Five YA Books Every Guy Should Read

Adolescence is more than an awkward pit stop along the highway to adulthood. As Five for Fighting sings in “100 Years,” the teenager is “caught between ten and twenty.” That’s an apt description because those in-between years, though filled with excitement and promise, are also fraught with confusion, uncertainty and self-doubt. For both genders, expectations are ridiculously high. The adolescent is meant to seamlessly coast from adorable, obedient child to model-perfect, self-sufficient adult. Wrong turns, flat tires, even fender-benders are expected, but often not tolerated by well-meaning (if selectively forgetful) adults. Since we’ve yet to invent a flawless adolescent GPS to help teens navigate the tricky interstate of adolescence, I’d like to suggest–as a parent/author/teacher–a meaningful alternative: Young Adult Fiction.

Dealing with issues familiar to teens: forced maturation, the crafting of Self, the quest for autonomy, YA fiction is great training as teenagers–guys especially–test drive the demands of encroaching adulthood. If I were putting together a manual to help teen guys negotiate the twisting road of adolescence, it would have to address some key topics. These would include accepting oneself, talents and flaws included; greeting the world’s inhabitants with respect and compassion; persisting despite incredible odds; finding humor in dark times, and cherishing relationships.

To save myself the work of writing such a manual (and to fulfill the demands of this post), I’ll suggest five books that address these topics beautifully. Here, in no particular order, I give you five young adult books every guy should read:

1) I’ve used The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, with great success in many writing classes. The main character, Arnold Spirit Junior, immediately wins readers over with his disarming sense of humor in the face of poverty, prejudice and difficult physical challenges. He models perseverance and embodies the idea that the human spirit lives large in the adolescent. Alexie frankly addresses topics like masturbation, alcoholism and prejudice, and never shies away from realistic language, but his humor and insight are true and heartfelt. The illustrations–Junior is a budding cartoonist–are a hoot!

2) Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is a YA classic, and rightly so. Sadly, because it focuses on a young woman, Melinda Sordino, it is often considered a “girl book”. I find such distinctions meaningless; when we categorize solely by gender, we rob readers of rich and varied perspectives. As far as I’m concerned, Speak should be read by everyone, female/male, adolescent/adult. The novel is a sometimes brutal (though never graphic) depiction of the aftermath of rape. In my classes, it’s led to frank—and frankly disturbing—discussions. In a society where supposedly educated people debate the concept of “legitimate” rape, Anderson’s book is as relevant as ever. Melinda’s progression from victim to survivor is transformative for readers as well, and Anderson’s message that struggles are less difficult when shared is important for guys, who often tend to embrace the stereotype of silence as strength.

3) In Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet Christopher, a brilliant fifteen-year-old who happens to be on the autism spectrum. Haddon’s portrayal, grounded in his experience working with autistic individuals, is remarkably true and engaging. The book drives home the crucial idea that differences can be opportunities, that apparent deficits may in fact be unique strengths. The book has wonderful characters, ample humor and a twisty whodunit, but it also fosters compassion, reminding readers that, through perseverance and a commitment to truth, all things are possible. These are significant lessons for the young adult, and Haddon imparts them without ever preaching. As we gradually get to know and root for Christopher, we learn along with him about the amazing potential each individual possesses. Christopher’s final words in the book, “I can do anything,” may even act as inspiration for the adolescent unsure of his own place and abilities.

4) My students, friends and family are likely sick of my gushing about The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. This brilliantly wrought novel, rich with beautiful characterization and poetic language, takes us on a heartrending journey through Holocaust-era Germany. For its historical perspective, unique narrator, and focus on the redemptive potential of relationships and words, The Book Thief must be experienced. Reading Zusak’s novel, a young man in one of my classes came to the realization that literature could actually make him feel. The journey of Liesel Meminger, a German girl who falls in love with books, made him laugh, made him angry, made him care. This was, for me as author and educator, truly powerful, a reminder of the revelatory nature of YA literature.

5) This may seem like a cop out, but there are so many wonderful YA reads: adventures, fantasies, paranormals, realistic contemporaries, that I’m at a loss to winnow down and fill that final slot. Let me just say I’m a huge Chris Crutcher fan. He handles gritty, realistic fiction masterfully, with such amazing insight and humor, that he belongs on any list. Plus, he’s landed on the challenged list multiple times; clearly he’s doing something right. Read Iron Man; it’s not about the superhero, but you won’t be disappointed.

So I’ll leave this list sort of like the average adolescent guy—in a slightly unfinished state—and wish you exciting journeys with words.

Post first appeared on the Merit Press official FB Page, 8/2/13.


  1. Really enjoyed the site and your words. Look forward to future visits. Hope Namesake is soaring as it should. E.H.

    • Thanks so much, Eric! The Namesake is making some strides. It’s under consideration for a couple of awards, so fingers crossed. Really good to hear from you. Hope we cross paths again soon. All best with your writing!


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