Every once in a while I’ll vaguely remember the premise of a book I read as a child, and in a vain attempt to find its title, come up with a hodgepodge of Google search terms. (IE: “YA book, mother with breast cancer, prematurely sexualized cousin, lost dog”) Many truly great YA books go forgotten, so the ones that do stick in your mind deserve to be celebrated. Many of the following books are no longer in print, but if you happen to spot one in a used book shop or deep in the bowels of Amazon, don’t hesitate. Trust me.
Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern (1999)
Ernest Morlaisse lives a quiet life with his grandmother in France until, in the words of the Fresh Prince, his “world gets twisted, turned upside down.” The catalyst is a young girl named Victoria with a booming Weasley-esque family. After meeting her, Ernest begins to question his entire humdrum existence – pretty heavy stuff for a 10 year old. In the span of less than 100 pages, Old WWI letters are deciphered, lost fathers appear, and Ernest falls in love. It’s the kind of book that ruins you as a kid, making you curse the day you weren’t born a lonely French orphan.
The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer (1997)
This is a romance novel for girls who never shave their legs in the winter “just to see how long it’ll grow.” Based on its cover, the book may look like a run-of-the-mill Lurlene McDaniel schlockfest, but it’s anything but. The heroine hates romance novels, along with long-winded descriptions of “people’s tongues and spittle.” Thus, her Christmas romance is filled with awkward conversations and gawky romantic encounters. She also has a sky-high IQ, so you can bet there are no “lipid pools” of desire in these pages. It’s the stuff Michael Cera movies are made of, minus the twee soundtrack.
Socks by Beverly Cleary (1973)
I am a vehement dog-person, but even I broke down in anguished sobs while reading this feline-centric novel. The story is told from the perspective of a tabby cat that is adopted by a yuppie couple who showers it with love and attention. That is, until a baby comes into the picture and poor Socks is left yowling alone in an alley, being chased by dogs and possibly contracting mange. If you’ve ever considered owning a pet, this book is required reading. Its account of an animal’s need for love is 100 times more effective than any commercial Sarah McLachlan throws your way.
We Interrupt This Semester for an Important Bulletin by Ellen Conford (1979)
Ellen Conford was a prolific YA author during the
70’s and 80’s, and this book showcases her at her peak. A sequel to the equally
good Dear Lovey Hart, I Am Desperate,
it follows the romance between sophomore Carrie and senior/editor-in-chief of
the school newspaper, Chip. Again, it’s not your typical romance novel, despite
the occasional dreamy description of Chip’s jawline. Carrie has dreams of
becoming a hard-hitting journalist, and she tries not to let her weakness for
Burt Reynolds look-a-likes get in the way. Bonus: it features an amusing but
realistic look at the dangers of drinking one too many Brandy Alexanders.
Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar (1987)
Consider this book a prototype for the movie Mean Girls. The heroine, Laura Sibbie, has more than a little Tracy Flick in her, and prides herself on the fact that she has never once told a lie. That all comes crashing down when she forms an exclusive, secret club (called Pig City – don’t ask) with her friends. Rival clubs begin to form, secrets are spilled, and her best friend is nearly tickled to death. If none of this interests you, take solace in the fact that Louis Sachar, YA author extraordinaire, is behind this, infusing it with as much heart and gross-out humor one would expect from the master.
Morning Is a Long Time Coming by Bette Greene (1999)
This is the sequel to the very popular Summer of My German Soldier, in which Patty, a Jewish teenager, secretly houses Anton, a German POW, in her basement. The novel takes place six years later, when Patty finally escapes her emotionally abusive parents and travels to Germany to learn more about Anton’s family. Along the way she falls in love with an older French man, which is as steamy as you can get in a YA novel. After the tragedy of the first novel, the sequel is a welcome breath of optimism and a friendly reminder that you can always run away to Europe in order to ditch your nagging father.
Credit: Flickr user dfulmer. Used with a Creative Commons license.