In the world of young adult lit, narrators hail from the past, present, and future. They live in fantasy realms, contemporary cities, rural dystopias, and alternate realities. They battle sci-fi creatures, frenemies, parents, and/or homework with equal wit and drama. Mashups and genre-hopping are permitted (and hoped for, in my case). The only real rule is age. To qualify as YA, main characters ought to fall between the ages of 12 and 20. But rules are made to be broken. Rewritten. And set on fire. Here are some of the most unusual YA narrators you’ll ever meet. Because it turns out death is not the end, diseases are very opinionated, and even zombies and shapeshifters yearn for human connection.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Narrated by Death (who reminds us gently but firmly at the beginning that we’re all going to die), and set in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, Zusak’s book depicts the life of young Liesel as she struggles through World War II. The thief of the title, she steals her first book before she can even read, and after the death of her brother and parents, goes to live with a foster family who encourage her literary development. She also befriends the Jewish refugee her new family is protecting from Nazi capture. This award-winning best seller is an unsentimental look at people’s capacity for both kindness and brutality.
A Trick of the Light, by Lois Metzger
A heartbreaking look at eating disorders, A Trick of the Light is narrated by anorexia as it observes and manipulates 15-year-old Mike, a boy who loves monster movies and stop-motion animation. Mike’s home life is a disaster, and he’s desperate to gain control over the chaos. So when a voice in his head promises to fix his problems, he listens. The voice steers him toward Amber, a troubled classmate who’s a wealth of information on having a “strong body, strong mind”—too bad her advice is inaccurate and dangerous. Shedding weight at an alarming rate, running himself ragged, and exercising obsessively only weaken Mike further. His parents and friends don’t give up on him, though, and he eventually comes to see that the self-loathing voice dictating his actions can be ignored with practice.
Narrator: A puppy
Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman
Written in 1975 and reissued in 2012, this underrated fantasy novel is written in the 3rd-person point of view of Sirius, a temperamental luminary (a star) accused of murdering a lesser star via a complex, celestial weapon called a zoi. As punishment after a wrongful conviction, Sirius must inhabit an earthly body—that of a newborn puppy—and locate the missing zoi, which fell to earth. His human companion is a girl named Kathleen, who lives with her cruel aunt and ambivalent uncle in England and is ostracized by her cousins and peers for being of Irish descent. A memorable and unique look at the bonds between animals and humans.
Narrator: A cyborg
Mila 2.0, by Debra Driza
Mila suffers from anxiety and memory loss since the death of her father a month ago. Mom is distant, and her fair-weather friends have turned on her because Hunter, the tall, deep-voiced new hottie in school prefers Mila over them. As if that’s not enough, Mila is horrified to discover she’s not even real. M.I.L.A. stands for “Mobile Intel Life-Like Android”—she’s an experiment in artificial intelligence, a covert robot spy and fighting machine developed by the military and C.I.A. Her “mother” is a bio-engineer who stole Mila from the lab. Problem is, now the military wants her back…
Narrator: A zombie
Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion
“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it.” Narrator “R” has no specific memories of his life, so when he chows down on the brain of a sensitive, misanthropic young man named Perry, the experience provides R with emotion, life, and love…for Julie, Perry’s 19-year-old girlfriend. R is hooked on the feeling, and takes Julie (a self-described “wreck in progress”) home to keep her safe from his zombie brethren. Existential philosophy (“Am I Perry’s afterlife?”) and a hope-filled quest of “reverse-engineering himself into someone new” follow, and somehow the R(omeo) and Julie(t) bond works. You’ll be rooting for the star-crossed romance despite the oddness factor.
Narrator: A shapeshifter
Doppelgänger, David Stahler, Jr.
Our unnamed 16-year-old narrator, an avid reader and TV viewer out of necessity, has been raised by his mother in isolation. A shapeshifter, his original form is grotesque. Only by murdering someone and taking over the human’s visage will he survive. Nasty and indifferent on her best days, Mom has no patience for her son and considers him a miserable failure because he’s squeamish and kind rather than bloodthirsty. Forced to leave the nest before he’s ready, the shapeshifter eventually kills a cruel, popular high school football star, Chris Parker, in self-defense. Our shifter is eager for a sitcom-esque family and fresh start, but instead, he finds himself trapped in a dysfunctional home and in an abusive relationship—in which he (or rather, his new identity) was the abuser. He sets about trying to change that dynamic, and what ensues is a fascinating story with a surprisingly vulnerable, likable protagonist.