The current hype over the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why feels quite odd to me. I haven’t watched the series (nor do I intend to), nor do I intend to read the book, mostly because I first read it back in 2008 or so. I remember being absorbed by this book that was equal parts shocking and compelling, though I cannot recall that much about the plot itself. If I were to reread the book today, I’m sure I would find fault in it somehow (in its glorification of suicide, for instance); by leaving it in the past, my teenage reads remain an untainted (if somewhat blurry) memory.
Still, the novel’s new-found popularity has got me thinking. We tend to think of YA as very ‘of the moment’: either they tap in to the latest genre fad (vampire romance, dystopian action/thriller, etc), or else they engage with pressing ‘issues’ that teenagers and young adults are dealing with (drug use, sexuality, and so on). Newness drives sales, and so the wheel of YA publishing rolls ever forwards.
But even if their jackets date, good YA more than stands the test of time. The themes and issues that appealed to young adults in previous decades will often engage today’s readers in equal measure. Indeed, if I had only heard about Thirteen Reasons Why when the Netflix series premiered, I would have assumed that a book that focuses so overtly about mental health would have been publish fairly recently – instead, it came out in 2007.
To take another example, I first came across Stone Cold by Robert Swindells when I was about 13, and between its brutal descriptions of homelessness and its singularly terrifying villain, I was utterly hooked. It didn’t matter that the book was as old as I was – it was good.
With that in mind, I thought I would list a few of the YA books that I absolutely loved when I was a teenager. I’m deliberately ignoring the big-name titles in favour of ones which, while clearly well-received at the time (many I discovered through shadowing the Carnegie Prize with my school library), have since been relatively forgotten. Like 13 Reasons Why, I have never reread these books, so forgive me if my recollections are a little patchy. All I know is that they made such an impression on me that I still recall loving them ten years later.
A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
This book moved me to tears when I was 14. Set in rural Ireland, it tells the story of Shell, a teenager grieving over the death of her mother who finds herself responsible for caring for her young siblings. Without going into too much detail (unlike the Amazon summary), her life only gets harder and that more heart-wrenching (I was an emotional wreck after reading this). Of all the books I’m going to mention here, this is the one I am most inclined to seek out again as an adult – it deals with a lot of mature themes which I don’t think I fully appreciated when I was 13.
Ruby Red by Linzi Glass
I remember this book for being the first I had read set in South Africa; specifically in 1970s Johannesburg. Apartheid is shown through the lens of a young white girl coming to grips with the complexities of race that she has been sheltered from her whole life. I’ll be honest, I learned a lot about the realities of racism alongside the protagonist. Like A Swift Pure Cry, this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
A book that starts with the death of the protagonist, the premise of Elsewhere is simply brilliant: when you die, you are transported to a place where everyone ages backwards into infancy, ready to be born again. While I was moved by young Liz coming to terms with her own mortality (and everything that followed), it is the ingenuity of Zevin’s wonderfully realised afterlife that really makes the book memorable. It was hard not to put yourself in Liz’s shoes and imagine what you would do in the same situation – faced with the knowledge that you would have as many years ahead of you as you have already lived on Earth, destined to grow ever younger, how would you spend your days?