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!

Five Offbeat YA Mysteries

Instead of posting individual reviews for these five YA books, I thought I would group them together in one post to highlight the theme that connects them. These are all what I am deeming “offbeat mysteries,” YA books that feature a central mystery, but which are not detective or puzzle stories. In these books, the main characters, teens who possess no great deductive skills, solve unusual mysteries that are presented in ways that are variously witty, strange, and unexpected. But, for those of you who are not mystery aficionados, fear not—the books also feature compelling coming-of-age stories. Every one of them is a great read for both mystery fans and skeptics alike: they offer something original, something intriguing, and, above all, something sure to entertain.


In John Green’s Paper Towns, Quentin Jacobsen is leading a safe, predictable, and predictably boring life. Unpopular at school, Quentin, or Q, spends his time with two equally uncool friends, just counting down the days to graduation. He yearns for his neighbor, the fearless and exciting Margo Roth Spiegelman, with whom he discovered a dead body when the two were just children. But Margo is in the popular crowd, and she lives a life Quentin could only dream of: something of a myth in their Orlando, Florida suburb, Margo is said to have run off and joined the circus for a few days, and has broken into most of Orlando’s world famous attractions after hours. One night, everything changes, and Margo finally reaches out to Quentin. Could this be the start of, well if not a romance then at least a lasting friendship? After their late night adventure around town, Quentin can’t wait to see what happens with Margo at school. The only problem is, Margo isn’t at school the next day. And she isn’t there the day after that. The lone clue she seems to have left behind is a poster in her window, the window that is directly across from Quentin’s. Certain that it is a clue left specifically for him, Quentin begins a journey that takes him through Leaves of Grass, abandoned subdivisions, and some pretty harrowing situations. Along the way, he learns, finally, how to live like Margo—with courage and a sense of possibility. Written in typical witty Green fashion, Paper Towns is a quirky but wholly engaging romp that still manages to ask serious questions.

King Dork, by Frank Portman, is similar to Paper Towns in a lot of ways. For one, both feature dorky, unpopular protagonists who are a lot cooler to the reader than they are to the other kids at their respective schools. For another, their mysteries center on clues found in classic works of literature. So, basically, if you ever scoffed at LeVar Burton encouraging you to “take a look, it’s in a book,” you might want to begin drafting a letter of apology. In King Dork, the book in question is The Catcher in the Rye, and it might just hold the key to one of the central questions in Tom Henderson’s life: who was his father? He knows the basic facts, namely that his father was a detective who died in a car accident when Tom and his sister were small. But who was he beyond that? Who was he when he was 16, the same age as Tom? When Tom finds a mysterious code in his dad’s copy of the book, he immediately sets about deciphering it. As he does so, he begins to uncover much more about not only his dad’s teenage self, but also the circumstances of his death. Tom begins to wonder: Did his dad die in an accident, as he was told? Could it have been suicide? Or murder? Despite the heavy subject matter, King Dork is also very funny and clever. Tom and his alphabetical best friend Sam Hellerman form and dissolve about thirty bands in a four month period, all with amusing names like The Elephants of Style. In fact, it is Tom and Sam’s misguided attempts to be rock stars that might just be the key to solving some of the mysteries in Tom’s life once and for all.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting, innovative paths that an author can take in crafting a mystery story, and these next two novels show just how much room there is for variations on the detective figure. These next two teen “detectives,” Will Halpin and Christopher Boone, are outsiders not because they aren’t jocks or because they have nerdy hobbies—they’re outsiders because they simply don’t fit in with a society that largely does not share their disabilities. In Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, Will Halpin is overweight, the new kid in school, and, oh yeah, deaf. He has just transferred to a mainstream high school, and is trying to get by in a world that doesn’t understand, and isn’t sympathetic to, his disability. Will gets by on lipreading, which means that he is better than most at observing people. This proves to be crucial when one of his classmates meets a mysterious end at a coal mine on a school field trip. Will and his best friend, Devon Smiley, are convinced that the boy was murdered, and they decide to uncover the murderer. What could be a typical mystery with a clever gimmick is instead an insightful look at what it means to be deaf in a hearing world. Will is funny, smart, and resourceful, but he is also lonely and painfully aware that he will never quite be “normal.” The way in which Berk uses Will’s disability as a useful tool in solving the crime is ingenious, and it really elevates this novel to something more than just an amusing mystery.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, is, in some ways, the most straightforward story on this list. That’s because its narrator, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, literally cannot tell a lie (or, to be fair, he could, but he is deeply upset by the very concept). He reports every event as it happens, and has an astonishingly detailed memory, but there is one big limitation to Christopher’s story, as he tells it: Christopher is autistic. This novel is very unusual in that it is told entirely from the perspective of an autistic teenager who, though very bright, is oblivious to the motivations of those around him. Christopher’s world is very insular, his routine fixed; it is not until the day that he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, with a pitchfork sticking out of him that Christopher decides he must break some of his rules and venture out into the world. He begins writing a mystery story on Wellington’s murder, intending to solve the murder himself. What he begins to uncover, however, is something that has much more personal relevance than he could have imagined. While Christopher is certainly not what one would typically call a sympathetic character, the access into his mind is fascinating and quite thorough. Haddon captures not the autistic mind but an autistic mind in a way that is thoughtful, convincing, and very memorable.

The last book on the list, I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak, is different from the previous four in that it does not feature a protagonist who is still in school. On the contrary, 19-year-old cab driver Ed Kennedy is about as far as one can get from that: with only a high school education, and no motivation, Ed is coasting through life. He is a disappointment to his family and an affront to his own abilities. He lives, alone, in a small apartment with only his ancient dog for company, and his greatest joy comes from playing games of cards with his best friends, one of whom he is secretly in love with. Ed meets his most defining moment yet when he foils a bank robbery; not long after, he receives a mysterious playing card in the mail, on which is written three addresses, which are where Ed will find his first few assignments. Ed becomes “the messenger,” helping those in need, at the risk of his own safety and sanity. But who is sending him these messages? And why isn’t he allowed to stop obeying them? Ed becomes obsessed with catching the sender of the series of playing cards he receives, but this sender always appears to be one step ahead of him. Who knows Ed better than he knows himself…and why has he been singled out to be the messenger? Though the mystery is ever-present, what makes this novel so lasting is Ed’s path to redemption. When he starts to care, the reader can’t help but join in.

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