Teen Must-Reads (part one)


I’m sitting down here in the frozen wastelands of Melbourne, and I’ve been asked to compile a list of “must reads” for a teenage audience. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Back then – The Good Stuff that I grew up on.

As a teen of the grungey nineties, I grew up on a mixture of classics and contemporary YA fiction.  Here we go, in chronological order…

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien This is one book that I will never, ever get sick of, and will happily re-read. It’s even better read out loud, if you’ve got a friend to read it to, snuggled up on a cold winter’s night.

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin Yes, another fantasy novel, along, long before Harry Potter. Young Sparrowhawk discovers that he has magical powers, and goes to Roke Island to learn to become a wizard. Except he gets a bit cocky, and bad stuff happens. A brilliant novel, and still re-readable to this day.

I am the Cheese – Robert Cormier I’m adding this to the list because it’s possibly one of the most weirdly intriguing books that I read as a young teen. Adam is riding his bike to Rutterford. Why? What is he escaping from? What exactly is this book about? Just read it.

Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson Another one of my favourite books, just as powerful with every re-read, about the special friendship between Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. Deeply romantic and gutwrenchingly tragic. I still cry when I read it.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card Long before Harry Potter, there was Ender Wiggin, and before Hogwarts there was Battle School. Set in the future, Ender is an insanely talented boy, who is selected to go to training school for future space fleet commanders to defend Earth against space bugs. When you still a bunch of stupidly intelligent teenagers in a space station together, and train them to become elite military strategists, wackiness is bound to ensue.

Space Demons – Gillian Rubenstein Finally, an Australian book on this list! In a time before the internet, a mysterious video game arrives from Japan, which has the power to transport Andrew and his friends into a dangerous new world. I remember that this book was THE hottest book around when it first came out in 1986. Then the sequel, <b>Skymaze</b> came out a few years later. The technology in it is totally retro nowadays, so I’m not sure how well it’d work anymore – somebody read it and tell me!

Looking for Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta I first read this the year it came out in 1992. To be honest, I’d mostly read sci-fi, fantasy and adventure up until that point (see above!), but this novel showed me that you don’t need dragons or gadgets to make a compelling and profound read.

Tomorrow, When the War Began – John Marsden A bunch of teenagers go camping in the mountains. When they come back, they find that Australia has been invaded, and their town is now occupied by foreign soldiers. An astonishing novel that will get you hooked onto the rest of the Tomorrow series.

Sabriel – Garth Nix When Sabriel’s father sends her his sword and bells – the tools for Necromancy – she knows something is up, and crosses the wall into the Old Kingdom in an attempt to rescue him and defeat a growing dark magic. Amazingly original and spellbinding.

His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman I’ve spent the last ten minutes trying to sum up this series. I can’t do it. All I’ll say is that it’s an amazingly profound and original trilogy, which will make you re-think the nature of the world, god, sexuality, and what holds this whole crazy mixed up universe together. If you like reading Blake and/or Milton, you MUST MUST MUST read this. Everybody else still must read this.

More recently – the Good Stuff that’s come out in the past couple of years.

Of course, whilst these “classics” are all fantastic, there are some amazingly good books that have come out over the last few years as well.

Looking for Alaska – John Green – You will laugh, you will swoon, you will bawl your eyes out. I guarantee it. Alaska is every nerdy boy’s dream girl – hot, bookish, and kinda crazy. How could Miles totally not be in love with her. She’d totally be with him, if she didn’t love her (interstate) boyfriend so much. Or would she? To be continued…? A book about searching for the Great Perhaps, and learning that sometimes it’s better to accept things than endlessly seek closure. Oh god, this book made me cry. A lot. It’s that good. (Incidentally, John Green is coming to Australia in a few weeks. If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney, you might get to see him. I will.)

Elsewhere – Gabrielle Zevin What happens when we die? How would you cope with dying long before your time? A wonderful exploration of a possible afterlife, where everybody ages backwards (a la Benjamin Button) until it’s time to go back to the real world. How would you make the most of a short time in “Elsewhere”? This book is wonderfully imaginative, uplifting and profound.

