The Thrilling, Traumatic Lives of Teens: The Fall’s Best YA Fiction

First published on The Daily Beast, November 8, 2014. Read the original here.

It’s been a great fall for young-adult readers, with a fantastic crop of books from both new and veteran authors out just in time to fill back-to-school backpacks. But the shelves can get a bit crowded this time of year, so if you need some help weeding through the stacks (whether for yourself or for a teen in your life), here are three recent favorites.

By: Jandy Nelson
Published: Sept. 16

Occasionally, I’ve gotten so involved in a book that I’ve missed my subway stop because I was reading; Jandy Nelson’s Ill Give You the Sun might be the first time where I saw my stop and skipped it anyway.

Told in alternating first-person chapters from the perspectives of Noah and Jude, a pair of fraternal twins in the California surf town of Lost Cove, Give is a breathtaking novel about secrets—how keeping them can destroy us and releasing them can set us free. Yet for all its dark moments (which include suicide attempts, sexual assault, and infidelity), the writing is suffused with playfulness and love. Nelson manages the nearly impossible task of keeping the reader on constant tenterhooks, yet never letting us doubt that she has the best interest of all her characters at heart. No wonder it’s already been optioned for a feature film by Warner Brothers.

But what really sets Give apart from other YA novels is its writing. Nelson doesn’t pander to her readers. Her sentences and structure are complex and imaginative. If you enjoy the high-intensity pace of young-adult writing, but often find yourself wishing for a semi-colon or a mind-blowing metaphor, Ill Give You the Sun is the book for you.


By: Dylan Landis

Published: Sept. 1

Rainey Royal, the first novel from O. Henry prize-winning author Dylan Landis, might not technically be young adult, despite the fact that the eponymous protagonist spends most of the book as a teenager. But as the book itself says, we’ve all known a girl like Rainey: dangerous and endangered, forced to grow up too quickly, alternately delighted by and terrified of the adult interactions she shouldn’t be having. She’s always pushing the moment further, even when part of her feels like backing down, and the result is a story that feels dangerous—as though something might break at any moment.

It’s rare to find one of these girls captured so perfectly in fiction. Too often they’re reduced to victims or vixens. Landis is content to let Rainey be one, both, or neither, depending on the moment. Over the course of 14 related stories, we watch as Rainey grows up in a cult-like, crumbling townhouse in 1970s Greenwich Village, presided over by her immoral, overly sexual father, a minor light in the avant jazz scene.

Rainey is no one’s idea of a role model—her mean-girl manipulations occasionally go so far as to become felonies—and some adult readers might feel uncomfortable giving this book to an actual teenager. But for certain young readers, Rainey’s struggles with early onset adulthood will provide a kind of comfort that they’re most likely unwilling or unable to ask for.


By: Meg Wolitzer

Published: Sept. 30

Fittingly enough, Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar is actually a back-to-school novel. Her heroine, Jam Gallahue, is just about to start her first year at The Wooden Barn, a private school deep in the woods of Vermont for “highly intelligent, emotionally fragile” high-school students. Jam is there because of the sudden death of her boyfriend, Reeve, and the listless state of major depression it throws her into.

In a mashup of all things hot in YA right now, Jam and four other students find themselves entering a paranormal universe that helps them move past the traumas they have endured. At times, the novel is a tad formulaic, with a “one-of-each” approach to the other characters and their backstories that leaves everyone except Jam feeling a little wooden. But Jam herself is a fantastic portrait of a girl somehow younger than her own age, unable to cope with the hardships of being a teenager, and the final twist of the novel reveals an unexpected aspect to her character that makes her all the more heartbreaking. It might not capture most adults, but be prepared for a whole host of young girls to read this book over and over again.