Top 5 Teen Books
By Gillian Philip
Of all the tough topics...
I came late to teen books, because they didn’t exist in my day. Well, there were one or two (of which more later) but I’m way too old to have caught the wave of YA that today’s teens enjoy. Back in the mists of the seventies, we went straight from Enid Blyton to John Steinbeck, Jilly Cooper and Philip K. Dick (depending on one’s mood or inclination). It can’t have been quite so abrupt, but that’s how it felt.
I do, though, have the passion of the convert. Since discovering the YA shelves in my local Waterstones and decimating them, there’s been no genre I’ve found to match the sheer variety and quality of teen fiction. And I know that genre is the wrong word, since this market encompasses so many different genres itself, but please allow me that shorthand, because this is quite difficult enough. Five? Five?
Noughts and Crosses: Malorie Blackman
My first true YA love. I can still see it sitting there on the 3 for 2 table with its simple, uncompromising cover and that alarming, enticing warning Not For Younger Readers. The blurb appealed to my fascination for politics; I liked the name ‘Callum’; and so I bought it, and by the end of the first chapter was wholly in love with both the main characters, and enthralled by the rest of them.
My big mistake was reading the blurb on Book 2 before I’d finished Book 1. Something terrible was going to happen; I’d known it from early on, but that blurb confirmed it. So the awful fact is, I couldn’t finish it for months. I put it aside, keeping everyone nice and safe in my head, dreading the ending. When I did finally take a deep breath and finish it, I cried buckets, as I’d known I would. And then I went straight out and bought the rest of the series, and cried buckets over those, too.
This has remained a favourite that I still recommend to anyone who’ll listen. It isn’t just that I fell so much in love with the characters I couldn’t bear to let anything happen to them; it’s because the book is the most perfectly-executed exercise in empathy, in putting yourself in another’s shoes. I hate, loathe and detest being hit over the head with fictional ‘messages’, but that isn’t what Malorie Blackman does – and that’s why the ‘message’, so beautifully wrapped and intertwined in a fabulous story, stays with you.
I Am The Great Horse: Katherine Roberts
I loved horse and pony stories when I was young. As an adult I was crazy about Mary Renault, and especially her Alexander novels. Where but in teen fiction could I have found the perfect combination of both? You can’t imagine an ‘adult’ publisher giving this idea the nod – an epic war story/romance/mystery/adventure told by a horse? But it’s genius: clever, sophisticated and beautifully written. Bucephalas is one of the most fabulous characters I’ve encountered. His perspective on historical events is absolutely unique. You never stop believing in his voice, or in him; he tells a thrilling and fluid story, and he gives a vivid narration of the human lives who touch his, but you never forget he’s all horse, and war-horse at that. There’s sex, violence and murder, but how can any of it be gratuitous when it’s related by an alpha-stallion bred for war?
I wasn’t sure how this version of the story could end, and I was a little nervous as I approached it, but it’s perfect. Just perfect.
The Long Weekend: Savita Kalhan
I read this only recently, and I can’t tell you how fast I read it. Savita Kalhan’s first novel, it’s short, blade-sharp and utterly terrifying. The slow realisation that two boys have been picked up in a car that doesn’t belong to either of their fathers is ghastly but gripping. Events progress with an awful speed and inevitability, yet the pace is just right, pulling you in even as the sickening lump forms in your stomach. Sam, the hero, is the perfect blend of vulnerability and resourcefulness, but his weaker friend Lloyd has his own moments of heroism, too.
It beats a thousand public information films or tabloid scare stories. It’s Hansel and Gretel for the Xbox generation, and my children will be reading it as soon as they’re old enough to cope. Which, come to think of it, is about now.
When I Was Joe/Almost True: Keren David
I’m cheating and turning these two books into a one-volume virtual bumper edition. ‘Joe’s’ bravery is demonstrated on page one of book one; his fears, hopes, despair and his sense of a life spinning out of control all come later, as he goes on the run from dangerous criminals.
Ty – as he really is – has to reinvent himself, quite literally, and become Joe, a boy created by the Witness Protection programme. But despite the destruction of his old life, in some ways it’s a dream come true – what teenage boy hasn’t wanted to be someone else? Ty gets the chance, and the fact is, he likes being Joe. His reactions and coping mechanisms are cleverly probed by Keren David, who never lets her hero leave his old life behind entirely. The shadow of the crime he witnessed, and his part in it, hangs over him right till the end of the story...
...and indeed beyond. By book two, he’s no longer Joe, and someone has died in his place. That makes Almost True darker from the start, but I like it even better. As the former Ty begins to fall apart, he has to deal with discoveries about his own family. It’s gripping, and moving, and it’s never simplistic. A third volume is due, and I can’t wait.
Summer of my German Soldier : Bette Greene
I had to bring this one in. It’s years since I read it, but it was one of the few books available in my school library that would qualify for today’s ‘teen’ market.
I don’t remember very much of the plot, except for the heartbreaking ending – that’s still vivid. But I do remember the difficult, defiant heroine Patty, and I remember Anton, the beautiful eponymous soldier; and the hatred of the townsfolk, and what happens to Patty. Most of all I remember crying at the end, and going straight back to read it again. And again.
And really, isn’t that the best you can ask of a book?
It certainly is, Gillian. Thanks so much for sharing your favourites!
The Opposite of Amber is officially released on April 18th but it is available from Amazon now!