In order to compile this list, I asked two YA writer friends of mine, Molly Backes (The Princesses of Iowa) and James Klise (Love Drugged; also a school librarian) to help me with some suggestions. The following list will get anybody—boy, girl, youngster, adult—itching to read. I know, I know, a lot of good ones were left off this list, but consider this a jumping off point, and offer your own reading suggestions in the comments!
Love Drugged, by James Klise
This book, by my friend James Klise, was the first that jumped to mind when I tackled this topic. Any teen who has ever wondered how he or she can force themselves to be different will identify with the sweet, yearning Jamie in this book, who undertakes a dangerous experiment when he starts using an experimental drug in an attempt to make himself straight instead of gay. I was touched by how easy it was to identify with Jamie, who just wants to find a way to soothe his inner turmoil.
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
It’s hard to pick which of Green’s first three books to choose from, as they all feature intelligent, quirky, sensitive males as their protagonists, but let’s go with the Printz Award–winner that kicked off the canon. It follows Miles, a lover of biographies and great last words, as he attends boarding school (in this case by choice, instead of being sent there by unfeeling parents) and tries to track down enigmatic classmate Alaska, whose existence and disappearance fascinate Miles.
Red Sky at Morning, by Richard Bradford
This 1968 coming-of-age novel is considered a classic. In a tale told with deadpan humor, Josh Arnold and his family relocate from Mobile, Alabama (where, like their neighbors, they are white), to New Mexico (where they become minorities) during World War II. “It’s very old, but it’s so [bleeping] wonderful,” says Backes. “Everyone should read it. It’s like Catcher in the Rye out west.”
Knights of the Hill Country, by Tim Tharp
A book for jocks or boys who feel uncomfortable expressing themselves any way but physically, Tharp’s novel focuses on Hampton, who displays a talent and control on the football field that helps compensate for his difficult home life. Meanwhile, he’s drawn to a girl who just isn’t acceptable for football stars like him, and is unsure how to handle his relationship with his best friend, Blaine, whose competitiveness and demands of loyalty are forcing Hampton to make some difficult choices.
Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan
Completely blowing up the stereotype of the lone misunderstood gay boy feeling lost at sea in a heteronormative high school, Levithan creates a school environment in his debut novel that’s more RuPaul’s Drag Race than Sweet Valley High. The star quarterback is a drag queen, there’s a school bookie on hand to make odds about who will get with whom, and report cards say things like “definitely gay.” But even a utopian high school isn’t without its challenges for a boy hoping to navigate the waters of love.
The Gospel According to Larry, by Janet Tashjian
Adults who remember the movie Pump Up the Volume may find the plot of Tashjian’s novel a bit familiar: Josh is a math and technology prodigy who has created a virtual alter ego named Larry, a beloved soapbox from whom Josh posts anti-consumer and anti-celebrity messages. What happens, though, when Larry’s popularity soars and Josh has to scramble to keep him a secret—not to mention seduce his best friend, Beth?
The Compound, by S.A. Bodeen
I adored disaster books when I was a youngster, like Hatchet and Z for Zachariah; there was something thrilling about vicariously preparing oneself for the worst-case scenario while appreciating the relative safe and soundness of real life. In The Compound, a 15-year-old-boy contemplates taking his chances on the outside after six years locked inside a radiation-proof compound after a nuclear attack, as his family’s situation begins to look grimmer than what might be waiting outside.
Leverage, Joshua C. Cohen
This is an intense read, so parents who are squeamish (drugs, rape, and profanity are all involved) may want to take note, but it’s a good pick for young men whose lives have been touched by bullying and/or high expectations set by school athletics. Danny is a star on the gymnastics team, but being on the smaller side means he gets pushed around by the football players, until a new student with a dark past tries to bridge the divide between the bullies and their victims.
The Morgue and Me, John C. Ford
Parents praise this book for being a fun read for them as well as for the youngsters in their lives. Christopher, who intends to become a spy, gets a summer internship at the morgue of all places, where he discovers a murder cover-up and is assisted by an impossibly gorgeous newspaper reporter. A true mystery with a nice creepy touch.
Fallen Angels, Walter Dean Myers
History, war, and race relations take center stage in this 1988 Coretta Scott King Award winner about a 17-year-old who enlists in the Army in 1967 after his dreams of attending college fall through. Not only does protagonist Perry witness the brutality of war, he comes to question why black troops are given the most dangerous assignments, and to realize that it may not make sense to be fighting the war at all.
Unwind, by Neal Shusterman
How’s this for a premise: In the future, after a Second Civil War, the extreme sanctity of life is agreed upon—that is, until a child reaches the age of thirteen. From age thirteen through eighteen, however, kids are eligible for “unwinding,” a donation of their body parts to various recipients that also serves as a convenient way of disposing of troublesome or unwanted youths. Shusterman’s horrific thriller follows three runaway would-be victims of unwinding as they flee their disturbing fates.
Boot Camp, Todd Strasser
Declared an American Library Association Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Todd Strasser’s book, described by some as a “pre-Hunger Games Hunger Games” is a dystopian thriller about a world where parents can send their kids away to a boot camp called Lake Harmony for any number of infractions. Garrett is sent away for refusing to stop dating his former high school math teacher, and there incurs a number of soul-crushing beatings. The only way to survive is to escape…or conform.
I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief isn’t the only beloved YA book by Zusak. In this Printz Honor Award winner, would-be washed-up loser Ed Kennedy is on the road to nowhere until he accidentally foils a bank robbery. Then, cryptic messages start arriving in the mail, and Ed finds himself on a wild variety of missions that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
What male-narrated YA book is on your list of favorites?