Columns > Published on May 11th, 2012

YA Gateway Books: A Primer

"Wait, does it have sparkly vampires in it? Because no."

"Uh, you know we're not in high school anymore, right?"

"Sorry, but I only read real literature."

As a person who preaches the gospel of YA on a daily basis, I've grown accustomed to these types of responses, which are usually accompanied by looks of disdain. I've come to expect the eye rolls and the mockery and even the occasional query about whether or not I'm a total perv. Even with the recent success of The Hunger Games, many people still refuse to believe that books written for teens have any literary merit. But I continue to fight the good fight, because I know the truth, and here it is: YA is awesome, you guys.

Like any good addict, I'm always trying to get other people hooked so we can spend all of our time either doing YA or talking about YA. And the best way to lure people into this world is, of course, with gateway books. In order to exploit people's literary vulnerabilities, I've compiled a list based on common adult preferences. The following novels are so effective, I feel the need to include a Surgeon General type warning.

These books may cause extreme excitement and literary satisfaction. The substance of these books is known to be insanely addictive and may lead to loss of focus, time and the ability to do anything else besides read YA literature.

'The Chaos Walking' Trilogy by Patrick Ness

For sci-fan fans who think the violence in the The Hunger Games was mere child's play.

Set on a distant planet colonized by humans, this trilogy follows the journey of Todd Hewitt, the last boy to be born before all of the women died and men began hearing each other's thoughts, known as "The Noise." Most of the colonists blame the Spackle, the alien species they drove to extinction, for The Noise, and the only person who seems to have the cure is Mayor Prentiss, one of the most deliciously written villains in the young adult genre. After Todd catches wind of the Mayor's sinister plans for him, he escapes along with his dog, Manchee, and the journey that follows is terrifying, brutal and emotionally riveting. Patrick Ness not only writes in a unique and compelling style, he also seems bent on ripping your heart out and then stomping on it repeatedly. Bonus: The first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is being made into a film with a script adapted by none other than Charlie Kaufman.

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'The Fault In Our Stars' by John Green

For readers who prefer modern novels of the slightly quirky variety

John Green is a superstar of the YA world, and for good reason. He writes authentic teens surrounded by ordinary circumstances who somehow become extraordinary, and his wit is rife with charm and whimsicality. This book, his latest, is initially a tough sell, because it's about a girl with cancer. (So if you know anyone in need of a good weaning from Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult, this novel is an especially great choice.) But rest assured, this is not your typical Wind Beneath My Wings tear-jerker, although tears will definitely be shed. The story of Hazel Grace Lancaster is a breathtaking mix of cancer's cruel normality and life's warped sense of humor; it's a tale of bad reality TV and meetings in the Literal Heart of Jesus and Max Mayhem crusades and a trip to Amsterdam and an amazing boy named Augustus Waters. One of my favorite things about the young adult genre is that its writers aren't afraid to take risks, and this gem of a book is one of the most liberating examples I've ever encountered.

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'Divergent' by Veronica Roth

For people who still have a Buffy-sized badass heroine hole in their hearts.

Sure, Katniss Everdeen is a tough gal, but if she ever had to rumble with Beatrice Prior, I'd put all of my money on Beatrice. An unlikely heroine, Beatrice has grown up in the selfless, charitable faction of Roth's dystopian version of the United States, where people are put into one of five communities based on their natural abilities. When Beatrice is tested to determine which faction she should choose after her 16th birthday, she discovers that she's equally matched in two areas, including Dauntless, the clan of warriors. Leaving everything behind, she pursues a cutthroat life of weapons training, fighting and basically trying to stay alive, but her greatest challenge comes when she uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to take down the entire society. Honestly, this book should come with a free oxygen bag, because you'll forget to breathe as you race through every action-packed page. Inventive and incredibly intense, Divergent is the first in a trilogy that promises to leave no nail unbitten and no hair unpulled.

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'Please Ignore Vera Dietz' by A.S. King

For readers who like to keep it real... but still escape reality.

The key to quality young adult literature is honesty, and A.S. King has it in spades. She's hilariously honest and achingly honest and terrifyingly honest; she's 31 flavors of honest, is what I'm staying. She's a beautifully frank writer, and in this story of Vera Dietz, a pizza delivery girl in a love/hate relationship with the ghost of her dead best friend, King crafts a deeply moving portrait of adolescence and the pain and exhilaration that comes with it, both for the teenager and for the parent. Vera's dad is layered, complex and utterly lovable, and his flow charts could probably solve world hunger. Even the town pagoda has advice to share, although as we all discovered as teenagers, sometimes it's better not to know everything. This is the kind of novel that wraps around your mind and refuses to let go, which is good, because you won't want to let it go either.

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'Before I Fall' by Lauren Oliver

For fans of Mean Girls and Groundhog Day.

Oliver manages to take a tired premise-- What if you had to relive the same day, over and over?-- and make it fresh (not to mention utterly devastating) by focusing on the life of a high school queen bee. Sam Kingston is, pardon my French, a total bitch, and yet, after possibly dying in a car crash and endlessly reliving the day leading up the accident, she unravels into someone with whom we can all identify, whether you were a cheerleader, drama nerd or band geek. Thanks to Oliver's beautiful prose and nuanced characters, this pivotal day in Sam's life is a gut-wrenching exploration of the crushing politics of high school, the human need for acceptance and the power to choose our identity. What could have been the plot for a bad Lifetime movie is, instead, a gorgeously haunting book that will resonate with your soul for weeks after the final sentence is read.

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About the author

Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse and coordinates events at The Highball, a playground for adults. Tired of feeling like a creepy old lady in the bookstore YA section, she created Forever Young Adult to provide grown-ups with a community where they can gush about young adult literature without shame. In addition to crushing on fictional teenage boys, Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and macaroni and cheese.

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