Since I’m an aspiring YA (and maybe MG) author, I want to cover some of the books I loved when I was in middle school or high school. (We’re looking at the 1990s here for the most part.) The list would be far too long to cover in one post, so how about a couple of books per entry, with updates from time to time?
Perhaps these books won’t be among the most well-known books in the modern genre. I like those, too. But so many of my favorite YA and MG books were books I read when I was a bit out of the intended targeted audience age range. I didn’t give Harry Potter a chance until I was 19. I know A Series of Unfortunate Events is aimed at middle school kids, but I was cracking up over Lemony Snicket’s strange prose and stranger plots while in college.
Please comment with your favorite MG and YA books from when you were actually in middle and high school!
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
I have school to thank for this one. One of the optional summer reading books in 5th or 6th grade was The Black Cauldron. Yes, that’s the second and not the first book of the series. My guess is the Disney animated version—as virtually unknown as that movie was even by the 1990s—being named The Black Cauldron even despite combining books one and two was the reason the teachers chose that book. It took particularly dedicated readers to opt to read it for their assignment because you really ought to have read The Book of Three first, which meant another book to read. (And yes, at the urging of several of us, the school eventually recommended that one rather than the second book in the series.)
Well, skip having to read one extra book. I was hooked and I read all five books that summer. (In addition to whatever other summer reading book I had to read for school—whatever it was, you can tell it didn’t much impress me.) I can’t remember, but I think these books were responsible for my love of fantasy thereafter. I know one of my dear friends at school also got immersed in them, and we loved dwelling in fantasy worlds, even co-writing a little journal of letters between two medieval maidens. (Which was an assignment for school, but we had a blast!) I wrote a hilarious fantasy story I thought was the shiznit that I entered in some kids’ writing contest. I didn’t win. Perhaps because it’s incredibly hilarious but actually was intended to be taken quite seriously. (I have half a mind to share it here someday. I can’t read it with a straight face.) I have to mention that it involved a wizard named “Googan” (initially named “Hoover”), a hero named “Dwycin” (pronounced with a hard “c,” which no one seemed to know until I told them!) and a wonderfully stereotypical villain who so graciously consented to fight the hero in a “non-magical fight” so things would be fair for the both of them. He lost.
I re-read The Chronicles of Prydain a few years ago, and I still loved them, even if I didn’t have the same passion for them that I did as a child. I loved how the characters evolved over the course of the series, and I was surprised to find that my least favorite in the series as a child (Taran Wanderer) was one of my favorites as an adult. The villains still felt actually scary and threatening. (The Disney adaptation still leads much to be desired, even if I bought the DVD nonetheless. For starters, when a character is known for being “of the red-gold hair,” you don’t make her a total blonde…)
Sweet Valley High/Sweet Valley University by Francine Pascal (/team of ghostwriters)
My best friends in middle and high school were named Jessica and Elizabeth, and both were blondes. And no, this isn’t some snarky comment about how the SVH twins were my best friends, I’m actually serious. I just thought it was a weird coincidence at the time. (That, and they had a friend named Amy—that’s me! I wasn’t blonde, shallow or boy-crazy, though…) My life in high school was nothing like SVH, and my Jess was a million times sweeter than the one in the books. The book Elizabeth was pretty nice and sweet, though, just like the Liz I knew.
I’m not sure why I found these books so compelling in middle school. I think a friend showed me one in the school library that had a “naughty” bit we found so salacious, I had to pick the books up. (I think it was simply a dating couple kissing, but you know, we were 10…) Over the course of a few years, I think I read every SVH and SVU book out there (at the ripe age of 10, I felt so much more mature than those who would read Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley Kids, so I never got into those) and I felt a special attraction to the side books in which really weird things happened. (I was teased when caught with Return of the Evil Twin before class, but I actually managed to grab the girl’s attention when I explained that the book featured the long-lost identical twin of a homicidal maniac teen girl who just happened to be a dead-ringer for Elizabeth and Jessica in the first place—all she needed to do was dye her hair blonde and even the girls’ family was fooled!—who had intended to secretly kill Elizabeth and take over her life and was presumed dead, but actually wasn’t dead, you see, and now wanted her twin sister to help her take over both twins’ lives… Only now they were arguing over who got to be more popular Jessica for some reason.)
I don’t know what it was about these books: a glamorous take on school life (but I’d rather have that crazy drama in my imagination than in real life), a TV show tie-in I enjoyed, or just how they sucked me in from start to end, but I was a SVH addict for a number of years in middle school. I once impressed the whole family by reading a 400-page one in a single day. My mom literally bragged about it to my extended family! (I’ve read books of length in a day since to fewer accolades, of course, but this was the first time.)