If there's one thing that teenagers of all stripes spend most of their energy on, it's friendship. Clinging to people who have become closer than family, navigating the breakups that are somehow more devastating than getting dumped by a boyfriend, and spending time that your parents and teachers would rather you spend on homework just talking. It's no wonder that friendship is such a rich vein for young adult authors to mine, and that YA literature is better at exploring it than any other genre.
No discussion of recent young adult literature is complete without mentioning John Green's latest best-seller, The Fault in Our Stars, but since it's already gotten so much praise, I wanted to introduce you to some books that may not have yet grabbed your attention. Below, we have five excellent books directly or indirectly centered on friendship, whether in the extremes of a dystopian future or the more mundane emotional extremes of high school.
The Drowned Cities
If The Hunger Games left you hungering for more tales of dystopia, pick up The Drowned Cities next. This stand-alone companion to 2011's Printz Award-winning Shipbreaker finds Paolo Bacigalupi returning to post-peak oil America, but instead of focusing on the salvage operations of the Gulf Coast, we're thrown into the war-torn refugee camps of the Southeast. Mahlia and Mouse are bound together by circumstance and friendship as they try to survive in a world ruled by armies of child soldiers. When they discover Tool, a hunted half-man genetically engineered for killing, it's only the beginning of a story that will test their loyalty, ingenuity and will to survive. Mahlia and Mouse are beautifully written and imagined characters. Each responds differently to their extreme circumstances, and it's both gut-wrenching and satisfying to go on this journey with them. The plot moves quickly to a devastating conclusion, with hope and despair in compelling and realistic proportions. Bacigalupi provides incredible insight into what it takes to make a soldier, child or otherwise, and how rhetoric, violence and disposition can make or unmake us all.
The Girls of No Return
Set against the extreme backdrop of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, Erin Saladin's debut novel explores the connections between teen girls at a wilderness reform school. In the language of the Alice Marshall School, every girl has her "Thing," whether it's starting fires, stealing jewelry, drinking or something darker, and heroine Lida wants to keep hers a secret. After being unwillingly dropped off by her father and stepmother, the last thing that Lida expects is to befriend both Boone, the hard-bitten longtime resident, and Gia, the glamorous, opaque newcomer who seems to have enthralled everyone at Alice Marshall except Boone. The frictions and alliances between girls who are locked up for various reasons has been mined often since Girl, Interrupted, but Erin Saladin's variation on this theme is well-told and in some ways unexpected. Peeks into the future for this friendship triangle, well fleshed out characters, and the delicious dramatic irony enabled by Lida's first-person narration makes this a compelling page-turner.
Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters
Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters is a lighter but still accomplished look into adolescent female friendship. Kelsey Finkelstein, avatar for awkward freshmen girls everywhere, is barrelling head-first into high school with her three best friends. With her nemesis moved out of state, Kelsey is confident that this will be the best year ever. Love triangles, unfortunate photographs, soccer bullies and a mother who thinks she understands "Typical Adolescent Behavior" are just some of the obstacles she runs across in this sitcom-paced, laugh-out-loud book.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Moving from the intricacies of teen female friendship to the complexities of the male variety, we have Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a coming-of-age novel as deep and powerful as its title is long. Two Mexican-American teens living in El Paso in the 1980s, Dante and Ari could scarcely be more different. But through their years of growing up, apart and together in the pages of this lyrical novel, they are able to become more to each other than either could have imagined. While most young adult novels are confined to a small, urgent window of time, Benjamin Alire Saenz's book is expansive, taking in the whole of an adolescent friendship, through momentous turning points and casual disintegrations. Ari's voice is powerful and the perspective is specifically Mexican-American without being exclusively Mexican-American. If you're anything like me, your heart will be in your throat through the final third of the book, hoping against hope for the joy that these characters deserve with each other.
Finally, for this summer feature, a novel of summer, specifically that supremely transformative summer after high school graduation. Bev and Colby had a definite post-high school plan: Tour with Bev's (not very good) band for the summer, then take a gap year in Europe. But as they're setting off on the road, Bev reveals that she's changed their plans by applying to college. The tour is booked, the band is waiting and Colby has no choice but to serve as roadie for his best friend and crush while trying to deal with his new utter lack of direction. Told in Colby's completely realistic voice, this book is populated with genuinely imagined characters; not just the core friends, but the music fans, tattoo artists and waitresses they encounter while playing at dives across the Pacific Northwest. Each road tripper has his or her own artistic way of chronicling the individual journeys they are on together, and that introspection draws the reader into this intimate novel.
Of course, no list of five books is ever going to be exhaustive, especially in a field as rich as this year's young adult offerings (I've counted more than 300 books published since January first alone), but this quick look at some outstanding new releases should help plump up your reading list for summer vacation, regardless of what kind of extremes your friendships are subjected to.
L. Lee Butler is a librarian at Boston Latin School and a blogger for the Young Adult Library Services Association.
PG-13: Risky Reads: At 13, you crave the adult stuff — the drama, the relationships, the mind-blowing ideas — even if you're not ready for adulthood. PG-13 presents authors discussing the books that transformed and matured their teenage minds.