Books for Young Adults: Reviews and “Read-A-Likes”

Teen ReadingWhile teenagers not reading “enough” is a perennial concern for adults, a recent article by Hannah Withers and Laurel Ross (published in McSweeneys) suggests that teens are reading far more than their fretting adult counterparts. A recent study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project entitled “Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits” reported that sixteen- and seventeen-year olds not only read, but are more reliant on their local libraries than any other age group surveyed. While journalist and YA writer Robert Lispyte points out that there is still work to be done in engaging boys in reading, it is clear that organizations such as Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), have made real headway in encouraging YA authors and readers. Despite the disbanding of the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Services, two new networks have made an impact in the past few years. The Canadian Libraries are Serving Children Network and the Canadian Libraries are Serving Youth Network focus on nurturing children and young adults to become life-long readers. Many thanks to Cabot Yu, a founding member of the latter group, for passing these resources along.

There are fantastic children and young adult librarians across the country that are well-tuned to the cognitive and entertainment needs of young people. Even a seasoned reference librarian can make helpful suggestions to a young adult looking for a “good book” (however the young adult defines this). By chatting about past books a young adult has read and enjoyed, and what sort of reading experience they currently seek, the librarian can make the young adult an active participant in the search for the “good book,” all the while teaching them searching methods. Below are some reviews and “read-a-likes” of young adult books, whether they be classics or soon-to-be-classics.


Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Science Fiction
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1985. Print.
Winner of the Hugo Award and Nebula Award.

Albert Einstein said that “great spirits have always encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds”. Einstein anticipates the truth around which Andrew “Ender” Wiggins continually circumambulates, with few allies and fewer alternatives. Ender lives a world that subsists in constant expectation of attack from another planet, one whose previous attack nearly crippled Earth. Since that time the government has trained the world’s children to fight this strange enemy. Children, whose bodies are more agile and minds more disciplined than those of men, are mandatorily trained and tested with the expectation that one child will stand out from the rest. This exceptional child would be the hope of the world and the destruction of the strange invaders. At six years old, Ender Wiggin is this outstanding student.

Ender’s Game is the catalyst in a novel dynasty that has sparked novels, short stories, and graphic novels. Although teens may not immediately be drawn to a book whose antagonist is five at the outset of the story, they have the opportunity to grow with their protagonist, as by the end of the book Ender is in his early twenties. Hopefully any teen will realize that the hero’s age is a trivial matter when compared with the question of exceptional content. The author integrates the common struggles of childhood and early adolescence, such as schoolyard bullying, with the awesome imaginative efforts of battle in zero-gravity. The well-built tension of this excellent piece of science fiction lies in Card’s ability to balance a variety of enemies, all with their own motives, and the fragile yet ultimately indomitable spirit of its hero.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky


A Voice of Her Own, by Barbara Dana

A Voice of Her Own, by Barbara Dana

Dana, Barbara. A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson. New York: HarperTeen, 1992. Print.

In comparison with many historical figures, Emily Dickinson remains an elusive character despite her incredibly prolific and personal poetry. Known widely for her simple yet elegant poems, many people do not know that Dickinson spent most of her life within the confines of her home, and many of those years she spent in the solitary safety of her room. Less still is known of her young womanhood, a puzzle that Barbara Dana takes pains to conjure in A Voice of Her Own. Following Emily through such common yet heartfelt tribulations as losing friends and moving the family’s home to unknown  and strange new places, we connect with Emily through her budding love of poetry and the freedom that it grants her.

Dana portrays Dickinson much as her poetry would suggest her to be, a gentle and sensitive girl who spends much of her time in her own head. Since Emily was contemplative instead of social this diminishes the amount of dialogue quite a bit, but Dana’s writing is so enjoyable that it is not a noted absence but a pleasure. Due to extensive research on her part, Dana is respectful of all of the characters she has acquired from history as she carefully recreates tender moments between Emily and her friends and family. Young adult fans of historical fiction could do little better than to enjoy this novel, which brims with subtle humour and grace.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
The Book Thief by Markus Zusa


Never Going Home Again, by Shannon Holmes

Never Going Home Again, by Shannon Holmes

Urban Fiction
Holmes, Shannon. Never Going Home Again. New York: Atria Books, 2004. Print.

From the start of Never Going Home Again Corey, the book’s protagonist, is his own antagonist. Corey’s lifelong advocates are his mother and his father, who from an early age make sure to call Corey to the television every time a drug dealer is arrested, provide Corey with the tangible results of a life wasted. Notwithstanding, Corey’s parents are unable to constantly remain by his side and by the age of sixteen Corey is behind bars at the notorious Riker’s Island penitentiary, where he is meant to discover the meaning of enemies, loneliness, and regret. The reader follows Corey through the process of parole rejection, solitary confinement for assault on another prisoner, and his eventual release.

Shannon makes no excuses for the life that Corey lives, which is marked by the illegal trafficking and selling of drugs and unmitigated violence. The book demonstrates the differences between Corey’s blood-family and his “street” family, one of which writes letters to Corey during his incarceration, and one which makes no contact whatsoever. Corey takes away no lessons from his time in prison and due to his terrible treatment of women and lack of self-reflection the only reason the reader has for sympathizing with his dreadful end is the memory that he was someone’s child. “Never go home again” is good advice that Corey refused, leaving the reader the sole beneficiary of this guidance.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Street Pharm by Allison van Diepen


A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

Controversial, Challenged, or Banned
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Dell Publishing, 1962. Print.

