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Dr. FYA: Literary Purists Need Apply

Dr. FYA gives YA suggestions for the Lit Fic fan.

Dr. FYA: Literary Purists Need Apply

Why, hello! I'm Dr. FYA, and I'm back to help solve your quandaries. Relationship advice? Got you right here. Need a book for delicate or serious life situations? Desperate to decide what to fix for dinner? Sorry, I can't help you there, but this guy sure can.

Today, I am delighted to help a reader blaze a YAngelist trail and bring someone over to the holy light that is YA, and prove that a book doesn't have to be written by a reclusive MFA or be about adults who can't find their own asses with both hands in order to be literary and most excellent.

Dear Dr. FYA,

Which YA and middle grade books would you recommend for somebody who primarily reads adult literary fiction? By literary, I mean the heavy-hitters (in themes or story structure and sometimes in length) that win the prestigious prizes. I've looked at FYA's YAngelism suggestions as well as winners of the Morris, Printz, and Newbery, but I'm not sure which novels are the most "literary." Would the National Book Award for Young People's Literature nominees be considered the most "literary" of the YA/MG awards?

Thanks for your advice!

Thank YOU, YAngelist reader, for taking on this noble cause!

First of all, those awards lists are all fantastic places to start. Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now has something that will appeal to just about anyone, and if it doesn't, I'm not sure they're human. Not only is the writing superb, Schmidt captures the mood of small town 1960s even better than The Wonder Years. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is a wonderful Newberry winner that will appeal to fans of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Sinclair Lewis, as well as lots of contemporary book club darlings like Alan Bradley (the Flavia de Luce books), David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) and Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge). If that one goes over well, you can segue into Maile Meloy's The Apothecary, which even my dad enjoyed.

Another approach is to hit up the books that are often shelved in the adult section and marketed as bildungsromans (the fancypants name for "coming of age" -- bust that one out the next time someone criticizes you for reading YA. "Excuse me, but this happens to be an exemplary bildungsroman," should knock a snobby hater back on his or her heels, doncha think? Not that the person you're asking about is a snobby hater. I'm just talking generalities here). Hook them on teenage protags in grownup books first, then hit them with the hard YA. Hands down, my favorite "is it YA or A?" is Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram, which covers the Cuban Missile Crisis, Andrew Marvell, both World Wars, and a boy's quest to lose his virginity. In all senses of the word, it's epic. Also notable is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, which features a magnificently precocious heroine, a chilling mystery, and cultural references galore, and is a great gateway book to the world of our patron saint, Frankie Landau-Banks. And Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly will appeal to fans of books within books, like A.S. Byatt's unsurpassed Possession (just don't let them see the cover before they start reading, or you'll never convince them of its merit). Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy pulls together the nature of childhood, good vs. evil, organized religion, and the ugliness and beauty of human nature into one gorgeously written, heartbreaking package. There's also the tried and true crossover, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I have yet to meet the person who didn't fall in love with that book -- and fall apart.

With a cover this rad, no one will ever mistake it for a YA book

As for hard-core, honest-to-god YA lit, you can never, ever, ever go wrong with Sara Zarr. Her writing is perfect -- spare, honest, evocative. Her characters are as real as it gets -- no matter the situation, she doesn't resort to emotional manipulation or caricatures as an easy way to drive home her point. Even when she tackles topics worthy of a Lifetime Original Movie, she does it with compassion and grace, never once pulling a Jodi Picoult. Try her most recent novel, How to Save a Life or dive right in to FYA's gold standard, Sweethearts.

One of our most recommended authors, no matter who or what you are, is A.S. King -- Please Ignore Vera Dietz has an award nomination, a hard-drinking heroine, flowcharts, and a magical, omnipotent pagoda. Sounds quirky enough to be lit fic to me, and the bonus is it's fucking awesome. There's just no other way to describe it (plus, King's downright delightful and can hold her whiskey). John Green is another no-brainer, no matter which one. Road trips, lost loves, math, hero's journeys, the true meaning of friendship, musical theater -- you can find it all in his books.

If a tragic childhood or being emotionally destroyed is a key part of the reading experience for your literary fiction fan, most of the books already mentioned will do the trick, but there are a few you don't want to miss out on. Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a near-memoir of growing up on a reservation and navigating an all-white high school. Melina Marchetta -- who is a must for anyone who gets wrapped up in a novel's language -- tackles grief and broken families in The Piper's Son, and tells her story from not-teen perspectives.

If you're looking through the book reports, pay special attention to the "talky talk" section -- look out for descriptions like "prosetastic" or "literary" or the like. Check for excerpts or quotes from the text, and bonus factors like history or feminism are usually good signs.

Other notable books:

•  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher is, well, almost perfect.

  Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (ill. by Maira Kalman)

  Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

  Winter Town by Stephen Edmond

  Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

•  The Sally Lockhart books by Philip Pullman

And I'm only stopping here because I sense the list is about to get even more out of control. Best of luck in your YAngelism, and let us know how it goes!

Have a question for Dr. FYA? Send it to foreveryoungadult [at] gmail [dot] com!