The Best YA novels, and who’s up for a global bookstore crawl? Anyone?

Last week, NPR released the final results of their poll on the best teen novels, whittled down to the Top 100.  Here are a few highlights:

Sandra Cisneros.  The House on Mango Street.

I first read this for a Contemporary Novels class back in high school, during which we had a mock-trial of the book (Reading Lolita in Tehran had come out recently) — not on any moral grounds, but just to decide if such an unusually structured story could be considered a novel, or something like that.  I was the defense, another girl was the prosecution, the remaining two students (yeah, we were a small class…the school itself was just 200-some students) were the jury, and Mr. J was the judge.

Personally, I like the collage/vignette structure.  Cisneros’ book is a puzzle, and I get to work out for myself how all the chapters fit together chronologically, thematically, etc.  Other things I love:

  • The way Cisneros ends some of the chapters, almost like a punchline, a twist given in such a matter-of-fact tone that it’s even more funny or thought-provoking (and sometimes sad).
  • The images of childhood — three girls chipping in for a bicycle, and then riding it all three together because you can’t decide who should get it first; strutting around the block in high-heels you’re still too young for; having a Tarzan Jumping Contest from that awesome big tree in your neighbor’s yard; making up rhymes for Double Dutch…
  • The Monkey Garden, where you can ignore those who say you’re too old to run around and jump across the roofs of abandoned cars like “giant mushrooms.”  The Monkey Garden, older than time, where things could vanish for a thousand years, where “beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal.” [1]
  • This:

One day we were passing a house that looked, in my mind, like the houses I had seen in Mexico.  I don’t know why.  There was nothing about the house that looked exactly like the houses I remembered.  I’m not even sure why I thought it, but it seemed to feel right.

Look at that house, I said, it looks like Mexico.

Rachel and Lucy look at me like I’m crazy, but before they can let out a laugh, Nenny says:  Yes, that’s Mexico all right.  That’s what I was thinking exactly. [2]

Laurie Halse Anderson.  Speak.

Her classmates assume Melinda called the police because she’s a wussy freshman who can’t handle an upperclassman party.  Her teachers assume she’s a slacker with an attitude problem.  Her parents don’t know what to think.

I feel like anything I say re: why this book is so important will come out sappy or cliché.  Like Anne Spollen’s The Shape of Water, it’s a brilliant and very relatable (even if you haven’t had the same experiences—it’s the narrator’s voice makes you feel like you know her, like this could have happened to you) depiction of trauma, and how adults can misunderstand and/or mistreat a teenager because they assume she’s just being “a teenager.”

Personally, I think Kristen Stewart did a very decent portrayal of Melinda in the made-for-TV adaptation.

Diana Wynne Jones.  Howl’s Moving Castle.

I expected to love this one a lot more than I did.  There were moments, clever moments, ingenious even—the meta moments, particularly.  The Brit Lit and fairy-tale allusions.  And the concept of Sophie’s power over words, the way she can “talk life into things.”  And I really like the complex depiction of Howl — the mix of immaturity and selfishness with all those actions that show how kind he actually is, and how much he cares for people like his family, Michael, Mrs. Pentstemmon… it’s like those moments in BBC’s Sherlock, when he shows genuine emotion and concern for people like John and Mrs. Hudson.  In fact, halfway through the story, I was imagining Howl as Benedict Cumberbatch.  I really am hopeless ^_^;;

But then there were the overly confusing moments (the mixed-up Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman plots), and the characters-acting-too-inexplicably moments (Why is Sophie so near-deathly afraid of the scarecrow?  Why doesn’t she believe [Proper Noun]’s story about her fiancé?  Why does Howl let Sophie stay in the castle, despite all the times she infuriates him?  It’s not like he has any clearly established need or desire for her to stick around), and the characters-who-you’d-expect-to-be-weirded-out-by-magical-events-acting-oddly-blasé moments.

And the overemphasis on Sophie’s inferiority complex.  It started out with potential – a chance for Sophie to consciously fight the fairy-tale formula that favors the youngest sister and dooms the eldest.  But instead, she kept complaining, over and over again, about what a screw-up she is, and Oh Look I’ve Messed Things Up Again But Of Course I’m The Eldest So That’s To Be Expected…

And even the love story.  If I hadn’t already seen the Miyazaki movie and heard things from someone who’d enjoyed the book, I’m not sure I’d have even expected the outcome.  It rather came out of left field, a bit like the Elinor/Edward relationship in Sense and Sensibility.

Overall, I feel like the Miyazaki version had a more coherent plot.

Jerry Spinelli.  Stargirl.

Yes, yes, I’ve mentioned this one plenty of times, so I’ll just say this:  she really is a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” isn’t she? 🙂  Edit:  Though not completely, and not in the negative sense of the trope, I don’t think…Stargirl is an independent individual with her own life, a family (Leo’s even introduced to them), and dreams/goals/a purpose beyond making one guy’s life more exciting.

Ginny Rorby.  Dolphin Sky.

This one didn’t actually make it to the Top 100, but I was very pleased to see it among the 235 finalists.  It’s actually one of those books I’d thought was more obscure than it apparently is (though it is out-of-print) – it was most definitely an OceanGirl-related choice when I first read the summary in a copy of Girls’ Life, back in middle school.  A girl who forms an almost magical connection to sea creatures, and fights to save them from commercial abuse?  Of course!

The story is also about the developing awareness of dyslexia – it’s set at a time when the disability wasn’t widely recognized, so many people assume Buddy is just unintelligent or isn’t trying hard enough.  As she spends more time with the dolphins at Stevens Everglade Eden, Buddy begins to stand up not only for them, but also for herself.

Now, here’s something cool! – Ginny Rorby plans to release a significantly revised version of Dolphin Sky as an e-book.


And now, as I update Neri’s Infinite To-Read List,

Get it? 😉

please enjoy the following slideshow of “10 of the Coolest Niche Bookstores From Around the World.”  The sea-themed one in Rome, and Toronto’s “The Sleuth of Baker Street,” sound particularly fun.


[1] The House on Mango Street, pg. 96

[2] Pgs. 17-18

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