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Oh, To Be Young: The Year's Best Teen Reads

I read a lot of young-adult novels. I also read a lot of adult-adult novels, and I'm always after the same experience, whether I'm reading Philip Roth or Philip Pullman: a book that sucks me in from chapter one, makes me think and, above all, makes me feel. I want to finish the book a slightly different person than I was when I started it.

Lately, I've found that this transcendent reading experience I so crave seems to occur more often with young-adult novels. Maybe it's because YA books -- like the adolescence they depict -- are so often about transformation, told through the lens of universal issues like grieving, war and first love. Or maybe it's because at heart I'm an emotionally stunted 17-year-old. Or maybe it's because so many talented authors are choosing to channel their talents into writing YA. Whatever the reason, 2010 brought a bumper crop of fantastic books, including these gems.


The Sky Is Everywhere

By Jandy Nelson, hardcover, 288 pages, Dial Press, list price: $18

Seventeen-year-old Lennie has always lived in her vibrant older sister Bailey's shadow, the "companion pony" to Bailey's racehorse. When Bailey dies suddenly, Lennie's grief is explosive: "It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way." But in the altered post-Bailey landscape, Lennie finds herself thrust into center stage of her own life and grappling with some confusing feelings -- sexually attracted to Bailey's fiance, and falling in love with Joe, the ebullient new boy at school. Speckled with a colorful cast of supporting characters (a grandmother who judges Lennie's well-being based on a houseplant; a stoner arborist Lothario uncle) and set in a hippie-dippie Northern California town that is a character in and of itself, Sky is both a profound meditation on loss and grieving and an exhilarating and very sexy romance. The book deserves multiple readings simply to savor Nelson's luscious language, on display in the snippets of poetry that grief-stricken Lennie leaves scattered around town, which precede many of the chapters.


Before I Fall

By Lauren Oliver, hardcover, 480 pages, Harper Teen, list price: $18

High school senior Samantha Kingston is a typical mean girl. She and her popular troika of friends cavalierly treat the lesser students like dirt because they can. Early on in the book, on Feb. 12, Sam is killed in a car accident on the way home from a party with her friends. But instead of floating away to some afterlife, Sam wakes up in her bed to find it's the morning of Feb. 12, and she must relive the last day of her life over. With the rules upended, Sam tweaks her actions (seducing a teacher, ditching school to spend the day with her little sister, attempting to help a deeply unhappy "loser," kissing the boy she maybe should have been kissing all along).  This may sound like Groundhog Day meets Afterschool Special, but it's actually a subtle, layered and ultimately ethical book. As Oliver widens her lens, Sam comes to understand not only the butterfly effect of kindness but also the cumulative effect of cruelty: "If you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. ... You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That's how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth." By the end, Sam's (and the reader's) understanding of herself and of her friends is so complete that the bitches from chapter one have become complex, even sympathetic girls.


The Things A Brother Knows

By Dana Reinhardt, hardcover, 256 pages, Wendy Lamb Books, list price: $17

On one level, Reinhardt's third novel is a subtle and affecting work about the hidden cost of war -- which might explain why it has flown under the radar. And that's a shame because this isn't a War Book. The protagonist isn't a soldier, but rather 16-year-old Levi, who has spent his whole life playing slacker underachiever to older brother Boaz, he of the hot girlfriend, the Ivy League acceptances. When Boaz eschewed college to join up with the Marines, it was both a shock ("But people like us don't do that," his girlfriend said) and yet another way for Bo to one-up Levi. Two years later, Boaz is back from fighting in an unnamed Middle Eastern desert country, a hero ("Welcome home, Bay State High Graduate ... American Hero" reads the sign above the local Boston area high school) and an utter mess. Hiding in his room, unable to communicate, or even drive in a car, Boaz spends his days devising a secretive plan that Levi susses out with a bit of computer spying. When Boaz leaves on his mission, Levi, with the help of hilarious sidekicks Zim and Pearl, intercepts him. The two brothers travel on foot to Washington, D.C., meeting other veterans and families of servicemen, and begin to unpeel each other's layers. Like Levi, this novel is neither pro- nor anti-war. What it is is solidly pro-soldier in its steadfast compassion. It is also grippingly entertaining, funny, romantic (yes, Levi finds a girl) and, in its surprising conclusion, intensely moving.


The Mockingbirds

By Daisy Whitney, hardcover, 352 pages, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, list price: $17

Daisy Whitney's powerful debut opens with high school junior Alex waking up in a strange boy's bed, a bad taste in her mouth, and, upon spying two opened condom wrappers, a worse feeling inside her gut. With little memory of the drunken night before, Alex soon realizes that she has had sex for the first time -- and that it happened without her consent. What follows is a pitch-perfect examination of Alex's emotional journey -- her desire to forget, vacillating with her thirst for justice; her self blame;  her fear of bumping into her attacker, all rendered with small, telling details that give the book an almost breathless immediacy. The title (not to be confused with Mockingjay or Mockingbird, two other excellent 2010 YA titles) refers to the underground justice system at Themis Academy, Alex's elite progressive boarding school that "builds tomorrow's leaders," as one student explains it, and therefore refuses to acknowledge that said leaders can do bad things. With the Mockingbirds' protection and own brand of justice (less vigilante than Law & Order) Alex comes to terms with her rape -- even rises above it, as evidenced by the budding romance she begins with a fellow student named Martin. Alex tells Martin: " 'I want to kiss you right now,' I say, feeling something a bit like bliss about getting a say in the matter."


Anna And The French Kiss

By Stephanie Perkins, hardcover, 384 pages, Dutton Juvenile, list price: $17

On the surface, the perfect romantic comedy seems so easy: Take lovers, add drama, serve hot. Once you deconstruct a book like Stephanie Perkins' delectable debut, you realize what a trick such a concoction actually is: love interests whose chemistry sparks off the page, tantalizing pacing, sparkling repartee, vibrant supporting characters, and a setting like Paris never hurts. Against her will, Anna Oliphant is dropped at an American boarding school in Paris for her senior year. Her initial misery and discombobulation -- she speaks no French -- start to give way as she makes friends, in particular with the gorgeous, sophisticated (and flawed) Etienne St. Clair. Anna and Etienne's friendship provides the foundation of their romance, and its blooming mirrors Anna's unfurling: her growing comfort in the city (aided by trips to local cinemas) and her confidence in herself. Two of the most romantic interludes take place during Thanksgiving and Christmas break. In the first, Anna and Etienne, alone at school, wander Paris alone and spend chaste nights together in Anna's bed. In the second, a continent apart, they provide telephonic soft shoulders for each other. "This warmth over the telephone. Is it possible for home to be a person and not a place? Maybe St. Clair is my new home," Anna wonders. This may be teen love, but it is true love, hard won, richly emotional and deeply felt -- like the novel itself.

So, there you have it. No vampires. No angels. No aliens. Just real people in real situations with real emotions that we all can relate to. The joy of these books -- which holds true for so much of the YA fiction being written these days -- is that the characters and themes will resonate with readers of any age. Because really, at the end of the day, don't we all have a 17-year-old somewhere inside of us?

Gayle Forman is the author of several young adult novels, including the most recent If I Stay.

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Gayle Forman