Books for Younger Readers

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.

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16 thoughts on “Books for Younger Readers

  1. Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising” – an excellent series. I admit to thinking that the sword was going to be something else. 😉

    I don’t know that I would consider ‘Arrows of the Queen” as YA, even with stretching. While the themes of friendship and loyalty are common in YA, “Arrows Fall” is a bit dark for any but the older readers. (never mind that I was reading as violent when I was a teen, today’s youths live in a different world)

    “Hardy Boys novels, and the first three original Tarzan books” Heh, I grew up reading these, compliments of older brother. (I would swipe them from his book shelf.)

    C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” – I would almost go so far as to say practically required reading. At least the first four. (count based on publication, not chronological order)

    “I am the second-to-last person in the English-speaking world who has not read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.” _blink, blink_ I don’t think I have read it either, since I don’t recognize the name.

    Can I recommend one? J.A. Marlow has a nice YA series based on Alaska called Salmon Run. Several of her other books may be considered YA, but I have not had a chance to read them, so I am not sure. I do know that Julieann is a talented indie writer that I am happy to call friend, even if we have never met in person.

    • I’d say the first “Arrows of the Queen” is pretty 13-18 year old friendly, “Arrows Flight” less so, and yes ‘Arrow’s Fall” is16-18 and up. That’s the problem when books are categorized by protagonist age rather than reader maturity.

  2. Interesting, I’ve never thought about YA, per se, as a separate genre. My daughters could and did read pretty much everything on the shelves as they were growing up, from SF, to Western, to current fiction, just as I did growing up…

    • I think, when librarians started trying to sort out books for all readers vs. books for 21 and over, YA was born. Now it is based on the age of the protagonist rather than “suitable for readers ages 12-17.” I’ve found “YA” books that I wouldn’t recommend to adults because of the subject matter.

  3. “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 remember one like that written by the lady who did Stinker From Space. Amazon seems to say that is Pamela F. Service.

    I’ve vague memories of another by a Peter Dickenson?, that I didn’t care for as much.

  4. Thank you for the list. My oldest daughter is a voracious reader and we’re always looking for good books for her. My son is getting there, too. Their reading ability outstrips their ages, so we’re having to tread very carefully. Unfortunately, as a child, I sort of skipped over the books in this category, going straight to the adult section and therefore have very little idea what’s out there.

    • You’re welcome! The YA world has become more fraught than when I was that age, so I’m trying to mentally mark what I find or remember, in case my students or others inquire, both the good and the “oh Ye Gads get it off the shelf now” not-so-good.

    • Should also have listed Madeline L’Engle’s original “Time Trilogy” (A Wrinkle in Time, Wind at the Door, Swiftly Tilting Planet). The rest of the series didn’t have the same power, IMHO.

  5. I read some YA as a kid, but mostly adult books, and have actually read more YA as an adult. I will recommend The Prydain Chronicles with the caveat that it has been many years since I read them, but I remember thoroughly enjoying them at the time. And everybody may rave about the Chronicles of Narnia, but I couldn’t stand them myself (although there is other C. S. Lewis I enjoyed later) so I was very leery of trying Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles.
    The Swiss Family Robinson was the first novel I read by myself (and it belongs on any YA list) but from there I quickly graduated to others. The original Hardy Boys, The Black Stallion, etc. By third grade I was devouring L’amour, which I would probably not recommend for someone that young, unless I knew them personally. Like you though, I had a high tolerance for violence (actually I had a low tolerance for PC nonsense instead of using violence and lethal force when common sense dictated do so). The older books like Borroughs Tarzan and John Carter novels (or anything else he wrote) managed to have a healthy helping of violence without dwelling on the sordid aspects of it. I guess they aren’t YA, because the protagonists are too old, but I would consider them suitable for all ages.
    If you want embarrass a teenage boy, watch him read the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows. Along those lines (although with happier endings) I recommend anything by Jim Kjelgard for any outdoors oriented boy or tomboy. Also Fred Gibson, the writer of Old Yeller.

  6. I’d add Robin McKinley’s Damar novels as well. And The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, which was my first introduction to the much more dark and treacherous vision of Faerie our ancestors had. As well as my first exposure to Tam Lin, of which it is both a pastiche and which plays an important plot role.

    • Agreed. The only problem being the whole technical “protagonist’s age as classification” quirk. The Hero and the Crown is certainly written for younger readers, but because the protagonists are adults . . . Sigh

      • But it covers Aerin’s girlhood and adolescence first. Yes, she’s 18 by the end, but I’d argue it’s as much a “coming of age” novel as anything else and those have always fallen into the YA realm.

        Perilous Gard is a bit trickier as the protagonist is almost certainly no more than 16 or 17, but is set in a period where that qualifies her as a marriageable adult. It was certainly intended by the author for a younger audience and has always (to the best of my knowledge) been released under YA imprints and bindings.

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