Stop Dismissing Midwestern Literature

It’s time to give up the mistaken idea that the heartland is a cultural wasteland

Photo by Gozha Net

I ’ve spent 18 years, on and off, living and writing outside the Midwest, but it’s still easy for the practiced ear to hear the nasal pitch in my voice and locate my hometown in Illinois between Chicago and I-80. I’m a professor in Connecticut, but the center of my cultural compass is a field or rusted warehouse in a state with a lot of vowels that many people can’t find on a map.

This is a challenging place to write from — but then again, it’s not really seen as a place at all. When I first began to send out my writing, I learned how Midwestern I was and heard that writing about the Midwest was “regional” in a bad way: not a good investment for a publishing house unless I could write about Chicago or plumb the gothic vein that confirmed readers’ stereotypes of hopelessly backward places and people or satirical wastelands of Suburbia.

I sent my first published essay as a writing sample for an academic job, and in my interview in a hotel room at MLA, a professor looked me up and down and said, “Wow. I expected someone more ‘Reba McEntire.’”

I first left the Midwest two days after my college graduation, eager to find the excitement and culture that was supposed to reveal my real life. The Midwest has typically been portrayed as a stultifying place that artists and Bohemians from Bob Dylan to the Walsh kids from 90210 flee on the way to finding themselves, in Greenwich Village or L.A. I drove out to Boston in a dented red pickup truck, not understanding that I was acting out a regional bias that has affected artistic culture for almost one hundred years.

Edward Watts, author of An American Colony: Regionalism and Roots of Midwestern Culture, describes the Midwest of the late 1700s, when it was “the Old Northwest,” the western edge of a new country settled with the violent extermination and relocation of Native Americans. Watts argues that the Old Northwest was the first colony of the United States, and that the current cultural relationship between Midwest and East Coast still ripples out from the dynamics established in that era.

Watts, like me, moved from Illinois and lived in Connecticut, where his “ignorance of the East was a source of ridicule” but his “eastern friends’ provincial ignorance of the Midwest was, if anything, a badge of sophistication.” Watts writes that Midwesterners view the East “as the East views Europe, its own erstwhile colonial parent.”

Midwesterners aren’t an oppressed colonial minority. Watts explains that the Midwest fits in a postcolonial framework along with places like Australia where “white colonials stayed and made homes on land seized from a displaced or marginalized aboriginal population.” The Midwest illustrates the ongoing dynamics of imperialism, including the “sweeping amnesia” of colonialism that required strong identification with the centers of colonial cultural power. The Old Northwest — which Watts describes as “more diverse than the East in regard to race, class, and religion” — resisted that role but also internalized and reinterpreted its “own entanglement in empire.”

My own relationship with the small working and middle-class town of my birth is one of attachment threaded with sadness; it was a lovely yet harsh place to grow up. When I drive through hours of corn I am struck anew by the ecological costs of monocrop agriculture and the decimation of small-town life wreaked by the transition from family to factory farming. Racism forged white flight from the cities and the whiteness of sundown towns as the cities were renewed with waves of immigration. The economic upheavals of the Midwest are written in family stories: Then we moved north, the plant closed, we lost the farm. I love the place precisely because of the way all these forces weave together and find expression and evolution in Midwesterners’ lives. I don’t have a pamphlet or a sales pitch, and I’m still searching for the book that captures the essence I love. Maybe I could take you there to smell the rain, and we could set lawn chairs up in the garage to watch a storm roll in.

When I moved to the East Coast for the first time, I began to see the Midwest through the eyes of others. A new acquaintance would lean in at a party to ask where I was from, then express sympathy at my answer. “Wow. How in the world did you end up here?” he might say, as if I’d engineered a prison break. Upon confessing homesickness I have heard, “I didn’t think there was anything there to miss.” Yet Walt Whitman once described the Midwest as the nation’s “crown and teeming paradise.” So what happened?

