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Calling All Bookworms! These Are the Young Adult Novels You Need to Be Reading

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By Patricia Cunningham

Young Adult books aren’t just for young adults anymore. Not so sure? I have two words for you: Harry Potter. And there many more greats — The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars — not to mention the classics — The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Wrinkle in Time — and, perhaps best of all (especially for fans of Young Matt Dillon, like myself), The Outsiders. All have become an intrinsic part of our cultural fabric, which is why you should be wandering over to the YA section of the bookstore (or on Amazon) a lot more often. We are literally in the middle of a YA Golden Age — so many great authors, so many great stories, so many great characters to stand the test of time. Best of all, these books are eminently shareworthy with family members of all ages. I sussed out a few sure-to-be-classics below. Happy page-turning!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

You might have heard of John Green’s previous book, The Fault in Our Stars — the one that sold more than 23 million copies and was made into a successful movie. In this long-awaited follow up, Green delves into the world of Aza Holmes, a teenage girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety (something Green acknowledges struggling with himself). Green’s specialty is witty, socially awkward, beautifully eloquent nerds living within the confines of tragic circumstances. Here, Aza is in constant struggle with her debilitating condition, while she and her fearless friend Daisy pursue a mysterious billionaire and a sizeable reward. In the process they discover the power of lasting friendship and love. This compelling read confronts the harsh reality of mental illness with a lot of heart, compassion and grace.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Yes, it is soon to be a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts, but don’t let that prevent you from delving into this magical book by R.J. Palacio. “I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.” So begins the story of Auggie Pullman. Born with a congenital face abnormality, Auggie has been homeschooled his whole life, until now. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants to be treated just like everyone else. Unfortunately, his classmates can’t get past his face. Switching points of view — from Auggie, to his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend and others — the story winds wondrously toward empathy and acceptance. Get lost in it.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zinter

Teen stories that are true to life. Too much to ask? Not when it comes to Jeff Zinter and his much-beloved novel The Serpent King. Set in rural Tennessee, the story centers on the lives of Dill, a talented musician and son of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher currently incarcerated; Travis, a gentle soul who uses fantasy GOT-type play to escape an abusive father; and Lydia, fashion blogger and budding influencer with her sights set on New York. All of them have one thing in common: they don’t fit the mold of their tiny Tennessee town, but they must reckon with creepier elements of the past before they can move on. At times eerie and shocking, and not to mention enthralling and transcendent, The Serpent King is a page-turner that burrows in deep.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, bestselling author Sherman Alexie, tells the semi-autobiographical story of Junior, a 14-year-old cartoonist who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation with his family. Born with a brain condition, he suffers from seizures, poor eyesight, stuttering, and lisping. His destiny seems set never to transcend the bounds of poverty and dysfunction around him. Yet, at the prodding of a teacher, he leaves the reservation to attend a fancier school in the much wealthier, much whiter town of Reardon — where the only other Indian is the team mascot. After some initial setbacks, Junior flourishes at his new school, but he is dogged by tragedies back home and old friends who think he’s abandoned them. Sounds depressing and heartbreaking, right? Then why is it so darn hilarious?! Because Alexie is a master. Don’t miss this captivating read.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Winner of the National Book Award, Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodsen’s uncompromising meditation on her experiences as an African American growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina and New York. Written in verse, she tells the story of a life split between North and South, between the present and history, and her burgeoning awareness of civil rights. Though she struggled with reading as a child, she discovers stories as a way to help her make sense of the world and finds her voice. Deeply nuanced and gorgeously written, her words stay with you for a good long time. It's like nothing else — prepare to be mesmerized by it. 

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys’ stunning work of historical fiction takes its inspiration from one of the lesser-known footnotes of World War II: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloffa German military transport ship that was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine while evacuating civilians. The story begins at the tail end of World War II. A group of refugees in East Prussia are making their way to the ship that can save them from the war. Among the group is Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse who thinks she is guilty of murder; Florian, a mysterious Prussian boy carrying a secret object; and Emilia, a pregnant 15-year-old Polish girl. The harrowing journey forces them to trust each other and find their own individual strength and courage. Just when it seems freedom is at hand aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, the unimaginable happens and all must struggle for survival. At times brutal and gut-wrenching, Salt to the Sea is nonetheless a moving and haunting testament to the power of resilience. 

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