The world is full of versatile readers, people who can vacillate between sci-fi and fantasy and contemporary and historical without batting an eyelash, finding room in their hearts for all of them. I, however, am not one of those readers. For me, it’s realistic contemporary all the way. I love the real-world issues, the recognizable world-building, the way so many of the issues and characters correspond to experiences in my own adolescence. I love the way everything has to work within the confines of what we already know, and how when it does, and when it’s beautiful and real and flawed and true, it’s utter magic.
But it’s important to step outside your comfort zone every now and again, if a little frightening. And so, to that end, I present a gentle, hand-holding guide to great YA books outside the contemporary genre, for those of us who usually prefer our fiction grounded in the here and now.
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, by Michelle Hodkin
Fear not the paranormal nature of this book, because if you like dark, creepy contemporary with a healthy dose of romance and a heaping of hot boy, this will be right up your alley. Most of Hodkin’s debut, the first book in a trilogy, reads like a psychological thriller, so if books of that ilk are your thing the way they are mine, this one’s not to be missed.
Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
Yes, Anna is a ghost. And yes, Cas, the narrator, is a ghost hunter. And yes, this is horror. But beyond those facts, this is a story of family responsibility, and overcoming fears, and getting to the heart of someone else’s being, and humankind’s capacity for both unspeakable brutality and impossible love. If you like to be chilled to the bone, you just may want to clear out some shelf space for this one.
The Art of Wishing, by Lindsay Ribar
On a lighter note, this paranormal debut surprised the hell out of me by being so utterly unputdownable that it found its place among my favorites of 2013. It definitely has a major contemporary feel, being set in high school (and with a musical-theater theme to boot), but it’s also got a hot teen genie, an epic villain, and an ending that’ll have you demanding the sequel’s instant release.
This is Not a Test, by Courtney Summers
Summers has been one of my favorite YA authors since she debuted with Cracked Up to Be in 2008, and I was shocked when she decided to veer off her usual contemporary path for this zombified, Breakfast Club-esque novel in 2012. But I’d read a toaster-repair handbook if it was written with Summers’ trademark edginess, humor, and pathos, and those skills are every bit as sharp when she’s writing about the undead as they are when she’s crafting the livewire main characters of her contemps.
Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta
As far as noncontemporary genres go, I often find that epic fantasy agrees with me the most, in large part because the themes of love, loyalty, and dedication to one’s people and homeland are among my favorites. All three are massively present in Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles trilogy, as is her trademark depth and complexity in the relationships she develops among her characters. Marchetta’s romances are always my favorite part; somehow they’re fully formed without taking over the central plot. If you’ve already gone through her contemps (and if you haven’t, get on that; Jellicoe Road is my very favorite) and are thirsting for more, do yourself a favor and finish out her catalog; you won’t be sorry.