Upon confessing homesickness I have heard, “I didn’t think there was anything there to miss.” Yet Walt Whitman once described the Midwest as the nation’s “crown and teeming paradise.”

In From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965, Jon Lauck argues that forces came together in the 1920s to turn the nation toward the coasts and to cement the image of the Midwest as the back alley of the nation. Literary editor Carl Van Doren played a large role. He penned an essay that appeared in the fall 1921 literary supplement of The Nation arguing that World War I had brought together and given voice to writers who needed to rebel against the “cult of the village” and who sought to reveal the “slack and shabby” underside of small-town Midwestern life. Van Doren pulled evidence from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Masters, Lewis, and Anderson all disagreed with Van Doren, saying that he was simplifying works that were intended to portray a three-dimensional Midwest. But Van Doren’s thesis stuck, and also tanked the careers of Masters and Anderson, both of whom were dismissed after their later attempts to celebrate the Midwest were seen as sentimental schlock.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis in particular was read as a caricature of Midwestern small-town narrowness. And Lewis was rewarded handsomely for this portrait, essentially birthing the market for dissing the Midwest or focusing on its scariness. Lauck writes that attention to similar works — and lack of attention to those that celebrated the real Midwest — created a feedback loop that still affects our culture and literary canon. What is lost, among other things, is a potential narrative in which Midwestern writers helped to shape the canon and build literary realism.

What is lost, among other things, is a potential narrative in which Midwestern writers helped to shape the canon and build literary realism.

Van Doren was influenced by critic Van Wyck Brooks and H. L. Mencken, who were among the early Modernists who fought for the role of the intellectual in modern culture and sought to wrest culture toward the coasts. In those same years, high culture began to be defined as whatever wasn’t Midwestern; The New Yorker was launched in 1925 with this tag line: “Not for the old lady from Dubuque.” The critic Stuart Pratt Sherman, Iowan by birth, opposed Van Doren’s dualism with a call for “middlebrow” culture: art and literature that would engage a broad audience. Yet the cultural production continued to shift toward the coasts.

Being away has sharpened my love and longing as I learn what I am missing elsewhere. We Midwesterners are often seen as friendly and a little naïve, our reticence or bashfulness inaccurately read as stupidity. If we make something of depth and substance, it is a bit of a surprise or maybe an accomplishment to have transcended the nothingness. If we leave the region of our birth, it’s assumed that we gratefully disappear into our destination.

Yet Midwesterners in all their urban, suburban, and rural varieties have a way of talking, walking, dreading, yearning, looking at the sky, cooking, planning their lives, and working, a way of being that is identifiable to other Midwesterners. My Midwestern antennae go up when I hear the flattened accent in all its guises, lengthened pauses, a certain shrug or prolonged but non-confrontational way of making eye contact.

Shame and Ridicule in Indiana: William H.

If a new acquaintance asks more than one question about me and seems genuinely interested in the answer, I will counter with “Where are you from?” We then locate where we have lived based on the number of hours it takes to drive to other locations or bodies of water, exchanging bemused smiles as if to say, And here we both are, out of our element. Nice work muddling through. We read each other’s speech, gestures, and facial expressions to see subregion and hear nearby cities. We smile, happy to have a little bit of home between us.

These days the so-called fly-over states with all the vowels are also dismissed as Trump territory. There’s plenty of racism in the Midwest…but also everywhere else. The Midwest these days seems almost to function as a geographical repository for images of deterioration, as an imaginary focal point where racism, addiction, white supremacy, and conformity are located.

It’s time for the Midwest to be defined culturally as a part of the country on par with other regions. Robert Dorman offers regionalism and the pride of regional cultural production as a “soft” form of identity for white people as a counterbalance to white identity and the virulence of racism. Lauck argues that our whole national culture has a responsibility to commit to a fairer view of a region “to protect it from degrading clichés and the realm of easy cynicism.”

It’s time for the Midwest to be defined culturally as a part of the country on par with other regions.

