When I was an actual teenager and not an adult obsessed with reading books made for teenagers, I wasn’t really a big part of the reading ‘community’. In fact, when I was in junior high and high school, there wasn’t nearly as big of a community as there is now. There were no BookTubers, no GoodReads, or if there was, they were still babies. I know, how old is this bitch, right? But I digress.
My point is, I didn’t have those resources to have books recommended to me, so I literally went to my public library, started with A, and went down the shelf reading at least the first chapter of everything there, until I found something interesting and stuck to it. Some of the stuff I read is talked about a lot, or was back then at least, but the real gems were hidden. And yeah, a lot of these I’ve seen recommended, but they aren’t talked about nearly as much as other YA books; even some oldies still get a lot of attention (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example). But I’m about to dig out the ones that I haven’t heard many people talk about. And I noticed that when I was making my list, a lot of them start with S. Which is irrelevant, but a fun fact all the same.
So here’s what we’re gonna talk about today:
- Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
- Wide Awake by David Levithan
- Sweetblood by Pete Hautman
- Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus
- Sisters in Sanity by Gayle Forman
- The Curse Workers series by Holly Black
- Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss
So, first on my list is Slice of Cherry, by Dia Reeves, and to be honest, I’m not one hundred percent sure this counts as YA, because this one I did find on GoodReads as an adult, not on the shelves as a teenager. But it’s about teenage girls, so I’m just gonna go with it.
It’s about two sisters, Fancy and Kit, who happen to be the daughters of a famous serial killer who’s currently in prison. They live in a town that’s very Night-Vale-esque, where weird stuff happens all the time and the line between reality and fantasy is extremely thin. When a man breaks into their house and tries to assault them, they catch him and keep him captive in their basement, after which they find out that they have the power to cross dimensions and enter a world they can control every part of, no matter how gruesome their control gets.
If it sounds weird, it absolutely is. This story is very much not for everyone, in fact, I would go so far to say that only a very specific niche of people would enjoy it as much as I did. It’s just downright bizarre. Their dimension traveling is the only thing in the story that’s perceived as odd in any way; their hostage in the basement? Totally normal. All the weird shit that happens in their little southern town? Totally normal, which is why it reminds me a lot of Night Vale. If you like both Welcome to Night Vale and horror movies, this is probably a good read for you.
But even though a part of me knows how ridiculous this book is, I can’t help but love it. Two black, homicidal southern belles who beat the shit out of a man who tries to assault them in their sleep, then find out they have inter-dimensional traveling powers that allow them to make their own beautiful fucked-up world in which they can do any sadistic thing that strikes their fancy? Absolutely beautiful to me.
If you have the patience for bizarro fantasy and can accept weird plot devices without expecting any kind of logic or realism, definitely give this a read.
Trigger warnings for violence and gore. Hoo boy, lots of violence and gore. And if the idea of the dude breaking into their house makes you queasy even though they caught him, maybe trigger warning for that too.
Next on my list is Wide Awake by David Levithan. When I hear people talk about David Levithan, I usually hear about Every Day, and for good reason, since that book is the bomb dot com; or Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I didn’t really like as much. But this was the first David Levithan book I ever read, and it represented a future that Teenage Kell really hoped for. I think it’s still extremely relevant today, although some more cynical readers may find it a bit too optimistic about America’s future. Nothing wrong with being cynical these days, though.
The book, set in the near future, follows Duncan and his boyfriend Jimmy, two adorable gay boys (of course; it’s David Levithan!) who are absolutely high on life, and for good reason: a gay Jewish man was just elected president. Jimmy and Duncan have been working on his campaign as volunteers for the last few months, and the news comes as a huge victory for the extremely liberal community they live in. At first glance, this seems like the future we all dream of.
However, of course, because white cishet men suck balls, the governor of Kansas gets his panties in a twist and demands a recount. The president elect wants to fight back, and encourages all of his volunteers on the campaign trail to go to Kansas and show their support. So Jimmy, Duncan, and their posse all load up on a bus and start heading to Kansas. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, their dedication to their cause becomes more and more difficult as the good people of Kansas scream slurs and attack the protesters. It’s a good look into how far someone will go to stand up for what they believe in.
If you don’t engage in politics, and want to keep it that way, this book is not for you. I have mixed feelings about how relevant this is today; on the one hand, the fact that it is still relevant, despite being published over ten years ago, is discouraging. However, I feel like it’s something that would make a lot of people feel better about the current political climate, should they decide to pick it up. When the gang hits rock bottom, it’s really, really rock bottom, but it doesn’t stay that way. I would recommend this to people who need some hope right now.
