Recommended Reading by Chris Tebbetts
If I ever taught a course on writing novels for young readers, I know what at least part of my assigned reading list would look like. It centers around three books I’ve always recommended to people, each of them operating as its own mini-master-class in plot, voice, and form, respectively. (And FYI, although this is a middle grade-focused blog, I’m including middle grade as well as YA titles here.)
Here are my recommendations, though I’d love to hear yours as well, in the comment section below. What does YOUR recommended reading list look like?
For plot: HOLES by Louis Sachar
To me, HOLES is as close to a perfectly plotted middle grade novel as I’ve found. It brings together disparate threads in a way that, ultimately, fulfills the definition of a good ending, which is that it be both surprising and inevitable. Along the way, this book kept me turning pages with a combination of its own great premise; a compelling series of asked-and-answered questions; high stakes (and then some); and, again, those unbraided plot elements that I had to simply trust Louis Sachar would bring together in the end, even though I couldn’t imagine how he was going to do it…until he did.
Other recommendations in the PLOT category:
A SINGLE SHARD, by Linda Sue Park
WHEN YOU REACH ME, by Rebecca Stead
HARRY POTTER SERIES, by J.K. Rowling
ELEANOR AND PARK, by Rainbow Rowell (This one’s a bit of a cheat on my part. Really it’s the characters I love in this book, but the way Rowell uses character to drive plot here is masterful.)
For voice: FEED by M.T. Anderson
This book blew my mind when I first read it, early in my writing days. The story itself is compelling, but it would have been a completely different book without the distinctive voice, which in my mind succeeds in three ways. 1) By employing elements of its own invention--book-specific slang and tone that was perfectly balanced between the unfamiliar and the accessible. 2) At the same time, it was rooted in the kind of credibility that allowed me as a reader to trust the author and settle comfortably into the world of the story without pausing to question his choices. 3) Maybe most of all, the distinctive voice in this novel helped create an overall resonance around the themes of the book itself, which for me were about language, the degradation of language, and what that means for us as people, right here and right now.
Other recommendations in the VOICE category:
HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA SIZED TROPHY, by Crystal Allen
THE PASSION OF DOLSSA, by Julie Berry
THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME, by Mark Haddon
For form: OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse
I am not a huge fan of novels in verse, and yet OUT OF THE DUST is one of my very favorite reads of all time. Karen Hesse has an amazing way of packing as much story as possible into the very limited form of her short, poem-chapters. Like writing a picture book, every word counts here, and man, does she make them count! I’m not sure this is a fair way of measuring the book’s success, but for me, it was at times like I forgot I was reading a verse novel at all. Although, for the record, her poetry is gorgeous; her word choice is stunning in places; her economy is perfect; and it seems hard to imagine this book in any other form than the one Hesse chose for it.
Other recommendations in the FORM category (verse novels; graphic novels; and while I don't have any epistolary novels in mind, that's one of many other forms that might go here):
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, by Gene Luen Yang
FUN HOME, by Alison Bechdel (not technically YA, but a genius piece of writing!)
SOLD, by Patricia McCormick
MARY'S MONSTER, by Lita Judge