Lauck mentions Belt Magazine and its press, Belt Publishing, as one promising press attempting to change this. (I’m in one of their newest anthologies called Rust Belt Chicago, with an essay about the ring of small towns around Chicago called Chicagoland). The press has published books about the cities in the region, each one with its own beautiful history of immigration, ethnicity, and race; architecture; art scene; agricultural and industrial past and present; and geography.

The supposed blankness of the Midwest hides its edginess. All the writers I love from the region are skirting those edges: Edna Ferber, Richard Wright, Meridel LeSueur, Thomas Dreiser. Sandra Cisneros writes in multiple genres about the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. There’s Bich Minh Nguyen’s story of refugee emigration from Vietnam to the suburbs of Detroit. Ira Sukrungruang’s Southside Buddhist. Lee Martin’s nonfiction is about his family’s unsuccessful migration from central Illinois to Chicago and then back again. There’s also Joe Oestreich’s writing about his life in the rock band Watershed as it skirted fame.

Other contemporary nonfiction writers from the Midwest who write about the region include Samantha Irby, Debra Marquart, Marvin V. Arnett, Cheri Register, Michael Martone, Angela Palm, Kate Hopper, Patricia Hampl, David Foster Wallace, Gayle Brandeis, Barrie Jean Borich, Paulette Bates Alden, Hanif Willis-Abduraqqib, Megan Stielstra, Ryan Van Meter, Kathleen Finneran, Karrie Higgins, Zoe Zolbrod, Rebecca McClanahan, Joe Mackall, Roxane Gay, and so many others I’ve missed.

A tiny sampling of current Midwestern fiction I’ve loved includes Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson, Celeste Ng, Jane Hamilton, Angela Flournoy, Leon Forrest, and Nancy Zafris, along with many profiled in the book The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt, edited by Mark Athitakis, but this is not even a representative list. The wealth of literature — not to mention poetry and other genres best left to other writers to catalogue — quickly becomes overwhelming. What unites these writers is that they all create on the page a living place that is not so far away.

The supposed blankness of the Midwest hides its edginess.

In four years, Van Doren’s thesis about the Midwest as cultural wasteland will celebrate its century of influencing American culture. And I hope that the era of the Midwest as a region too “regional” to read will slowly decline — but that requires, I think, Midwesterners like me to step out of our reticence and speak to the blankness, to say loudly what we loved and struggled with about the place that made us. When I left the Midwest for the second time, it was for a job, as happens to so many of us. My leaving was tinged with regret, and I miss my complicated homeland.

When I did a signing in a Barnes & Noble’s bookstore near my Illinois hometown, a woman stopped by and bought two copies — a complete stranger, without even glancing at the topic or the cover — because “you wrote a book and you’re from here. You made us proud.”

Stop Dismissing Midwestern Literature was originally published in Electric Literature on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Best Books of the Year: Dav Pilkey Drawing & Talking About “Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties”

DogManTale2Kitties_200Dav Pilkey has had quite a year.  The Adventures of Captain Underpants, the book that first made him a star among kids and parents, was made into a major motion picture.  He also released Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties, the third book in his Dog Man series, and the fourth book is coming out within the next two weeks.

I was able to catch up with Pilkey here in Seattle shortly after Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties was released; and while we talked, he illustrated.  To me, watching an illustrator at work is one of the most ethereal experiences imaginable: it’s pure magic unfolding from pen to paper before my eyes.  I love it.  Below is the video of my time with Pilkey, who, pen in hand, chatted about his love of Charles Dickens, the making of the Captain Underpants movie, Dog Man and Cat Kid (releasing December 26th), and more.

I held onto the video below a little longer than usual so I could also share that Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties is our pick for the top three best books of 2017 for kids.



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The Powerful Reason You Should Tell Your Story

Today’s post is going to be a little different. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of writing, I’m going to dive into something more important: you need to tell your story. Here’s why.

