MIND MELD: SF/F Book Recommendations for Teens 13-16
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We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I highly recommend The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness. These books are awesome, from the titles to the cliffhangers. I read them mostly standing, as it was sometimes too difficult to relax in a comfy chair.
The main character, Todd Hewitt, had me from the first page. Todd has learned to be tough despite the fact that he has zero privacy (due to a disease on his planet which makes one’s every thought visible). I love him because he possesses a vulnerability that is so raw and genuine, you can’t help but be affected. When his insecurities are revealed, you’re embarrassed. Not for Todd, but with Todd. Like you just realized you forgot to wear pants today.
Todd’s the bridge between our world, and one with aliens, genocide, and hands down the best talking dog EVER. Todd makes you realize that his world of chaos and violence isn’t so different from our own, and that all the technology that makes our lives so convenient – cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – often makes it impossible to hide. These are concepts that teens now more than ever are facing every day.
Nick Sharps is an Advertising major at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He is passionate about movies, video games and music, but literature remains his one true love. More of Nick’s reviews can be found at Elitist Book Reviews and his personal blog, Goatfairy Review Blog. He also reviews at SF Signal.
This is a great question and it wasn’t all that long ago that I was of the 13-16 age group. I had difficulty reading as a kid. I don’t think there was an actual disability but I did have trouble and it wasn’t until I discovered Harry Potter and Goosebumps that I overcame it. I’ll hope that readers in question will have already been exposed to Harry Potter, a series that I would consider essential to the maturing adolescent. So where does that leave us?
The YA market is an exciting place right now. There is fervor for originality and diversity that just wasn’t there when I was younger. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of The Hunger Games knockoffs and Twilight clones, but there are also a lot of titles that can be exciting to read, even for adults.
My two favorite YA novels of 2012, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, were written by E.C. Myers. The duology offers lovable characters, youthful energy, theoretical science, and complex relationships. My biggest complaint about YA has always been the condescension of authors. No reader ever wants to be treated like an idiot, especially not a young adult. Fair Coin and Quantum Coin are exciting and accessible, making parallel universes comprehensible without diminishing the subject matter. Had I read these two books in high school I may have paid more attention to my science classes.
Next comes a novel that truly breaks away from YA trends to deliver an eerie thriller in the form of I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells. Our protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver, is a sociopath. He recognizes the danger he poses to society and he makes an effort to block out his baser desires – desires he may have to indulge when something even more dangerous than he comes to town. Wells deserves an award for creating John Wayne Cleaver, the most sympathetic sociopath in all of fiction. The John Cleaver books tell a powerful, haunting coming-of-age tale.
Dan’s brother Robison Wells wrote one of my favorite YA novels of all time, Variant. Fans of The Hunger Games are bound to appreciate this fantastic story (though I consider Variant far superior). It could best be described as a blend of Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, Cube, and the Stanford Prison Experiment. This novel is tense, dripping with paranoia, suspense, and action. Variant is a mature thriller, dealing with the banality of evil and the actions of ordinary people placed under extraordinary circumstances.
My next two suggestions aren’t science fiction or fantasy but I do consider them to be excellent YA novels. Both are teen romance novels (don’t judge me). Both also have been adapted to film, though much was lost in the translation of each. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan is a great, believable story about teen lust, love, heartbreak, and indie rock. I would say that it is infinitely healthier than the type of relationship model proposed by Twilight. It deserves much better than a movie starring Michael Cera. The second book is All the Way by Andy Behrens. This is a different kind of romance, full of comedy and whacky hi-jinx, it is much funnier than the film adaption Sex Drive. It also has a lot of heart and a strong message. I have to slap a big DISCLAIMER on both of these. There are mature themes to be found in both books, particularly sex. Both are recommended age 14+ so use discretion and please don’t send any hate mail.
More of my favorite YA reads include Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books or The Supernaturalist, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, oh and how could I forget – The Diviners by Libba Bray!
Another thing to consider when it comes to readers between 13 and 16 – they don’t necessarily want to read YA. I certainly didn’t. I would suggest finding the reader’s niche. If they read a science fiction book and enjoy it, research the genre to find more books that they might find appealing. I’m sorry if this sounds condescending. That’s not how I intend it. I had family that enthusiastically supported my reading habits but I learned to find interesting material mostly on my own. Whatever you do, please encourage them to keep reading! Don’t rely on the education system to cultivate a love of reading, that’s how you wind up with adolescents that find the hobby boring. Good luck! And if you need any further recommendations please feel free to contact me.
For a classic I’d pick Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, for action and adventure and a little fantastical steampunk there is Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series and Philip Reeve’s The Hungry City Chronicles. There is also Garth Nix’s Sabriel series, which is a fantasy. And for something relatively brand new there’s Witchlanders by Lena Coakley.
