Young-adult books that may tempt older readers as well

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: December 18, 2012

As the young-adult genre continues to grow, more and more books for teens are turning out to be substantive and engaging enough for older readers to enjoy, too. Here is a handful of YA books, out this autumn, that would make good gifts for the young - or young-at-heart - readers on your list this holiday season.

Call the Shots by Don Calame (Candlewick, $16). If Hurricane Sandy squelched your Halloween spirit, now's the time to catch up. Don Calame's sweet-natured YA novel Call the Shots is a paean to all the great horror movies - as well as the not-so-great horror movies, like the one Sean and his friends are trying to make. Poor Sean is a hapless sort of character who has gotten caught up in his friend TK's scheme to enter a local film contest and win the cash prize. As a screenwriter, he's not bad; as a young guy who's trying to negotiate awkward dating situations, he's all thumbs. The writing is entertaining, with realistic (and cuss-peppered) dialogue, and Calame's sense of humor is hammy but genuinely funny. (The boys' movie, for instance, is a ridiculous pastiche of every scary movie ever, and it features monsters called humanzees and vampanzees, the results of a genetic experiment at the zoo.) This book should be a hit even with reluctant readers.

Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel" adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $19.99). Beloved by both children and adults since it was first published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of nerdy teenager Meg Murry and her little brother, the preternaturally sensitive Charles Wallace. The children's parents, both scientists, have created a sweet, eccentric household, but their father has been missing for months. And though the town gossips spread mean-spirited rumors about him, the truth is he has learned to move through time and is trapped on a faraway planet ruled by an evil overlord.

L'Engle's story deals with some heavy concepts: time and space, math and physics, and the nature of evil and how to conquer it. Her characters quote from the Bible as often as they reference Madam Curie, Dante, and Michelangelo, and her Christian viewpoint - pleasingly packaged in an exciting fantasy story - calls to mind the kids in C.S. Lewis' stories who walk through enchanted wardrobes into other worlds. This new graphic-novel adaptation does the story justice, even enhancing it: Larson's art is charming and, with little retro touches, makes reference to the original novel's era without looking campy. Anyone who hasn't yet experienced L'Engle's original can consider this a good introduction, and for those who remember the book fondly, this version is a fine reminder of what makes the sci-fi fantasy a classic.

My Own Revolution by Carolyn Marsden (Candlewick, $16.99). Most kids feel they have something to rebel against, whether it's their home life, school, or society at large. But what if you lived in a place where to lash out in even the smallest way could mark you as an enemy of the state? If doing graffiti or even listening to records could get your parents fired from their jobs or land you in prison? This is the backdrop of Carolyn Marsden's arresting new novel, My Own Revolution, which takes place in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Patrik is only 14, and he has the same concerns as any kid (namely, that he's hopelessly in love with his pretty friend Danika), but the scrutiny his family lives under has put an intolerable strain on their daily lives. The book's language is simple and unadorned, and Marsden uses it to build a quiet tension that's nearly heart-stopping by the novel's uncertain - but hopeful - conclusion. A powerful little novel, like an arrow to the heart.

Betrayal by Gregg Olsen (Splinter, $17.95). Author Gregg Olsen writes that Betrayal, the second installment in his Empty Coffin series, was inspired by the Amanda Knox case, and sure enough, the novel opens with the murder of a British exchange student. In this case, the crime takes place during a high school Halloween party in a suburb of Seattle, and no one, including the reader, knows whodunit. This hard-boiled mystery has it all: queen bees and wannabes, a tough-talking female police chief, twin sisters with psychic abilities, and a terrible tragedy in the town's past. The novel won't win any prizes for beautiful language - Olsen's writing, abounding with brand names and hashtags, is more about being jaunty and hip - but the story has more than a few surprises, which should keep readers on the hook. If you like a good Lifetime Television-style mystery, you'll get a kick out of this teen drama.

Earth and Air: Tales of Elemental Creatures by Peter Dickinson (Big Mouth House, $17.95). Peter Dickinson, a prolific English author now in his 80s, writes in his introduction that he wanted to bring out this collection of stories, originally started as a now-long-delayed collaboration with his wife, the novelist Robin McKinley, before he got too old to do so. (Actually, he writes that they probably wouldn't finish the joint project until he reaches 97, but he has no intention of "hanging around that long.") But then he goes on to spin these wonderful fantasy tales - about witches, gryphons, a girl who's half-troll, and an even weirder creature than that - and proves he's still plenty vigorous. This is a children's book of the old school: not easy or excessively cheery, but bright with intelligence, good humor, and grace. Rich with references to mythology and history and set in mysterious, ancient places (beside a tarn in Scotland, on a shepherd's farm in Greece), they have a timeless quality that makes them feel like classics.

A Certain October by Angela Johnson (Simon & Schuster BFYR, $16.99). Another veteran children's writer, Angela Johnson keeps on knocking it out of the park; to date, she has written more than 40 books for children of different ages, and she has won three Coretta Scott King awards for her popular YA novels. Perhaps unsurprising, then, A Certain October reads like it was effortless to write, with an ease and warmth that's a pleasure to read. The novel tells the story of Scotty, a junior in high school whose life in her suburbanish Cleveland neighborhood is pretty ordinary - that is, until she's involved in an accident that kills a boy she knows from school. Johnson writes about difficult, complicated feelings - grief, guilt, and the first stirrings of love - in a way that young readers can relate to, but without watering anything down. For this older reader, the selling point is Johnson's use of language, which flows with a rhythm that's somewhere between conversational and musical. Just lovely.


Katie Haegele is the author of "White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding Out What Was Missing" (Microcosm Publishing).

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