I was looking at one of my book shelves the other day and a couple of Walter Dean Myers books caught my eye. It hit me in that moment that I had been reading Myers' books for years (ever since Fallen Angels in 1988 when he came to my school), that I had never read a bad one by him, and that he may very well be one of our best writers. He's tackled tough subjects, told great stories, and has experimented with form. But outside of a certain audience he probably doesn't get the respect that he deserves. Why? Because he writes YA novels.
Years ago on one of my old blogs I wondered if we (readers, reviewers, critics, crime fiction community members, etc.) were being incomplete and unfair when we talked about the best crime fiction during our end of year favorites/bests lists and conversations because we often fail to take into account other mediums that are producing crime fiction: comics, TV, movies, music. Surely a year that produces a Breaking Bad for example must count it as among the year's best crime fiction. Or Scalped, Or 100 Bullets. Or even Monster, because even then, a couple of sentences back, I failed to mention YA novels.
I have kids so I decided on a quick experiment. I walked over to the kids book shelf and grabbed a couple of crime fiction titles. Look at these synopsis' and first lines and tell me you don't want to read them.
With a gunshot wound to the arm, Rico in jail, and a police officer clinging to life, Lil J is starting to get dope sick. He'd do anything to change the last twenty-four hours, and when he stumbles into an abandoned crack house, it actually might be possible...
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I'll call it what the lady prosecutor called me ... Monster.
When he was nine, Kip set another child on fire. Now, after years in a juvenile ward, he is ready for a fresh start. But the ghosts of his past soon demand justice, and he must reveal his painful secret. How can Kip tell anyone that he really is—or was—a murderer?
In the year since Justin's younger brother, Mark, died in a horrific accident, Justin's life has unraveled. Justin used to be one of the school's star athletes, but now he's not even on any of the teams. He used to be part of the popular crowd, but now everyone at school treats him like he's a monster. He used to date one of the prettiest girls at school, but now she will barely speak to him. Then on the anniversary of his brother's death he gets into a fight with his former best friend, and things spiral out of control — with terrible consequences. But that's not the worst. Now Justin is hearing a voice that's making him relive the day of the accident over and over again.
When fifteen-year-old Jude's father is brutally murdered, Jude is a witness. But to save his own life, he can't tell the police what he knows. Still, Jude is determined to clear his name and win the approval of his mother — the district attorney he has not seen since he was an infant.
At the urging of his mother's longtime companion, Jude agrees to a crazy scheme to protect her political future. But what Jude doesn't know is that there are buried secrets that will require him to sacrifice more than he ever dreamed. And his search for approval will turn into one for revenge.
Still reeling from his drug-dealing father's murder, moving in with the wealthy mother he never knew, and transferring to a private school, fifteen-year-old Jude is tricked into pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit.
Wyatt never really thought much about his dad—a hardened criminal, a lifer in a prison somewhere on the other side of the state. But then the economy had to go and tank, and the community had to go and cut the baseball program from Wyatt's high school. And then the coach had to go and show Wyatt a photograph of his dad at sixteen, looking very much like Wyatt himself. Through a series of unfortunate—or perhaps they were fortunate—events, Wyatt meets a crazy-hot girl named Greer with a criminal dad of her own. A criminal dad who is, in fact, in jail with Wyatt's own criminal dad. Greer arranges a meeting, and Wyatt's dad is nothing like the guy he's imagined—he's suave, and smart, and funny, and cool, and—Wyatt's pretty sure—innocent. So Wyatt decides to help him out. A decision that may possibly be the worst he's ever made in his life.
Paul Vanderman could be at any normal high school where bullies, girls, and annoying teachers are just part of life. But “normal” doesn’t apply when it comes to the school’s biggest bully, Roth—a twisted and threatening thug with an evil agenda.
When Paul ends up delivering a message from Roth to the leader of a gang at a nearby school, it fuels a rivalry with immediate consequences. Paul attempts to distance himself from the feud, but somehow Roth keeps finding reasons for him to stick around. Then one day Roth hands him a knife. And even though Paul is scared, he has never felt so powerful.
He's come to do a job.
A job that involves a body.
A body wrapped in duct tape found hanging from the goal posts at the end of the football field.
Hard-boiled seventeen year-old Dalton Rev transfers to the mean hallways of Salt River High to take on the toughest case of his life. The question isn't whether Dalton's going to get paid. He always gets paid. Or whether he's gonna get the girl. He always (sometimes) gets the girl. The real question is whether Dalton Rev can outwit crooked cops and power-hungry cliques in time to solve the mystery of "The Body" before it solves him.
...evokes the distinctive voices of legendary crime/noir authors Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson with a little bit of Mean Girls and Heathers thrown in for good measure. It'll tease you, please you, and never ever leave you. Actually, that's not true. It's only a book. One that's going to suck you in, spit you out, and make you shake hands with the devil. Probably.
First line #1
"The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. "
First Line #2
"On the afternoon of his seventh birthday, I set Bobby Clarke on fire."
First Line #3
"The police arrived, then the paramedics, then the police photographer, and after that Jude lost track."
Now tel l me they don't sound like interesting books. (For the record they are: Dopesick by Walter Dean Myers, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Right Behind You by Gail Giles, Echo by Kate Morgenroth, Jude by Kate Morgenroth, Bullet Point by PeterAbrahams, The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony Mcgowan and You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin.) I've read most of these books and they are. Noirs, thrillers, mysteries, and crime fiction YA has got you covered.
At some point in 2010 I realized that, in most cases, $26 was too much for me to spend on a hardback book. Soon after was when I got my first Kindle.
Here are three observations about YA fiction that I think all tie in together.
1) YA novels allow shorter forms. Specifically, fiction that would be considered novella length if it was released for adults.
2) YA novels are priced cheaper. Of the books I have laid out on my desk right now the hardbacks are about $16 and the paperbacks are $6.95
3) The YA novel industry is doing great.
For now that's all I got. Like I said a loose collection of thoughts. But I know this, I think I need to start paying more attention to YA crime fiction, we may be missing some good stuff.
Currently Listening: Bill Withers. The Band. Father John Misty.
Currently Reading: vN by Madeline Ashby, submissions, Big Trouble in Little Boots by Brian Knight
Hmmm, you've widened my ideas of YA.
Looking at these plot lines I can see I've been way too dismissive. Ears feel a couple of inches farther apart.
I said a while back, when these kids grow up we'll see an explosion in the hardboiled and noir scene again.
I'm a librarian in my day job, which has made me aware of YA lit. I'm very partial to much of it, but I should report that some teachers, parents and librarians question the relentless, harrowing darkness of much YA fiction.
One YA novel that broke the usual boundaries was HOLES by Louis Sachar. It was adapted for film, and I consider it a great novel, period.
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