I’ve been sorting through my bookshelves recently (i.e., the only fun kind of cleaning) and rediscovering a lot of well-loved stories. I’m a believer in the truism that the best way to learn to write is by reading, so these are some of the books I’ve learned from.
I was initially going to choose ten, but there were too many contenders for that tenth spot, so I cut things off at nine. (Sorry, other books!) Without further ado and in no particular order:
1. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most talented speculative fiction authors on the planet. Not only does Akata Witch skilfully weave folklore and fantasy with the lives of modern-day teens, it features one of my all-time favourite heroines in Sunny, a girl torn between her life in New York and her life in Nigeria. I doubt I’ll ever write as well as Okorafor, but books like this are motivation to try.
2. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy (inspired by Paradise Lost) is a lesson in literary, dense-yet-accessible fantasy writing. While the ages of his protagonists, at 12, could put this book in the Middle Grade category, the complexity of the characterization and subject matter makes YA more appropriate. (Also: polar bears with armor!)
3. Sabriel by Garth Nix
A classic. Pubbed in 1995, this is one of the first fantasy novels I read featuring a strong, stand-alone female protagonist (not because they didn’t exist before 1995, but because I was too young to read them). With its relatively simple narrative structure, this book is hugely dependent on characterization, and it works–Sabriel is someone you want to root for.
4. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Probably the grandmother of all YA fantasy books. I actually don’t know a single YA writer who hasn’t read this and loved it, which tells you a lot.
5. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I love this classic Cinderella retelling, which weaves fairy-tale elements with the traditional coming-of-age narrative. Ella is also one of those too-rare YA protagonists who are funny (I mean, intentionally; she tells jokes and stuff), and the book provides a lot of great examples of how to write comedic scenes and dialogue.
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
This may be one of the most lyrical YA stories I’ve read, and it’s also completely unconventional, interspersing art with text throughout the narrative. True Diary, which was both commercially and critically successful upon release, shows that pushing boundaries is not just possible in YA, it’s what readers want.
7. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The quintessential coming-of-age story. (Is it actually YA? No idea. It’s great.) Also a master class in how to write complex characters–Anne is outspoken and passionate but can also be petty and immature. In other words, she’s not perfect, but you’ll still root for her to win the Avery scholarship and patch things up with Gilbert.
8. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Yes, there are two Diana Wynne Jones books on this list, because reasons. I’d love to recommend something from the Chrestomanci series, but I don’t actually own any physical versions of those. (But read them anyway!) I learned a lot about plotting from this twisty, strange book about a girl who meets a musician bound by a spell–namely, that you can write a twisty, strange book, and if the characters connect, it works.
9. Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Shipbreaker is a dark book with an unusual twist, and it made my list because it’s a completely original take on the dystopian genre. Centred around the relationship between a boy and his father (but not in a The Road sort of way), Shipbreaker is a reminder that good sci-fi, and good YA sci-fi, isn’t really about the tech or the futuristic setting, it’s about the characters.