK comedy, like the 2009 full-length feature Mystery Team, then you should have a basic idea of what you’re getting into with The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. Both sophomoric and inspired, keenly observed and absurdly over the top, this book—marketed to adults, but essentially YA—is reminiscent of Pierson’s comedy…yet no less a novel in its own right. Though not perfect, it is a solid debut: while the plot can feel uneven, the pacing inconsistent, Pierson shines in his characterization and his impeccable knack for finding humor in everyday high school situations. At his worst, he is a funny guy trying his hand at novel-writing; at his best, he echoes Salinger and celebrated contemporary YA authors like John Green. More often than not, however, he falls somewhere between these two extremes, crafting an assured tale of high school nerds, rites of passage, and the most bizarre form of insomnia you’ve ever encountered.

The boy in The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To is, in fact, not our narrator, Darren Bennett, but rather his strange new friend—in fact, his only friend—Eric Lederer. While both are social outcasts, only Eric has been blessed (cursed?) with a quirk that is somewhere between a super power and a medical condition. Eric, as the title suggests, cannot sleep, has never slept, and is actually beyond the need for sleep. When he tells Darren this, Darren is naturally a little suspicious…but he is quickly persuaded. The two begin a friendship based on a shared love for sci-fi, and together they create an entire alternate universe for a fantasy series they call TimeBlaze. Darren is a talented artist (or “draw-er,” as his inarticulate classmates would deem him), while Eric has plenty of time to dream up backstories and new characters since he never actually, well, dreams. Their collaboration is going well, and their friendship is solid, when they succumb, naturally, to the greatest temptation of high school boys: girls. More specifically, they both fall for one girl, and this rivalry tears them apart. It also leads Darren to do a very stupid, spiteful thing: he tells someone about Eric’s condition.

Soon, Eric is being pursued by a mysterious man whose motives are unclear yet undoubtedly sinister. Both Eric and Darren suspect that the man wants to capture Eric to perform experiments on him; with no other choice, the two, who easily reconcile, go on the run. They hide out in the desert, where Darren makes a shocking discovery: the creatures from TimeBlaze are real. Or rather, Eric has made them real, dreaming them into the real world because that is the only dreamworld he has ever known. How can the two use this incredible ability to save themselves from their powerful adversary? Can Eric be saved, or has Darren ensured his destruction?

The final third of The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To abruptly shifts from realistic coming-of-age story to…well, something a lot less realistic. I suppose it is unfair to fault a book that, according to its title, is about a boy who never sleeps, but it is still jarring to go from reading about Darren and Eric’s girl problems to learning that Eric can create things in the real world just be getting really tired and thinking about them. Pierson ties everything together nicely in the end, so this absurd development should sit better with the reader in retrospect. Still, there’s something inherently problematic with the pacing, which goes from languorous—even a little boring—to suddenly high-octane. It makes the tone of the book that much harder to pinpoint.

In the end, however, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes their stories witty, offbeat, and a little juvenile. Pierson reminded me of writers like Frank Portman and John Green, which I think is a good thing (except that, you know, the book isn’t technically YA). He’s a funny guy, sure, but he really impressed me when he proved himself to be more than that. The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To is at times more than its silly premise, deeper than its jokes; it’s about friendship, about trust and betrayal, and, above all, about celebrating what makes us unique, those qualities that must be preserved rather than destroyed.

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