This was a strange and wonderful year for young adult fiction — but also a confused and divisive one. We learned that 55 percent of young adult fiction was read by adults. Debates raged over what constituted a young adult novel versus an adult novel. Apologetic grown-ups sneaked into the teen section of the bookstore, passing subversive teens pattering into the adult paranormal and literature and mystery shelves.
For the most part, I let the discussion pass me by. I don't care what a book is classified as: I care that it's good. So it should shock no one that my list of my top five young adult reads includes books I think adults will love too. They don't all contain magic, but I find them all magical.
Code Name Verity
I'm not generally a fan of historical fiction. I realize this seems somewhat hypocritical, as I was an overeager history major, but often, I find historical fiction more impenetrable than a primary source document. The characters feel either intangible or modern. I get distracted by historical info-dumps; bored by epic scale machinations. So when I got sent a copy of Code Name Verity, I thought, OK, I'll read 20 pages and then I'll give it to my sister. But my sister has not yet gotten this book, because I don't want to let it out of my house. I adored it. In Code Name Verity, two girls join the war effort in World War II Britain. During a mission, they're shot down over France and a lengthy interrogation begins. What sounds like a deeply unpleasant story is actually a frequently wry and astonishingly real portrayal of two best friends. It's hard, but not harrowing. And most importantly, it has stuck with me ever since I picked it up. It is one thing to love a novel. It's another for that love to endure for months. It's the holy grail for this particular reader, and that is why it is my No. 1 read of 2012.
I'm an unashamed lover of movies as well as books, and I have a special place reserved in my black heart for movies that feel like books and vice versa. Nick Hornby and John Green generally live in this zone for me, with characters and plots both walking a fine line between quirky and unbelievable. Jackson Pearce elbows her way into this realm with Purity. In it, Shelby promises her dying mother that she'll listen to her father, love as much as possible, and live without restraint. Innocent-enough promises in theory, but in practice, they lead to all sorts of capers and crises involving best friends, sex and church ladies. The combination of Pearce's humorous voice and the novel's bite-sized length make it easy to hand to most everyone. Like Hornby's and Green's books, I would pick it up for the light and breezy concept, and remember it for the surprisingly poignant character relationships.
Ordinarily I judge young adult novels on the precise same scale I would judge an adult novel. These are not books for children, after all — these are novels for readers who are, in many cases, every bit as sophisticated as myself. There should be no sliding scale. And yet here I am admitting that I loved Endangered because of how it would've affected me as a teen versus now. It's a story about bonobos — a more peaceful relative of the chimpanzee (and us) — but it is also a story about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sophie, whose mother runs a bonobo sanctuary, rescues a bonobo and ends up on the run with him during a sudden political upheaval. This book reminded me a little bit of those old-fashioned adventure stories I read growing up. There's something a bit timeless about the telling of it, about the girl-and-an-animal element, about the questing for safety. Something familiar. It's not a book that changed my life now, having read about the Congo before. But it would've changed my life then, as a teen. The world would have become a bigger and more terrible place.
*True confession: Eliot Schrefer and I are both published by Scholastic.
Where Things Come Back
Although this young adult novel is a 2011 release, it landed on most people's radars when it snagged the 2012 Michael J. Printz Award in January. Dripping with the dubious charm of a small, Southern town, it tells the story of a boy whose brother goes missing at the same time that a presumed-extinct woodpecker is sighted nearby. The tale of the lost brother and the found bird dance deftly around chapters about a far-removed missionary; the connection between the two makes no sense at all until, suddenly, it does. When I began this book, I had been searching for a novel about helicopters, magic and guns, and I was resentfully aware that this quiet contemporary was not going to be it. So Where Things Come Back had an uphill climb to win my heart. But win my heart it did, despite being devoid of guns, helicopters and magic. This is a good book about a good kid, and it's a good story told remarkably well.
My relationship with high fantasy — fantasy set in another world — has always been tumultuous. Actually, I'd like to refer you to the first item on this list. Everything I said about historical fiction also applies here. Which is why, despite multiple recommendations, I let this debut novel about a half-dragon, half-human girl sit unread on my desk for five months. I'll admit I very much wanted to remain a curmudgeon, but the thorough world-building and specific characters won me over. This city of austere dragons and emotional humans felt complete, as if I could turn down any number of alleys and never find the seams showing. At 480 pages, the novel is satisfyingly plump with politics, religion and prejudice — and a restrained but edifying measure of love. It also has a healthy dose of music (I was unsurprised to discover Rachel Hartman was a fellow admirer of medieval polyphony), and I find I'm very interested to see what Hartman writes next. Teens and adults alike will love to creep down the magical streets of Seraphina's city. I certainly did.
Maggie Stiefvater is the author of the young adult novels Shiver, The Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys.