My parents would not buy Sib and I toys. However, almost any book could be requested and would follow us home, if the library did not have a copy. Mom and Dad also practiced the vertical censorship system – books that were “too old” for us lived on the very top shelves or way back behind other titles, and were out of sight and out of mind. There were very few of those, as I discovered when I actually went browsing for them when I was a teenager. So I read anything available, including a few that I probably should have avoided, or have waited until I was older to read. Some of the WWII combat histories, especially of the Pacific War, are nightmare inducing. Fantastic books and highly recommended for adult readers or those who want to know what warfare is really like, but probably not great for the average 14-year-old. But I also read Young Adult books, and still remember and recommend some of them today.
I should add the caveat that I had a high tolerance for violence as compared to sex. Some of these might cross the “too rough” threshold for sheltered readers, especially the 12-14 year old age cohort.
One series I still have on my shelves and go back to almost yearly is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, especially the title book and The Grey King. The five books are about two brothers and a sister, a related-by-friendship boy named Will, and Bran, a Welsh boy who is far more than he seems. The books would be classed as Urban Fantasy today because they are set in Cornwall, the Thames Valley, and Wales in the present day (1970s, but they don’t feel dated today) and draw on a lot of English folklore and Arthurian legend. The overall story is of the battle between the forces of the Dark and those of the Light. Cooper wove place into the stories, and they are great reads, although the beginning 25-40 pages of the first book felt a little slow to me. I still get the cold chills reading the Solstice Night scenes in The Dark is Rising, and can recite the poems that go with the books. The Grey King might require a bit of explanation for kids unfamiliar with the story of King Arthur and the Arthur – Guenevere – Lancelot connections.
For Merlin with a twist, Alan Garner’s Wierdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are fascinating fantasy-in-the-modern world books. The first two seem to be out of print, perhaps, although the third book was finally published in 2012 (!)
I also devoured Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series. These are fantasy in a medieval landscape and feature Alana of Trebond, her twin brother Thom, and a cast of royal, common-born, and interesting characters. Alana has decided that she is going to be a knight. She has the determination, the brawn, and the will to do it, but she also denies her magical talents in the process, with serious consequences. Some of the overarching themes in the core series of books are about power and destiny, and accepting responsibility and duties that come with being a knight and a noble, or being a mage and healer. Because of the female protagonist, this series might not appeal as much to boys. Maybe. Pierce’s later books don’t seem as good, perhaps because I was older than the intended reader and perhaps because they got more PC.
The same applies to Mercedes lackey’s original Arrows of the Queen trilogy. They are not officially YA because the protagonist ages out of that category, but I’d consider them suitable for older YA readers (due to some mildly explicit sex). Lackey’s two books about Herald Albrecht are not YA, again due to the age of the protagonist, but would certainly appeal to a lot of teenaged boys I can think of. So would the original four Hardy Boys novels, and the first three original Tarzan books, at least for older readers who are willing to read older prose (more verbose than today).
C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are classics for a reason.
Diana Duane’s So You Want to be A Wizard books stick in my memory, the first two in particular. They have a lot to do with becoming a good steward of your gifts, and about responsibility. Deep Wizardry especially is a caution about saying “Sure, no problem, I’ll sign up. Fine print? Nah, I’m cool.” The main characters are a boy with mechanical magic and a girl with botanical magic. You’ll never look at career books in quite the same way.
I am the second-to-last person in the English-speaking world who has not read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Why not? Not available to me when I was growing up, and I was so heavily into Cooper and her ilk that I passed Alexander over (although I did read some of his other books). And I read the Mabinogion, from which Alexander draws, and wasn’t overly excited (see: books I read too young.) Everyone I know loves them.
Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is technically YA because of the main character’s age, although be prepared to do a fair amount of explaining about India and the Raj. Or not. The novel stands on its own merits.
Modern YA I’m far less familiar with, in part because of my age and in part because of major shifts in the genre. Dave Freer’s Cuttlefish and sequel, and now Changeling’s Island are excellent steampunk and urban fantasy respectively. Cedar Sanderson’s two YA are also very good. Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series is another steampunk-fantasy series I’d recommend, although the female protagonist might turn a few boys off. Her Enchanted Forest books might be more boy-friendly, especially the second and third books. John C. Wright’s new YA series is on my TBR pile, so I’ll review it when I get there.
To my chagrin, the Raj-world books are turning out to be YA, by protagonist ages if not by content. They have a female protagonist, but should appeal to all readers. If you squint, the first Elizabeth book, Elizabeth of Starland is YA because of her age. The entire series is suitable for older teen readers, the first two for younger (no sex), although violence is a definite part of the plot. As a younger reader, I had a relatively high tolerance for violence (I read a lot of military and general history and fairy tales. Violence was a part of them all.) I did not care to read about kissing et cetera, so I probably missed a lot of YA based on that. I also endured a slug of the end-of-the-world, nuclear-apocalypse novels of the mid 1980s. They have not aged well, although there was one about a neo-feudal world that wove in King Arthur and Merlin that was pretty good. It is British (long predates the Merlin TV series) and I can’t find either the titles or the author.
I’ve looked at a few YA book lists on-line and, well, one included all of Anne Rice’s novels. No, just no. Caveat Emptor has become the watchword for Young Adult books, I’m sorry to say.