I was reminded earlier this week about a book series that I read while I was a younger teenager in High School, and thinking about it, there was a lot of really good books that I burned through while on the bus to school, in between classes and every other random moment between.
T.A. Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin series were a quintet of books that I remember fondly. A neat blend of welsh myth and retelling, The Lost Years of Merlin, The Seven Songs of Merlin, The Fires of Merlin, The Mirror of Merlin and The Wings of Merlin utterly sucked me in when I was reading them. What impressed me the most at the time was the ongoing story line where one book built into the next, something that was a relatively new experience for me. Barron created a vivid, immersive world with some very strong characters in Merlin and Hallia.
Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series was another YA series that really drew me in at the time. It’s four novels: Sandry’s Book, Tris’s Book, Daja’s Book and Briar’s Book follow the four named characters as they’re brought to a magical school from their troubled lives. The series prominently features girls as main characters from various ethnic backgrounds, which sets the series apart from others that I’ve read over the years. A prominent theme for these books are fitting in and learning, which, with some hindsight, were very helpful lessons in school.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was a book that I read many, many times in high school, and several times since. The book has recently been rebranded as a sort of YA novel, and I can see that: children are the main protagonists here as they work to navigate a rigorous and at times, violent school system as Earth trains for an assault against an alien race. The followup parallel novels were also ones that I particularly enjoyed: Ender’s Shadow and Shadows of the Hegemon were two that I enjoyed almost as much.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle is a fantastic read for a teenager. Following Meg Murry and her sibblings, we’re introduced to a fantastic world with high stakes, outstanding characters and a very, very smart story. In the 50 years since it’s been published, it’s held up wonderfully.
The Ear the Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer, takes the reader to a rather fantastic future in 2194 Zimbabwe, where the country’s chief of security’s children escape from their sheltered life and find themselves kidnapped by a gang. A trio of three mutant detectives (The Ear, Eye and Arm), are dispatched to track them down. The world that’s been created here is through provoking, even long after I’ve grown out of the book’s target audience.
The first three novels in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban, while part of a larger arc, are the most restrained of the series, and do well to stand on their own, dealing with issues of loyalty, friendship, and wits. The remaining four books are also excellent, but become books more engaged with the larger series. The first three have always been more personal and meaningful stories for me.
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, and sequels The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are another great set of novels for a budding SF/F fan. These stories have just a bit of everything: high stakes adventure, parallel worlds, magical devices and armored polar bears. The books are a gradual burn, and books well worth returning to every couple of years.
Okay, full disclosure here…I’m going to suggest my OWN books (TimeRiders) simply because they were written specifically to target my own reluctant-reader teenaged son. At the time of writing the first in the series my son had completely given up on the idea of doing something as boring as ‘reading a book’. The books are written in a very filmic style, so that the reading process feels more like watching a big budget movie than consuming text on a page. I hope I can convince you to give it a go…as it worked on my son. He now reads other books as well as keeps up to date with TimeRiders, he’ll never be a complete bookworm, but he DOES now have the book habit.
Reluctant readers are difficult creatures for me to figure out. I was reading by the end of kindergarten, and have ever since. For many years, I was a hardcore fantasy reader; Tolkein, Donaldson, Douglas to name a few. Then I found, right about 15, what is still my ultimate sci-fi read: C.J Cheeryh’s The Cuckoo’s Egg. I loved it! Still do. It was a massive departure from elves, magic users, manly men with swords. The Cuckoo’s Egg’s ‘human raised in an alien culture’ concept sucked me in. The story has aliens, a different faith and justice system, blasters and spaceships, but at it’s core it’s a familiar one: striving for acceptance, rising to the challenge.
Now, with the boom in YA literature, the vast selection of stories and archetypes, there are many, many choices. I think it’s a great time for readers in general, and a good time for reluctant ones to take a peek into what YA has to offer. I’ve tried to read a bit of everything in the section from contemporary romance, to faeries, to horror, but I’m definitely more of a dark paranormal girl. Of the YA sci-fi I’ve read, I would recommend Beth Revis’s Across the Universe series. It’s told from the point-of-view of normal girl thrust into a unexpected, dire situation. The sci-fi elements are handled so well, the entire “world” is sci-fi, but it is done in such a way that’s immersive, not obtrusive. I might suggest it for an older reader, though, a couple scenes are intense. For the younger end of the spectrum, who might want a lighter read, check out Matched, by Ally Condie. I enjoyed how the author told the tale of a girl coming into her own under the totalitarian rule of the dystopian government. Then, there’s Altered, by Jennifer Rush. It’s sci-fi, but doesn’t feel like it. Hot boys, genetic manipulation, stolen memories, and undeniable chemistry. The boys might not remember, but they’re impossible to forget.