Trigger warnings for homophobic and antisemitic slurs, and some violence.
Now let’s talk about Sweetblood by Pete Hautman and take a break from all that political drama. This has been one of my favorite books since I was a kid (it was published when I was a wee lad of ten, but I probably read it when I was twelve or thirteen), and it’s focused on an illness that I don’t see represented in YA very often: type one diabetes. Should that be capitalized? Type 1 Diabetes? I don’t know. For the purpose of this blurb, let’s just call it diabetes.
Lucy Szabo is a teenage goth girl, and when I say goth, I don’t mean Sam from Danny Phantom goth, I mean extremely goth. Black hair, black lipstick, leather and lace clothes, chains clinking whenever she walks. But something that sets Lucy apart is that she has a very interesting and entirely plausible theory: that the vampire legend came from old records of untreated diabetics. She describes in a school paper the effects of untreated diabetes; sickly pallor, insatiable hunger, retracting gums, manic state. When she presents this theory to a forum full of vampire enthusiasts, they brush her off; all except one, who claims to be a real vampire.
First off, this is not a supernatural story. Spoiler alert: this dude is not a real vampire any more than kinksters with blood fetishes are real vampires. Honestly, that’s not really a spoiler, since the dude really only sets her story in motion; it doesn’t revolve around him at all. The real story is about how Lucy learns to embrace her life with her illness and figure out how to balance everything out with parents who walk on eggshells around her and very few friends she can confide in. There are times this reads like a very unconventional slice of life story, and I’m into it.
Pete Hautman’s prose, especially Lucy’s inner monologue, is absolutely amazing, and stuns me even now. It’s also a very short read; when I reread it, I can usually finish it in one sitting.
Trigger warnings for blood and needles, creepy middle aged dudes that hang out with high schoolers, and some drinking and smoking.
NEXT UP! Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus. Let’s get this out of the way: the movie sucked balls. God, do I ever love Hugh Dancy, but I am embarrassed that he was a part of that disaster. Almost everything but the character names were changed, including the location, relationships, dynamics, everything. It’s like someone literally just flipped through the book and read a couple sentences and decided it sounded like a vaguely good idea.
Now that that’s out of the way. Blood and Chocolate is a werewolf book, and I love me some werewolves. The main character is Vivian, a young she-wolf whose pack was just forced to move after a huge tragedy killed her father and sent their pack into turmoil. They’re in need of a new leader, and Gabriel seems like the obvious choice; he’s a total beefcake, a great leader, and cares deeply about his fellow wolves. He’s also extremely interested in Vivian, who has no interest in any of the pack boys, but perks up when she meets a human boy at her school who writes a beautiful poem about werewolves that she identifies with. But how will he react when she shows her second skin to him? Will he be able to see her as beautiful as both girl and wolf? And how long can her pack survive without an alpha?
This sounds like a love triangle, but it really isn’t; Gabriel is respectful of her when she doesn’t show interest in him for the most part, and even though he flirts, and tells her what a bad idea it is to play with her food, so to speak, it’s the concern for her that drives him, not jealousy. You never get the big ‘WHO WILL SHE CHOOSE?’ vibe, like in The Hunger Games, for example. If I had to compare this trifecta to something, it would be Pocahontas, John Smith, and Kocoum from the Disney version of Pocahontas.
It also doesn’t sound like something I would read ordinarily, and you would be correct. The thing that really makes me love this book is how much power Vivian holds in her relationships; she doesn’t have boys chasing after her, but it’s obvious that she’s constantly aware and thoughtful about the people who court her. There’s never any sweeping her off her feet or turning her into a blushing waif. She’s always a tough-ass werewolf girl who does whatever the fuck she wants. In fact, Vivian is one of my favorite YA protagonists of all time, if not my actual favorite. What’s also refreshing is that she knows she’s attractive, and has pride in her appearance; so many YA girls dedicate paragraphs of inner monologue about how average or awkward they look, which makes me feel uncomfortable as a female reader.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, please just pretend the movie doesn’t exist and read the book. I’m very, very rarely a snob about that, but this adaptation was so bad and it’s a story I love so much that it makes me nauseous just thinking about it.
Trigger warnings for violence and body horror.
You probably know Gayle Forman’s name for more recent works like If I Stay and Just One Day, but I wanna talk about her first novel, Sisters in Sanity. Now, let me just say, her writing has matured since then, and this book is anything but perfect. It’s also really not a good portrayal of a supposed rehab center. In all honesty, it’s probably really not that great a book, technically. But it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, and here’s why.
