There is a special quality to a summer book—well, there is a special quality to summer everything. Road trips! Light! Music in parks! But a truly excellent book devoured during the hottest months is one of life’s great pleasures.
I get nervous and sweaty when people ask me what kind of books I like for the season. I’ve never been a genre girl: I’ll read anything on a beach, as long as it’s well written. And that’s a lame answer. What I know is that in the summertime, I want big, bright colors. Stories with straight lines, that are also thematically ambitious—about love and family and growing up, with a touch of magic and theater.
Guess what. I found them.
Young adult fiction has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past decade—earlier, if you mark Harry Potter as the beginning of its renaissance. Novelists embraced the challenge of writing for an adolescent but freaky-smart, imaginative readership that rejects condescension. Readers that enjoy fantastical worlds and believe in first loves, but are also trapped in the day-to-day drudgery of growing up.
So-called “teen fiction” is explosively popular among all ages—see The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars, the Divergent series (shout out to fellow Northwestern alum, Veronica Roth—can I borrow eleventy thousand dollars??).
These past few weeks, I’ve immersed myself in gorgeous stories and my own memories of teenage life-or-death, do-or-die, fill-your-soul and drown-your-body crushes, humiliations and freak-outs. That time my eighth grade boyfriend pointed skyward and named a pair of stars after the two of us. How my best friend and I had a knock-down, screaming fight over a Dido CD. Et cetera.
Remember middle school? That was—literally—the worst. But also kind of the best, right? The good days were THE GREATEST DAYS, even if followed by ones filled with ultimate despair. Man, does that make for good reading and good writing.
Want a mini summer-starter book list? Here you go:
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
I’ve fallen madly in love with every one of these writers and their characters. Rowell, Nelson and Wein write with all the mad intensity of high school wallflowers. Jandy Nelson is a particular badass—to wit, an excerpt from I’ll Give You The Sun, about teenage twins who can’t live together and can’t live apart:
He reaches for my hands, takes them in his. Our eyes meet and hold, and the world starts to fall away, time does, years rolling up like rugs, until everything that’s happened unhappens, and for a moment, it’s us again, more one than two.
“Wow,” Noah whispers. “IV Jude.”
“Yeah,” I say, the enchantment of him feeding my very cells. I feel a smile sweep across my face, remembering all the light…
It’s more feeling than words, right? You know that sensation in your gut—but would probably never think to call it an IV hooked up to your loved one. A young person overcome by the poetry of a moment might, though. Nelson’s Jude, Rowell’s Cat and Wein’s Kittyhawk inherit the highest of stakes (more obviously so in Verity, the story of captured British spies in Nazi-occupied France)—but each story ends in triumph. Earned triumph—not a default happy ending.
Maybe that’s because every day you survive as a teenager is a victory. I don’t know. But I think I do—I remember it, kind of. And I’ll be reliving all that I can stand in the summer sun.