Or, they can go all in, and read The Cuckoo’s Egg. I did at that age, and have read it many times since!
1. Almost any of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. As far as fantasy is concerned, these brilliant books are a tremendous gateway – the characters are well-drawn, the jokes are very, very funny, and the stories are endlessly entertaining. And what Pratchett does brilliantly is use his fictional universe to make fun of the real world – check out Moving Pictures (the movie industry), Soul Music (the music industry and rock n’ roll) or The Hogfather (Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and why people believe in them). He’s also written five Discworld aimed at younger readers – give The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents or I Shall Wear Midnight a try…
2. The Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve. This is one of my favourite series of books, a thundering steampunk adventure with fantastic, complicated characters and a world that is totally convincing. In a distant future where the world as we know is it little more than a memory, cities move across the wastelands on enormous tank treads, chasing and devouring towns and villages. Tom and Hester, two children with very different pasts, are forced into a quest to discover the true intentions of the city of London, intentions that have to do with an ancient legend called MEDUSA. Along the way they meet an incredible cast of characters, including Anti-Traction League spies, dead soldiers brought back to life, and a pirate who wants nothing more than to be a gentlemen. The action is fast and furious, the mystery complicated and satisfying, the satire and futurism are clever and subtle, and Reeve maintains the quality across all four books of the series.
3. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. This is a little bit of a cheat as it isn’t out until May, but I was able to read it last year and it’s awesome. It’s set in the aftermath of humanity’s first encounter with aliens which, it is fair to say, didn’t go very well for us. After four waves of attacks, the story follows a teenage girl called Cassie as she embarks on a journey to attempt to rescue her brother, with the help of a deeply mysterious boy named Evan. The atmosphere of paranoia and panic is overwhelming, as alien drones appear from nowhere in the skies, and nobody can be trusted to be what they appear. Yancey juggles hope and despair expertly, creating a driving story full of twists that even veteran readers won’t see coming, and has created a fantastic, morally trouble heroine in Cassie, a girl who wonders exactly how far she will go to save her brother, if it comes to it…
I have to at least mention the obvious one. Countless reluctant readers, both boys and girls, have had their imagination caught by Harry Potter. It was hard to choose between the other books I’d like to recommend. Since these are recommendations for boys and girls, I’ve not included anything heavily romantic. I think it’s vital to catch the imagination of a reluctant reader, so I’ve gone for widely varying books for different tastes, with both male and female lead characters. I’ve chosen books that are the start of a series, so the reader has more possibilities to read if they like the first one.
First, something old. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. When she died, I was struck by how many people said they’d read and loved this book as a teenager. A fantasy, Dragonflight takes you flying on a dragon across Pern.
Second, something new. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. A grim dystopia where children fight to the death on futuristic reality TV.
Third, something that appeals to my personal taste. Fair Coin by E.C. Myers. Ephraim’s magic coin does a lot more than grant wishes. I love science fiction about parallel universes. There’s so much scope for exploring the differences a choice can make to a person or to a world.
Fourth, my wild card. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan. I’ve just been reading this book, in the physically beautiful paperback, and it isn’t standard YA, but it could suit some older YA readers. This is fantasy horror, and I started it with strong personal reservations about books that include angels, so it gets extra points for winning me over. The lead female character is Alice, but this Alice doesn’t go to Wonderland, she literally goes to hell!
A reluctant reader is not a person who doesn’t like reading, it’s a person who hasn’t found what they love yet. Kids don’t have as much opportunity to pick their own books as teens and adults do, so their vision of what’s available tends to be defined by what their parents, teachers, and school librarians give them; if, for example, a kid’s authority figures are feeding him a constant stream of Newberry winners and science fiction, he may never discover that he’s a horror fan, or a historical fan, or a biography fan, or a fantasy fan, or a…you get the idea. If you want to find the avid reader buried inside a reluctant reader, you need to widen your range: don’t give her more books, and don’t assume she’s a poor reader and give her easier books, start giving her different books.
Try offbeat SF books like Interstellar Pig or House of Stairs, both by William Sleator. Try fairy tale retellings like Cinder by Marissa Meyer, or funny books like the Barbara Parks’ Skinnybones–or try both categories at once with The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. A kid who hated Tuck Everlasting might love Anne McCaffery’s fantasy Dragonsong, and a kid who hated Dragonsong might love an American Revolution historical like Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. Some readers want wacky magic hijinks like Harry Potter, and others want gritty dramas like Janci Patterson’s Skipped. Maybe they’ll respond to horror novels, like Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin or Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak series, starting with A Living Nightmare. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right genre because the child himself doesn’t even know what he wants, but the trick is to not assume he likes the same things you do. Whatever your reluctant reader ends up loving, I guarantee that something out there is a perfect fit.
