Books Are Magic: A NaNoWriMo Reading List

Tomorrow marks the start of National Novel Writing Month, during which thousands of intrepid souls will take on the quixotic task of writing a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. Writing 1,666 words a day for the entire month of November (or, you know, 10,000 words a day on the last five days of it, which we heartily don’t recommend) is a fabulous, breakneck way to 1) finally take a stab at pinning down the book idea that’s been rattling around in your brain, 2) speed through a sh*tty first draft so you’ve got something you can work to make pretty, and 3) experiment with all the weird and wild possibilities of storytelling, because it’s only thirty days, so why not go as big as you can?

But maybe what you need to get started is a reminder of the fierce magic words can make. Here are ten YA novels that challenge and interrogate and celebrate all the things that words can do. Read them for inspiration, then go forth and see what you can do with your own 50k.

The Dust of 100 Dogs, by A.S. King
Like the rest of her work, King’s debut is brilliant and brave. Emer Morrissey was a dreaded teen pirate in the seventeenth century when she was cursed with “the dust of 100 dogs,” and slain alongside the body of her true love. After living through 100 canine incarnations, her soul is finally reunited with a human body, in 1970s America. Now named Saffron, she remembers not only her dog lives, but her pirating one—and bides her time for eighteen years, till she can head back to Jamaica to claim the treasure she once died seeking. Interspersed with Saffron’s story is Emer’s, from an Irish childhood to poverty in Paris and beyond, as well as vignettes on lessons learned during her dog lives. Because nobody said a book has to be just one story.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea
Teens in the blackhole town of Chelsea, Massachusetts, have to make their own fun, and for Sophie and her best friend, Ella, that means playing the pass out game. It’s in the space between unconsciousness and waking that Sophie first sees a foulmouthed mermaid calling to her from polluted Chelsea Creek. This is the first sign that Sophie just might be the one destined to save her town from the evil that’s lodged there—an evil that’s far more dangerous and closer to home than she imagines. This book is equal parts filth and fantasia, wrapping a bleak, beautifully observed story about adolescence, friendship, and family in a magical quest narrative that contains elements of Polish mythology and makes you look at pigeons through new eyes.

Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn
Kuehn’s slim, layered debut is about a boy whose dark secrets have dark secrets, a tale of trauma and self-deception that may leave you shaking. Scarred by the monsters of his past, unable to see his way clear to a livable future, boarding school student Andrew Winters isolates himself from anyone who tries to get too close, and tells himself stories to make the truth of his childhood and its losses more palatable. Across one long night in the Vermont woods, he grapples with the ultimate choice: to surrender, or survive.

Eyes Like Stars, by Lisa Mantchev
This effervescent, oddball delight is set in the Théâtre Illuminata, a company comprised of every character in a magical Book’s worth of plays, bound to perform their roles through the ages. Mantchev’s heroine, Bertie Shakespeare Smith, is a blue-haired foundling who travels with the theater—and is in danger of being kicked out by the all-powerful Theater Manager. Bertie has a quartet of fairy sidekicks, a weakness for slippery charmer Ariel (as in, The Tempest), and a grand idea for making herself a contributing member of the theater: by rewriting Hamlet. But when Ariel gets hold of the mystical Book, his efforts to free himself from it might spell the end of the Théâtre Illuminata. Sets rise and fall, the costume closet is a marvel, and pirates and magicians rub elbows in a fantasy that’s both gossamer-weight and totally engrossing.

For a Muse of Fire, by Heidi Heilig
In this intoxicating, wildly imaginative new trilogy starter from The Girl from Everywhere author Heilig, Jetta is the force behind her family’s renowned troupe of shadow players: her ability to manipulate the souls of dead things with her blood, using them to coax her handmade puppets to life, is both the secret of her success and her downfall if discovered. She and her parents move through a French- and South Asian–inspired fantasy world, seeking to use their theatrical talents to gain passage on a royal wedding ship, key to Jetta’s plan to access the Mad King’s healing spring and cure herself of her malheur. Instead, she draws the the dangerous attention of the general of her land’s colonizing army, and falls in with charming, damaged rebel Leo, who just might pull her into the rebellion after her world falls apart. Heilig creates a world plagued by displacement, colonization, and supernatural darkness, enlivened by gallows humor and glimpses of bright beauty, often found in the creative act.

Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse
In five linked novellas hopscotching forward through time, Peevyhouse imagines the effects on humanity of the discovery of a parallel world lying just beyond our own. As earth’s atmosphere sickens, and social media sharing advances to the point that privacy is a relic and transient online stardom the best way to make a buck, her characters dream of the Other Place, intersect with its people, and grapple with the mystery of its existence. Facing the challenge of making readers care afresh for each new narrator and their increasingly desperate plights, Peevyhouse grips you every time. (And totally gives you cover if you want to write five 10k linked tales this November, instead of one 50k novel.)

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Bone Gap is a dense, weird, magical realistic fairy tale about a girl whose beauty makes her a target, and a boy whose sight works differently from everyone else’s. It’s about the dangers and delights of seeing and being seen. It alternates between the contemporary small town where teenaged Finn has been raised by his stoic older brother, Sean, since their mom skipped town, and the enchanted hinterland where Sean’s girlfriend, Roza, is being held by a terrifying figure out of fairy tales. Enigmatic Roza washed up on the boys’ property after some mysterious trauma, and both fell in love with her in their own way. When she’s kidnapped by the man she was running from, Finn is the only witness, and his inability to save her haunts him. With the help of a bee-eyed girl and his slow discovery of his own strengths, he sets out to bring Rosa home.

The Reader, by Traci Chee
Chee’s series starter is a gorgeous metaphysical fairy tale in the guise of a straight-up fantasy novel. The Reader takes place in a massive web of an invented world in which literacy is nearly nonexistent. Sefia was raised in isolation by parents always bracing for the arrival of a danger from their past, and once it strikes, leaving Sefia an orphan, she becomes a fugitive. She takes only two things from home: her guardian, Aunt Nin, and a mysterious rectangular object she doesn’t dare investigate. Then Nin is abducted, and she finds herself suddenly alone. What Sefia has been carrying is, of course, a Book, possibly the only one in existence. As she trails her aunt’s captors and picks up a mysterious travel companion, she teaches herself to read. Soon the words in the Book overlap with her reality in mind-bending ways, as she comes closer to discovering the truth behind her family’s past. The Reader combines a decadently visual adventure by land and sea with a meditation on the power of story.

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
Hardinge’s dark fairy tale opens on Triss, the privileged daughter of a famous architect, waking up from a mysterious illness and feeling increasingly out of step with the world. Every thread in this densely woven, darkly atmospheric book—the horrific hunger that overtakes her, the terrifying behavior of her dolls, her little sister’s intense hatred, and the unending strangeness infecting even the world beyond her overprotective family’s front door—comes together in an airtight, deeply satisfying supernatural mystery. While searching out the truth behind what has been done to her, Triss goes on the run with unlikely allies, traveling into a whole other world in search of what’s been lost.

A History of Glitter and Blood, by Hannah Moskowitz
Moskowitz’s dark fantasy explores class warfare between fairies and gnomes in the densely imagined city of Ferrum, recently taken over by Tightroper “liberators” who destroy the balance between the races. It’s told in the form of a history book written by lovelorn fairy boy Scrap, but morphs over the course of the book into a risky, earthy love story. This is truly boundary-pushing YA, featuring multidirectional romance plots, sentient bodily remains, and an operatic emotional range.

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