A List of My All-Time Favorite Young Adult Debuts!
I have had the pleasure of reviewing a number of really excellent novels by first-time authors lately, which has gotten me thinking about debut novels. There is a certain particular pleasure in reading an author’s first novel (even when it’s not the first novel of theirs I read). It is a combination of a few things—things that I feel about listening to an artist’s first album or (to a lesser degree, since film is such a collaborative medium) seeing a director’s first film, but feel most strongly with books.
First, there is the feeling of meeting a new friend—someone who has the potential to stay with you long into the future. (This happens to me in the inverse, too: when I have my first encounter with an author and fall in love, only to look them up and find that they have a whole catalogue of works that I can fall into.) There is that new-person zing of excitement, but also a kind of anticipated pride/curiosity/delight in seeing what awesomeness they might come up with in the future. (Or there’s the delicious threat that they might never write anything else, à la To Kill A Mockingbird, and you will be left with only the perfect gem of a one-hit-wonder.)
Second, there is—sometimes, and I don’t mean to romanticize this, but I do think it’s there—the sense that a first novel is perhaps a particularly personal story to the writer; something that they felt compelled to write. Of course, in less-good debuts, this phenomenon can manifest as crappy faux-fiction featuring an idealized version of the author . . . But in wonderful debuts, I do get the sense that I’m getting some kind of less-mediated access to the author’s ideal book. As if, when they looked at all the things they could write in the whole world, they felt compelled to write this particular book. Welp, there, I went and romanticized it anyway. But sometimes romanticizations are also true.
Finally, debut novels (naturally) come out of nowhere! That means that I read them with no expectations about voice, no assumptions about the relationship between the author and the art, no presumptions about genre or style, and, best of all, no one else’s voice in my head telling me what to think about them. I’m relieved of the anxiety I feel when I pick up the newest book by a favorite author—the voice that says, “I’ve loved everything they’ve ever written; what if this one is a huge disappointment?!” I hate to be disappointed.
So, here are some Young Adult debuts that definitely do not disappoint. Yes, I am drawing an admittedly arbitrary line by what I mean by Young Adult for the purposes of this list. I’ve also decided to keep the list pretty contemporary—like, since the sixties contemporary. I mean, otherwise the damn Brontës would have overrun the list. There are a few choices that would really not be considered YA for most purposes, but which I find it necessary to include. I’ll explain why when I get to them. Naturally, I had to reign it in—in the comments, tell me your favorite YA debut novels!
15 Best Debut Young Adult Novels (in no particular order)
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012). I called Tell the Wolves I’m Home my favorite book of 2012, and I stand by it. This is an exquisitely-written book that introduces us to unforgettable characters. There’s 14-year-old June, who spends her time tramping through the woods and pretending she’s in medieval times. There’s June’s uncle Finn, a painter dying of AIDS with whom June is in love. And there’s Finn’s partner, Toby, who reaches out to June after Finn’s death. The story is as heartbreaking as the prose is beautiful. My complete review is HERE, and I had the pleasure to interview the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt about her authorial debut, first loves, and her favorite cheeses HERE!
The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt (1992). The Blindfold is one of those that I wouldn’t necessarily say is primarily a YA book, because its main character is a young graduate student, but I still think it belongs on this list because of its concern with coming of age, and finding identity. Iris, our protagonist, is a Midwesterner living in New York. She is hella broke, and takes a series of strange jobs as a result, the strangest of which is to whisper the descriptions of objects into a tape recorder and deliver them to a man who might be a murderer. Along the way, she meets a cast of super interesting characters, makes some bad decisions about who she dates, and begins wandering the streets of New York dressed as Klaus, the male character in a German story she is translating. A truly unique book.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997). I feel like “when did you first read Harry Potter?” might be my generation’s “where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” I first read Harry Potter the winter after it was published in the U.S. (1998, I guess?). I was in high school, and my mother had heard about it on NPR. She (adorably) suggested that maybe we should try to read it as a family. So, one night that winter, we read the first few chapters aloud. I was lying on my back on the floor, next to the fireplace. I was constantly sleep-deprived in high school, so I think I was asleep within about ten pages. I denied it, of course, but didn’t get around to actually reading the book until that summer. And the rest, as they say, was history. (In case you’re interested, my parents and sister and I did actually eventually read the first three or four books aloud, which was really awesome. One night when I was home from college in the summer, there was a power outage and each of us wrote our own first chapter of the fifth book, before it came out, and then we read them out loud. It was pretty spectacular, just saying.)
Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1) by Karina Halle (2011). Every single book in Karina Halle’s excellent Experiment in Terror series (the 7th comes out this summer) is amazing. I stumbled onto this series through a series of internet wormholes and I’m so freaking glad that I did. Perry is wandering around an abandoned lighthouse, contemplating how her life hasn’t turned out like she wanted. Before long, she’s being chased by a mysterious spirit and running smack into Dex Foray, who will become her partner in an online ghost-hunting show, “Experiment in Terror.” But which is scarier: that Dex is the most infuriating person she’s had the frustration of being attracted to, or that she seems particularly . . . receptive to the world of hauntings that she finds herself in? This is both a dynamite debut and the start to a series that just gets better and better. My complete review of Darkhouse is HERE.
Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer (2010). Here is another novel that probably wouldn’t be primarily considered YA fiction. Children of the Sun is told through two parallel storylines. James is a writer who becomes obsessed with a former leader of the British neo-nazi party who later came out as gay. As he reconstructs the story of this particular neo-nazi leader, he is led down a secret history of the gay far-Right, which begins to threaten him in the present. In the other storyline we follow 14-year-old Tony, who falls in with skinheads in the 1970s and must, consequently, hide his sexual orientation. In Tony’s story, we meet Nicky Crane, the leader whose story James is uncovering, and the storylines merge. This is a book that never got much press when it was published in the U.S., and I have no idea why because it’s really brilliant. Not only was it a real eye-opener for me, in terms of getting access to an entire subculture and national history, but its treatment of the intersection among masculinity, queerness, politics, and music is incredibly nuanced and insightful.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). Speaking of secret histories! I’ve written HERE about The Secret History and its bizarre imitator/plagiarizer, The Secret Diaries by Janice Harrell (1994). Donna Tartt’s novel is like the epitome of debuts. She came out of nowhere and didn’t write another novel for ten years. The Secret History is the story of a group of close friends at Hampden College (a fictional Bennington, which Tartt attended, with buddy Bret Easton Ellis). They are a close-knit group of Greek scholars that is infiltrated by newcomer, Richard, a transfer student from California. Richard quickly falls under their thrall and finds himself obsessed with them. But, of course, there are currents running beneath the surface of their friendship, and by the time Richard knows what he’s implicated in he’s too deep to cut them loose. It is one of those rare books that succeeds at being so good that it can give away the big secret at the very beginning: they kill one of their friends. There, I haven’t ruined anything; it’s that freaking good.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006). Although Bechdel drew/wrote the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” for almost twenty years, Fun Home is her debut graphic novel (well, graphic memoir). It tells the story of Bechdel’s childhood, with her father, who was an English teacher, a decor enthusiast, an aesthete, and, as she learned later, gay. When Bechdel goes to college and realizes she’s a lesbian, she connects with her father via the novels she is reading for her lit classes and finds new common ground. While she is in college, her father dies—he is hit by a truck in what might be a passive suicide. Bechdel’s narrative is gorgeously recursive, circling back to the core issues—family, queerness, aesthetics, literature, gender, and love—in chapter after chapter, chipping away at them from a different angle each time. Fun Home‘s prose is as beautiful as its art.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989). I just featured Weetzie Bat in “Top 5 Badass Chicks of YA Lit, In Honor of Women’s History Month.” As I said about Weetzie there: Weetzie dreams magical dreams in the ordinary world, and by doing so, she makes that world magical. She is a badass because she isn’t afraid to look at a world rife with limitations, problems, frustrations, and pain, and still see in it possibility, beauty, hope, and love. And that takes an immense amount of faith in people, energy to work toward a better world in her own way, and the vision to try and turn it into what she sees in her glitter-soaked, rose petal-encrusted, vintage silk-draped dreams. Besides, she spits in skinheads’ faces at concerts. Weetzie’s strength is in the way she turns the world into art and her art into the world she imagines. And while it might not be as clear-cut a badassness as some, it is equally important. Thank you, Weetzie, for bringing beauty’s excess to the world and being FIERCE about your conviction that we need it.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). A difficult book to summarize, House of Leaves tells the story of a photojournalist who moves his family into a house with a curious condition: the inside is bigger than the outside. At first, this seems like a mere curiosity, but when his two children wander off somewhere inside it . . . well, he has to follow, and record what he finds in the depths of the house on Ash Tree lane. In a parallel storyline that shares the page, a tattoo artist becomes obsessed with the story of this journey. But as any good tattoo artist should know, sometimes ink is more than ink, and not every story stays put on the page. One of the most intriguing and existentially terrifying books ever. I read this one my freshman year of college when I was living in a dorm that had an outside door to the bathroom as well as an inner door, forming a brief antechamber of that you had to walk through, which, at night, when I was reading House of Leaves in my room, was pitch black and in which, thus, I became totally convinced I would get lost forever as I ran there for brief pee breaks before I sprinted back and jumped under the covers.
Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). In Bart Yates’ awesome debut (everything he’s written is wonderful), Noah and his mother, a temperamental poet, have just moved to a small town in New Hampshire from Chicago after the sudden death of Noah’s father. As they fix up the sprawling house they’ve moved into, Noah and his mom find secrets hidden in the walls—mason jars with jewelry and old clothes, poems, and bones. As they try and put the pieces to this mystery together, Noah is also falling in love with the boy next door. But the end of summer brings consequences far more devastating than anyone could have expected, and Noah’s mother seems to drift further and further away, demolishing the house and leaving Noah worried for her safety. My complete review is HERE.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964). I also featured Harriet M. Welsch in “Top 5 Badass Chicks of YA Lit, In Honor of Women’s History Month.” As I said there: Harriet the Spy is a bold adventurer. She sees the world as an endlessly fascinating parade of characters and she wants to observe them all. She is smart and analytical and teaches herself to draw conclusions based on observation and imagination rather than assumption and generalization. She believes in telling the TRUTH! And when telling the truth alienates her friends, Harriet learns two important lessons: that most people can’t handle the truth about themselves, and that, in the long run, her friendships are more important than the truth. And when she realizes this last truth she makes it right by apologizing, addressing the harm she has caused, and takes the risk that she won’t be forgiven. She is a fucking AMAZING role model because she can admit when she’s wrong and has the tenacity to keep writing, incorporating what she’s learned into her art. Goddammit, Harriet the Spy, you are the ultimate badass.
The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Like Darkhouse, The God Eaters is proof that self-published work can be truly amazing. The God Eaters is a delightful genre mash-up: it has the setting and adventure of an old Western, some cool science fiction elements that merge with magic, a mythic quality that I won’t spoil, but which has to do with the gods of the title, and the grand love story of a romance. Ash and Kieran have been imprisoned because a corrupt, theocratic government wants to study their “talents” (powers)—Ash is an Empath and Kieran can kill people with his mind. They manage to escape, and set off on an epic adventure to outrun the people who would turn Kieran’s talent into power for themselves. Along the way, they hop trains, kick ass, have epic gunslinger-style standoffs, and fall in love. This is some great world-building and two amazing characters, and Hajicek’s writing is spot-on. My complete review is HERE. The God Eaters is nearly always e-shelved under “gay romance,” which has tragically limited its audience. It’s a great romance, yes, but that is only one small element of this awesome adventure.
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976). Okay, so I know we make a lot of fun of Anne Rice, but Interview With the Vampire is a really amazing debut. And, while I know many people would never shelve it in the YA section, I think we all know that, like, everyone who is majorly influenced by it is in their teens. Right? I mean, if you read Interview With the Vampire for the first time after the age of, say, sixteen, you’re not going to like it that much. Because it’s melodramatic and overwrought as all get out. But, if you have the unique pleasure of reading it before your organ of irony gets too swollen by adult tastefulness, you are one of the lucky ones who got to experience the explosion of the awesomest vampire novel ever. Don’t get me wrong: Dracula is amazing, but it’s not so much about vampires, really. Interview With the Vampire taught me about history, it introduced me to the Wonderfulle Worlde of Velvet & Candles, and it really contributed to making us receptive to the emo vibe, if you know what I mean (you know what I mean).
With Or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). With Or Without You is a sneak-attack book; it kind of comes up from behind you and gets you right between the ribs when you thought it was still a block away. Best friends Evan and Davis just need to make it through the summer after high school before they are getting the hell out of town—away from the kids who beat them up for being gay and away from the families that don’t care about them. But Evan has been secretly dating the really-has-his-shit-together Erik for almost a year, and he can turn to him when things get rough, or to his art. Davis, on the other hand, desperate for community and for love, falls in with a group of kids who are out to take respect from anyone who won’t give it to them. But Davis is in even deeper than Evan had imagined—and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to get him out before something far worse than a beating happens. With Or Without You‘s strength is in Farrey’s restraint: this could have turned melodramatic, but instead it’s a slow burn, beautifully characterized and devastating.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967). The Outsiders was probably the most important book of my childhood. You can check out my thoughts about it in “Finding My Inner Greaser: An Homage to The Outsiders.” Um, talk about a debut that came out of nowhere! S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was a 15-year-old high schooler in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it was published her freshman year of college. It was informed by the feuding classes at her high school, the Socs and the Greasers, and inspired by a friend of hers who was jumped on his way home from the movies. The story goes, in fact, that Hinton didn’t even think about publishing the book until the mother of a friend read it and got in touch with a publisher on her behalf. I can’t lie: I totally wrote an Outsiders-derived “novel” in a neon green notebook (with an enormous, square pencil—where the hell did I get that thing?) as an 11-year-old, as I’m sure many of you did. There’s something about it that, I think, makes writing a novel seem important and achievable. Whereas some debuts are so good as to intimidate, The Outsiders seems to demand a response, to beg us put our micro-stories out into the world.
So, that’s me done. Tell me your picks for best debut YA novels in the comments!