David Macinnis Gill is the author of the debut novel, Soul Enchilada, from Greenwillow/Harper Collins. His short stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Crescent Review and Writer’s Forum. His critical biography of young adult author Graham Salisbury, Graham Salisbury: Island Boy, was published by Scarecrow Press. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English/creative writing and a doctorate in education, both from the University of Tennessee. He is the Past-President of ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) and an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His non-fiction, book reviews, essays, and academic work have appeared in a variety of publications, including The English Journal, Teacher-Librarian, and many others. David’s teaching career began in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was a high school teacher at Brainerd High School and briefly at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. He later joined the English Department at Ohio University as an assistant professor. Currently, he is an associate professor of English education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
David has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schleper, high school teacher, and college professor. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family, plus fourteen fish, two rescued dogs, and a nocturnal marsupial. He is represented by Rosemary Stimola of the Stimola Literary Studio.
The SF/Fantasy field in YA and MG is wide, especially in Fantasy and Dystopia, so the field is rich for reluctant readers to find the book that speaks to them. I’ve come up with some of my personal favorites that I think will appeal to both girls and boys in their mid-teens:
For YA SF:
Chronal Engine by Greg Leitch Smith
Brain Jack by Brian Falkner
Fox Forever: The Jenna Fox Chronicles by Mary Pearson
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Across the Universe by Beth Revis
For YA Fantasy:
Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Ash by Malinda Lo
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Chime by Franny Billingsley
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
I have two daughters, 12 and 10, and the eldest is a reluctant reader while the youngest is voracious. They’re both somewhat innocent – one of the benefits of a Montessori education – so currently they’re content to read middle grade, though my youngest has been working her way through all the Harry Potter books and has graduated to The Lord of the Rings. So, if I was to recommend something for a reluctant reader, it would be nice to know their maturity level. Are they okay with sex and some violence? The intimation of sex?
My wife and I tend to promote stuff that is not very sexual or violent because we’re trying to protect our daughters innocence for as long as we can – not because they’re girls but because they’re OUR girls and deserve a childhood. So many kids these days (I’ve just proven I’m old by typing that) are caught up in a mad, headlong rush toward being adults as soon as possible. Maybe that’s because it’s easier for parents to just let them watch television or stare at an iPad than do arts and crafts or read stories aloud or pay attention to them. That puzzles me. I don’t know about your kids, but my kids are awesome and hanging out is fun.
So I don’t know if I can give you any recommendations for girls, 13-16. Just for girls aged 9-13, really.
I guess, if they’re thirteen or older and thinking about sex, regardless of gender, they should be able to read whatever the hell they want to read. Expose them to enough books and they’ll find something that takes. On a tangent thought, the best way to get a kid to read is to take away their iPhone and iPad, or to regulate it. Seriously, though. If you want your kids to read, parent them. Pay close enough attention to them to know what they’re doing with their time. I’d also say to parents, your kids should see YOU reading. But now I’m getting all crotchety.
But, you want recommendations, right? Okay. My kids love all of the graphic novels of Doug TenNapel, especially Ghostopolis (and I love them too) and I think graphic novels are a good way to ease kids into reading more. I’d recommend Ghostopolis to folks of any age (here’s my Goodreads review ) – and you should check it out before it becomes a movie, which is slated to happen with Hugh Jackman attached. I’d also recommend Cullen Bunn’s The Damned, but for more mature teens.
The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch has been seriously worn out by my reluctant reader, but that might be considered middle grade.
On the tamer end of the spectrum – and I’m just spitballing here – I’d recommend Stephen Gould’s Jumper. It would appeal to most boys – it’s a seriously fantastic book, heartbreaking and full of action. Along with that one, I’d recommend Ender’s Game. Word on the street is that Orson Scott Card has some serious interpersonal issues, but he’s a fine novelist. Strange how that works out.
It’s not available yet, but I just read a hellaciously good young adult novel by Chuck Wendig called Under the Empyrean Sky. I can’t think of a boy or girl that wouldn’t find something wonderful in that read – it’s about a teen, Cael, who’s stuck in a seriously depressed farming community in a near-future agri-dystopia. It’s this crazy mix of dustbowl poverty and Star Wars plot line, where yachts skim over the amber waves of grain and the flotillas of the Empyreans hover overhead, always ready to crush any signs of rebellion with a jackboot.
That’s all I can come up with right now. You know, getting a reluctant reader into books might be more of a issue of method rather than subject matter. One of the ways we dealt with our daughter that didn’t want to read was simply to take her to the library twice a week for a few hours. No devices, no diversions. After a month or two, she began searching out what she likes and taking a lot of pleasure in her choices. She got on a Queen Elizabeth I kick for a while, and then into fashion, and now she’s getting into novels and graphic novels. So, that’s something to think about.
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