Best of 2011, Part the First: Young Adult

Saving the two major categories – adult fiction and nonfiction – for later, here are a few of the best young adult (YA) books that I read in 2011 (not necessarily published in 2011).

Looking for Alaska, by John Green
I was utterly blown away by this book. It is set at a boarding school in Alabama, where the main character Miles Halter (a.k.a. Pudge) comes seeking a “great perhaps.” What he finds is a teacher who makes him think, a friend who makes him laugh, and a girl who makes him dream – and breaks his heart. The structure of the book is unique: it is divided into two parts, Before and After, and instead of chapter headings there are countdowns (e.g. 121 days before; 29 days after). Looking for Alaska is a classic, tragic coming-of-age story, along the lines of Bridge to Terabithia and A Separate Peace. (I highly recommend John Green’s other books as well, including his newest, The Fault in Our Stars.)

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
Warning: This book will make you paranoid, for at least as long as it takes to read it and several days after. It features Marcus, a high school hacker who uses his intelligence primarily to evade the school’s efforts to invade his privacy. Marcus and his friends get drawn into a much bigger battle against a much more powerful enemy when the Department of Homeland Security picks them up after the Golden Gate Bridge is blown up. Part thought experiment, part meditation on privacy, security, and freedom (though meditation is too quiet a word to describe this book), Little Brother is thought-provoking, action-packed, and a little bit frightening – it’s our world, once-removed.

The Body of Christopher Creed, by Carol Plum-Ucci
Simply one of the best YA mysteries I have read in ages. Social outcast Christopher Creed goes missing after leaving an ambiguous note, and his classmate Torey Adams cannot let the disappearance rest – especially when rumors that Chris was murdered begin swirling, and fingers are pointed at people that Torey is sure are innocent. Torey is often introspective, musing on the nature of popularity and friendship, but this intensifies the suspense of the story rather than slowing it down. (There is also a sequel, Following Christopher Creed, which does not disappoint.)

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
A dystopian novel in a sea of dystopian novels, Uglies exceeded my expectations. In Tally Youngblood’s world, everyone is surgically transformed from an Ugly to a Pretty when they turn 16, and Tally can’t wait – but her transformation depends on betraying her friends, who ran away to escape being turned Pretty. When Tally goes after them, her journey and the people she meets open her eyes to what being Pretty really means. (This series continues through Pretties, Specials, and Extras. I read Pretties, and enjoyed it, but did not feel compelled to continue after that.)

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly
Fans of historical fiction: stop whatever you’re doing, go find this book, and read it. Set in the Adirondacks in 1906, A Northern Light is 16-year-old Mattie Gokey’s story. Mattie’s mother is dead, and Mattie has shouldered her duties on the farm, including taking care of her younger siblings. Mattie dreams of being a writer, and has a teacher who believes in her and encourages her; but a future as a writer is incompatible with the deathbed promise she made to her mother. Will Mattie put her family first, or her own dreams? Her decision hinges on a bundle of letters that a visitor leaves in her care, with instructions to destroy them – but Mattie reads them, and it changes the course of her life. (Inspired by the same case that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.)

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