The Murrays are a family of oddities, with the exception of society-approved twin brothers Sandy and Dennis. An ingenious yet befuddled father who has not been seen or heard from for years, a luminous yet isolated mother, a little brother who is generally acknowledged to be a simpleton but whose genius actually exceeds that of his entire family, and Meg Murray, the sister who has allowed herself to be convinced that her fate is that of an enraged misfit. A curious series of events leads Meg and her young brother Charles Wallace to embark upon a perilous journey to find their long-lost father. Guided and protected (to a point) by unworldly companions, in the end Meg must rely upon her own strength to conquer a seemingly inexorable evil.

There is a bizarre and alarming correlation between books that have been awarded for their literary merit and those that have been challenged or banned. A Wrinkle in Time is just one of these volumes, saved from the obscurity which befalls many banned books by a dedicated and thoughtful audience. L’Engle more than earns the loyalty as she steeps her audience in dual fears: of the terrible unknown and of one’s own shortcomings. A Wrinkle in Time is awash with complex characters and timeless values, particularly the importance of family, yet L’Engle is careful to omit preaching in favour of what is simply a great story. Despite, and perhaps in part because of, past attempts to remove this book entirely, A Wrinkle in Time merits welcome into any teen’s library.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


The Apprentice's Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain, by Melanie Little

The Apprentice’s Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain, by Melanie Little

Little, Melanie. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece. Toronto: Annick Press, 2008. Print.

During the Spanish Inquisition, the Kingdom of Andalusia in Spain is a volatile and religiously intolerant society. The Apprentice’s Masterpiece focuses on two young men whose hopes and secrets that increasingly conflict. Ramon is from a Jewish family which has converted to Christianity in order to escape the wrath of the Inquisitor, and Amir is a practicing Muslim who works for Ramon’s father. Both boys show promise, but sadly the two live during a time when “correct” piety is of greater worth than honest ability. As the Inquisition becomes bloodier the two boys are pitted against one another, with tragic consequences. Written entirely in verse, at times focusing on Ramon and at others on Amir, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece is about the catastrophe of losing one’s freedoms and one’s moral compass.

This Canadian novel is the winner of almost a dozen literary awards, and with good reason. Beautifully written and continuously moving, this book is not only a lesson in poetry but an invaluable lesson in history. Little has taken her backdrop straight from the history books and, although there is no record of individuals such as Amir and Ramon actually having existed, through the vivid language and emotion with which the author writes it is easy to imagine that such a situation may have existed. Perhaps it is enough that this tale has existed on these pages to create a warning for all young people regarding the terrible effect of prejudice and self-glorification.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-Hop and the Poetry of the Underground by Mark Eleveld and Marc Smith
Poetry Comics: An Animated Anthology by Dave Morice


All Star Superman, Vol. 1, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

All Star Superman, Vol. 1, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

Graphic Novel
Morrison, Grant and Frank Quietly. All Star Superman. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print.

The archetypical superhero is featured in six stories in this bright-hued comic book. Creative and articulate, each episode is fast-paced and gripping, leaving readers eager to get to the next page. From Clark’s decision to leave the family farm to his increasingly complicated relationship with Lois Lane, the authors aren’t afraid to reflect on the traditional stories and play with them, providing new facets to time-honoured characters. In the episode “Sweet Dreams, Super Woman” Superman concocts a potion which grants Lois all of Superman’s powers for one day, leading to some amusing interplay between the two. The stories work as a self-contained unit even while they provide a frame on which to weave further tales.

Given the longevity of Superman, one might understandably reason that there are no more stories to tell about him, or that the retelling of the original stories might no longer spark a reader’s interest. Yet Morrison and Quitely create a new lens through which to view the Superman saga when they endow Superman with the most human of features, the knowledge of impending death, which in turn puts a new spin on the story. Memorable fellow heroes such as Samson and Atlas as well as the unwavering villainy of Lex Luthor create a sense of familiarity yet first-time readers of Superman’s adventure, such as myself, are not alienated by the characters’ extensive history.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
All Star Superman (Vol. 2) by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, & Jamie Grant
The Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons


The Dead-Tossed Waves, by Carrie Ryan

The Dead-Tossed Waves, by Carrie Ryan

Ryan, Carrie. The Dead-Tossed Waves. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

For many long years Gabry’s mother, Mary, has been devoted to her task of defending the village’s shoreline from the zombies that wash up on the shore, while perhaps thousands more zombies roam the gated forest, waiting for blood. With zombies on every side of the walled village in which she lives, Gabry has every reason to be afraid, but terror truly strikes once she and her friends make the fateful decision to climb over those walls. Sheltered from the realities of living in the world after “the Return,” Gabry quickly loses the things she has held dear, forcing her to take chances she would never have considered. In order to protect herself and the people she loves Gabry and her people flee into the woods, towards the screams of the living and the arms and mouths of the dead.

The suspense is palpable throughout The Dead-Tossed Waves and it is difficult to keep from turning the pages. In the novel the zombie revolution has occurred some time ago, so it is interesting to see how Ryan has treated a terror which has lay dormant for some time, yet is nonetheless still chilling and at the heart of human fears. Ryan works to create an atmosphere in which humour can exist; this does not always work for this particular sort of novel but the attempt is commendable. It might be a valuable lesson for young adult to keep their sense of humour when the world seems to be falling apart.

Readers Might Also Enjoy
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Never Slow Dance with a Zombie by E. Van Lowe


  1. The previous CLA Young Adult Services Interest Group was disbanded because it wasn’t doing anything and no members were stepping up to lead the group.

    With the recent restructuring of CLA and the replacement of interest groups with networks, members have created two new networks to fill that gap:

    Canadian Libraries Are Serving Youth Network
    Canadian Libraries Are Serving Children Network

    More information can be found on the CLA website:

    1. Thank you for that comment and that resource! Much appreciated!

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