Before I die – Jenny Downham On the other hand, what would you do if you found out that you were going to die, and you’d hardly lived yet? What would be on your list of things to do… before you die? How could you possibly be ready to leave the world so soon and so young? A deeply moving novel on making the best of the little time you may have left. I challenge *anybody* to read this and not cry!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian – Sherman Alexie Junior isn’t like the other kids on the Spokane Reservation. On the urging of his teacher, he decides  to start going to school in the nearby township, where he is the only Indian in the school, other than school mascot. However, as much as he wants to be the best he can, he must also stay true to himself and his family, facing the guilt and pain of watching them suffer the cruelty of hopeless poverty. Laugh-out-loud hilarious and gutwrenchingly honest.

Unwind – Neal Shusterman In a possible near-future, new laws allow parents to retroactively abort their children once they reach the age of 13. They are not killed, but instead “unwound” – dismantled so that their body parts can live on in the world. Three teenagers have been scheduled for Unwinding, and are running for their lives. In the process, they try to make sense of the screwed-up work that they are living in, and find out what their lives are really worth. Deeply thought-provoking, exploring the philosophical questions of life, and masterly written with some truly sublime moments.

Oh, and yes, an Australian book…

On the Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta (again!) I only actually got around to reading it in  January this year, and it is a compelling read. Taylor Markham is a boarder at the Jellicoe School, after being abandoned by her mother seven years ago. Now she’s a house captain, and things are tense as territory wars flare between the Boarders, the Townies and the Cadets. As she faces the challenges of reluctant leadership, she also discovers the truth about her past… Gripping, heartbreaking, and magically crafted storytelling. IMHO, Marchetta’s best work (that said, I also *loved* Finnikin of the Rock)

Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan This book pulls no punches in getting into the nitty gritty of humanity, in all its passion and cruelty, exploring the grim realities behind the facade of a Grimm fairytale. Absolutely mesmerising.  My favourite book of 2008.

So, folks, it’s been a long post, so if you’re still reading, well done! I could easily add another five books to this list, but I think you’ve got enough reading to do now as it is! 🙂

I’m sure our other guest blogger Jonathan will be around shortly to give his opinion on “teen must reads”. I’ll be back again with Part Two – Books that I “must read” (ie. that I haven’t read yet, or haven’t come out yet)

Meanwhile, if you have any “must reads” that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear about them! Or if you disagree with any of my choices, I’d be happy to hear your protests! Leave your comments below. 😉


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4 Responses to “Teen Must-Reads (part one)”

  1. thelittlestranger Says:

    Great post. They contain many of my favourites too.

    On the Jellicoe Road – I’m with you on that one. It is her finest work. This is not to talk down Alibrandi or any of the others. Jellicoe is the most ambitious, due to its narrative complexity (amongst other things), and it fully succeeds in its ambitions. Alibrandi still remains the most beloved, and in its own way is perfectly wrought.

    Bridge to Terabithia – This grows more meaningful with each re-reading (the latest was aloud to someone). I think I’ll try The Hobbit aloud too, now that you’ve mentioned it.

    Earthsea, His Dark Materials, Sabriel – all perennial favourites. Tomorrow When the War Began (I remember the agonising wait each year for the next in the series – a preview to the Harry Potter days).

    Many more things I could comment on, but don’t want to hog the comments field. Happy to say more via email – let me know. Look forward to Part 2.

  2. Kate (library staff) Says:

    Great post!

    The Tomorrow series was the defining reading experience of my teenage years. I remember the books were released fairly close to Christmas each year, and my mum would always buy me the latest installment but insist I wait til Christmas day to get it! Consequently, I’d spend Christmas afternoon with my head in a book!

    Thanks for ramping up my reading list for the year! Looking forward to part 2 and beyond!

  3. jam (staff) Says:

    I’ve also read ‘Before I die’ and I found it amazing. It had the usual trials and tribulations of any story – but the last few chapters were amazing. I don’t know if I could have read this when I was younger – they story is so affecting… I have to say that I was sobbing during the last couple of pages.

  4. Elise Says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I love your blog!
    I am the biggest bookwork and it is great to see a blog devoted to books!

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