Every season there are always a handful of books that get all of the media and/or awards attention. They are the books that everybody knows about and gets excited about, or the “buzz books” as they are often called. Believe it or not, these hot-listed books only make up a small percentage of the new books that are out there, and there are always a few who may not be nominated for awards but are fabulous writers who deserve some attention.
As I’m sure you all do, I have a few favourites whose books I seek out as soon as they release. One such author is Gabrielle Zevin, who’s new “Birthright” series is dystopian fiction at its best. The first book, called All These Things I’ve Done, is set in a crime-ridden New York City in 2083, where chocolate has been outlawed. 16-year-old Anya Blanchine, daughter of the city’s most notorious (and deceased) crime boss tries to maintain a normal life that consists of going to school, caring for her siblings and her dying grandmother, avoiding her loser ex-boyfriend, and trying to avoid falling in love with the new Assistant D.A’s son. But when her ex is accidentally poisoned by the illegal chocolate that her family manufactures, she is unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, and getting out won’t be easy.
This is Gabrielle Zevin’s third novel for Young Adults, and it’s brilliantly-written. Each of her three YA novels are different in subject and theme, but they immediately grab you and leave you thinking about it long after you finish reading. What I like most about her is that her books are intellectual but completely accessible to teens. Her characters are well-developed, her books intelligently written, and really interesting to read. Book 1 of the series is releasing in paperback this summer, and book 2, titled Because It Is My Blood is releasing from Farrar Straux Giroux (a division of Macmillan) this fall. While Gabrielle does have a following of readers, she tends to slip under the radar, and I think she’s completely underrated.
Another of my favourite authors, and someone who hopefully will win an award one day is Jordan Sonnenblick. His most recent novel, Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip, is a pitch-perfect examination of how you regroup and make a comeback when everything seems to fall apart. Peter Friedman, star pitcher, and soon-to-be high school freshman, is looking forward to being on the high school varsity baseball team with his best friend in the fall. But when a freak injury ends his pitching career, Peter feels like he’s losing his grip. To make things worse, his wedding-photographer grandfather has just handed him thousands of dollars of photography equipment, and is acting increasingly strange, but his mother either can’t or won’t acknowledge it. Freshman year ends up being a year of soul-searching and self-discovery, and at the end, Peter has learned a lot about himself and those around him.
Jordan is a former eighth-grade English teacher, and his pitch-perfect understanding of teenage boys is evident in each of his books. (He’s written four other novels for young adults, as well as a series of funny middle-grade novels.) They cover serious topics (like coping with a sibling’s serious illness, living in remission from that illness, and reinventing yourself when you’ve moved for the umpteenth time and are starting at yet another new school) in a sensitive and funny manner. In all of his novels, there are completely sobering moments, but also laugh-out-loud funny moments, and his male characters are completely authentic. They are awkward, sometimes bumbling, desperate to be cool boys. They are don’t know how to talk to girls boys. Completely likeable and sweet (mostly) but often clueless and oblivious. We don’t have nearly enough books of substance being written for teenage boys (especially young teens) and it’s refreshing to find one who writes boys as they are and not some exaggerated, wise-cracking, one dimensional version of a boy.
The third and final author I’d like to highlight is middle-grade author Wendy Mass. She’s published fourteen books for young people (including a teen version of It’s a Wonderful Life set in a mall), but my absolute favourite of her novels is Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. 12-year-old Jeremy Fink is as cautious as they come. He seldom ventures too far from his New York City apartment, he refuses to get on the subway, always eats the same thing (and refuses to try new foods) and generally avoids new and unfamiliar experiences. In contrast, his best friend and neighbour Lizzie Muldon is the polar opposite. She’s outgoing, daring, and completely fearless (to the point of recklessness), and she lives life like it’s one great adventure. One month before his 13th birthday a mysterious package arrives for Jeremy. It’s from his father, who died five years before. The package is a Chinese Lock box that professes to contain the meaning of life. There’s just one problem- it’s missing the key. The friends set a goal to find the keys by the end of the summer (and Jeremy’s birthday) so that they can open the box. Their quest leads them to meet new people and a number of new experiences- all of which combine to teach Jeremy the true meaning of life.
Like Jordan Sonnenblick, Wendy Mass really understands kids and what makes them tick. Her characters are quirky, yet realistic, average kids, and their experiences mirror those of all kids. Her characters are the kinds of kids that you want to be friends with them, and middle-school readers wholly relate to them. The books are about everyday experiences such as new experiences, making new friends, and the general trials and tribulations of growing up. I also love that many of her books feature boys and girls who are or become really good friends at an age when remaining friends with the opposite sex can be challenging. Wendy Mass has won/been nominated for numerous State Awards and though her books often appear on school reading lists, she has to be discovered. Her books are sensitively written, entertaining and extremely insightful without being preachy. Think of this as a sort of kids’ version of Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close. I actually saw a lot of parallels, and I suspect you will too. The book has also been recently made into a movie, which beautifully captured the book’s message about learning to appreciate all of life’s little moments.
I could certainly fill up another post with my favourite under-the-radar authors, but instead I’ll turn this over to you- are there any authors (Adult/kids/YA) who you absolutely adore but don’t seem to get the buzz they deserve? If so, I’d love to hear about them.
Rachel Seigel is the Children’s/Young Adult Book Buyer at wholesaler S&B Books in Mississauga, Ontario. She also maintains a personal blog at http://readingtimbits.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.