The book is about a girl named Brit, a teenage punk with dyed hair and tattoos who plays guitar in a rock band. You know, pretty much Lindsay Lohan’s character in Freaky Friday. Her stepmother and father decide that she’s getting a little bit too alternative for their tastes and ship her off to a center for misbehaving teenage girls, a center that houses everything from queer girls, to overweight girls, to girls they think are a bit too promiscuous. It’s something that would literally never manage to exist in real life without being shut down the second someone went to inspect it. But, as you may have realized by now, whether or not it could happen in real life is not a criteria I care about in any media I consume.
So she’s stuck in this rehab center and completely miserable, until she makes friends with a group of her fellow rebel girls: Bebe, a rich girl and serial dater whose soap opera actress mother sent her to the rehab center for her promiscuity; Cassie, a queer girl whose parents and counselors think she’s a lesbian when she’s really bisexual (Canonically! Mentioned by name!); Martha, an overweight girl who can’t even attempt to lose weight thanks to the shitty food at the rehab center; and V, a mysterious older girl whose issues stay shrouded. The girls form an incredibly supportive friendship and start plotting their mission to expose the rehab center for what it really is.
Again, this book is not like, quality literature. It’s not as short as Sweetblood but it’s still something light enough that you could probably finish it in one sitting. But what I love most about this book is the friendship these five girls have. I am an absolute sucker for supportive lady friendships and I will gladly consume anything that features it predominantly no matter how bad the book is. So even though the writing is pretty mediocre, the characters are fantastic, their friendship is amazing, and I always close the book at the end feeling happier.
Trigger warnings for physical and emotional abuse, body image and eating disorders.
White Cat and the rest of the Curse Workers series by Holly Black is a series that does get talked about, but not nearly as much as I think it should. Most people know Holly Black these days for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and The Darkest Part of the Forest, neither of which, admittedly, I have read, but I did read her Modern Fairy Tales series when I was younger and loved them. But this series is better by far.
The main character is Cassel, who is the straight man in a mob family. But these guys are different than your average gang; this family has the ability to do all sorts of nifty and horrific things, including changing someone’s memories, emotions, and luck, just by touching them. The curse work they do is illegal, which, of course, is what makes them criminals. Cassel is an outsider for another reason, too; he doesn’t have any curse worker powers.
Pretty soon, though, weird things start happening. Cassel starts sleepwalking, his brothers start acting strange, and he keeps having dreams about a mysterious white cat that seems as if it’s trying to tell him something. He starts to suspect that his family has used their powers on him, and he has to figure out what they’re trying to hide.
These books totally enraptured me, and from the very first chapter I could not put them down. I read them when I was just out of high school, so a reread is in order very soon. One of Cassel’s brothers is gay, which has become almost a requirement for me, and he’s a pretty prominent character, so it doesn’t really bug me that the only queer rep is a supporting character. If you love the mobster feel, if you love West Side Story and The Godfather and those little arctic shrews from Zootopia, you will love this.
Trigger warnings for violence.
The last book I want to talk about is a book about cancer that came long before The Fault in Our Stars: Side-Effects by Amy Goldman Koss. I liked this a lot more than The Fault in Our Stars, too. It’s one that I found while randomly perusing the library shelves, and I just liked the cover, so I picked it up because it looked like a pretty quick read. It’s about as long as Sweetblood, so again, a relatively short one. I like to read these short contemporaries between books in big fantasy series as a sort of palate cleanser so that the fantasy series doesn’t get old for me, and this is a good one to do that with.
It revolves around a teenage girl named Izzy who’s diagnosed with lymphoma. The book follows her struggle as she goes through chemotherapy, loses her hair, and endures her hospital stay while making friends with the girl in the bed next to her. Honestly, there’s not much more plot than that without giving spoilers, and since the book is so short, but throughout it Izzy stays as optimistic and snarky as possible, presenting us with a book about kids with cancer that’s… not sad?
I loved that about this book. Most of the time, when you pick up a book about someone with an illness like cancer, you expect a depressing, sad journey that ends in a lot of death and grief. Not so with this one. The entire time she’s undergoing treatment, Izzy remains lighthearted and tough, a character with so much personality and wit who never mopes or feels sorry for herself, even when she has reason to. I would advise it as a read for someone who has a loved one dealing with cancer or another serious illness like this one.
Trigger warnings for all your standard hospital stuff; needles, blood, vomit, et cetera.
And that’s it! Do you have any YA books that you think don’t get enough attention? Tell me about them and I might put them on my reading list! But please consider reading these, they are hidden gems.