Old Favorites: YA Edition

When my daughter Mikah was a preteen, I was curious to see why she loved certain authors so much. I began reading some of her YA fantasies more as a dutiful mom thing.

I wasn’t in the least prepared for the magic land of strong characters, fast-moving plots, and intense emotional engagement into which I stepped.

These books refused to be limited by labels. They were, quite simply, fabulous reads. As life cut in and narrowed my overall reading time, I let my interest in YA slide for a while. Then The Hunger Games struck and I was hooked all over again.

I’ve spoken before in this column about some YA books I consider stand-outs. But, for a retrospective post, I went back to my source.

So here are some of Mikah’s Girl Power faves from the 90’s and aughts. If they were also part of your coming-of-age—or your daughter’s, or your sister’s—I hope they bring back fond memories. If not, maybe have a look. Like many of the adult spec classics I’ve been recollecting, these books have some serious staying power.

Alanna (2009) by Tamora Pierce

Book One of the Song of the Lioness Quartet. Alanna wants to be a knight, and her twin brother, Thom, wants to learn magic. So they switch genders and places: Alanna heads off to the castle to become a page, and Thom goes to the convent.

Much magic, mayhem, good and evil ensue.

“It’s the quintessential Tamora Pierce main character,” says Mikah. “She took a girl dressing as a boy and gave it depth.”

The Acorna Universe by Anne McCaffrey et. al.

Together with two co-writers, Anne McCaffrey wrote ten Acorna books in all. The first one, Acorna: Unicorn Girl, was published in 1997.

Acorna is an alien baby with a tiny horn nestled in her forehead. She’s discovered by three grizzled yet kindly asteroid miners after her escape pod is jettisoned by her doomed parents. But hey, Acorna has more going for her than that little horn.

Not only does she grow (alarmingly quickly) into a lovely young woman, but she also has the ability to purify air and water, make plants grow, and heal scars and broken bones. (Apparently, this is what her race is all about.)

“This one wins for its unique premise,” Mikah says. I also appreciated the fact that this series, in spite of its fantasy-based main character, involves interstellar travel and all that good sci-fi stuff.

I loved McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern back in the 1970s and 80s when women were trying to establish a base within the speculative fiction arena. It’s good to know that she, like so many of our other spec foremothers, felt it was important to create young women characters with agency, power, and self-awareness.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

This is Book One in Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy.

When she hears that her father is missing, young Sabriel must leave boarding school and enter the Old Kingdom, where magic rules and the line between dead and living is not always apparent. This book, plus its follow-on volumes Lirael and Abhorson, catapulted the Australian Nix into worldwide YA popularity.

The Here and Now

For more recent YA, Mikah recommends a “wacky” standalone 2012 space opera called A Confusion of Princes, also from Garth Nix. The description sounds enticing, at least to a sci-fi fan: kind of a mash-up of Ender’s Game and The Highlander. I’ve put it on my reading list.

She also recommends Scythe by Neal Shusterman. In this series, war, hunger, and other scourges have been eliminated. Only entities known as scythes can and must end lives in order to control population.

Book One (2016) follows two teens who are apprenticed to a scythe and must learn to take lives or risk losing their own. Book Two, Thunderhead, came out in January 2018 and Book Three is expected in September of this year. (Wuss that I am, I found the premise too disturbing to get into it.)

And there are so many more. Perhaps the books that most stuck with me from that period, even more than they did with Mikah, were Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong. I’m sure you have your favorites as well.