The Powerful Reason You Should Tell Your Story

Your Story Matters

For a lot of us, this has been a rough year, a tiring year, a painful year.

Some years carry a heavier toll than others, and this is one of them. Yet in spite of that — or maybe because of it — there’s something you need to do: tell your story. I know how tired you are. I know some of you you don’t feel heard. I know some of you might fear you don’t matter.

You do.

Everyone’s experiences are unique, and as we share our stories, our perspectives, our take on world building and character development, we actually expand other people’s understanding.

Your Story Is Your Own

Your story matters because it is uniquely your own, and no one can tell it the way you can.

[M]ake your art. Do the stuff that only you can do. The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

—Neil Gaiman

No one has your voice. No one has your thoughts. No one has your experiences, dreams, hopes, and fears. No one else can do this. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, fantasy worlds or parenting blogs, your story — like fingerprints — is your own.

Your Story Requires Patience

Telling your story well can take time, and that’s normal.

It’s the same as learning a musical instrument or excelling in a sport. Anyone can do it badly; it’s the folks who continue to study and practice who shine.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone told me: […] For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. If you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

― Ira Glass

The ones who don’t give up make good art. Don’t quit. Tell your story.

Tell Your Story

If you read nothing else in this article, read this: get to work and tell your story.

It’ll take time. Maybe not everyone will understand. That’s okay.

Hear me: don’t be afraid. It’s worth the struggle. Be brave, fellow writer, and tell your story.

What’s your biggest roadblock between you and your story? Let us know in the comments.


Take fifteen minutes and tackle the beginning of your story. This is your introduction; it’s a chance to remind yourself why your story needs to be told. You might begin writing that story that’s been on your heart for weeks, months, or years. You might even tell your own personal story, a glimpse of your life.

When you’re finished, post it in the comments section, and don’t forget to comment on three other stories!

The post The Powerful Reason You Should Tell Your Story appeared first on The Write Practice.

24 Best Books to Gift to the Strong Feminist in Your Life

It’s that time of the year again: when those of us with holiday obligations try once again to come up with gifts for friends and family. As a bibliophile, I love nothing more than introducing someone to a book that I have loved and making a gift of it to them. I always hope that the recipient will love the book as much as I have, and sometimes envy that they will be experiencing the book for the first time. But matching people to books can be difficult, especially if the subjects that interest them are outside of your own favored genre or subject matter.

This year, those who love feminist literature and nonfiction had a lot of choices. For the feminist book-lover in your life, consider choosing one of these selections in fields that range from history to graphic novels. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start.

The post 24 Best Books to Gift to the Strong Feminist in Your Life appeared first on Signature Reads.

10 Wise Quotes from Authors With December Birthdays

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note:

Who doesn’t love a good quote? For more like this, check out our quotations archive.

There must be something about the optimism of early Spring that inspires a lot of babies to be born in December. While a winter birthday isn’t always a treat (just ask anyone who’s grown up receiving dual-purpose Christmas presents), the following authors have given back to the world in the form of style and wisdom that transcend genre; we’ve assembled some of their best quotes below.

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968
“Character–the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life–is the source from which self-respect springs.”

Noam Chomsky, 9-11, 2001
“We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders.”

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, 1915
The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1817
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”

Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two, 1982
“It must be wonderful to be seventeen, and to know everything.”

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly, 1977
“Sometimes I wish I knew how to go crazy. I forget how.”

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 1962
“We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.”

Sandra Cisneros, A House of My Own: Stories From My Life, 2015
“I do want to create art beyond rage. Rage is a place to begin, but not end.”

Rudyard Kipling, “The Glory of the Garden,” 1921
“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.”

John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

The post 10 Wise Quotes from Authors With December Birthdays appeared first on Signature Reads.

6 Ways Freelance Writers Can Prepare for Tax Season Right Now

You won’t have to file your taxes for a while, but why not take advantage of the year-end freelancing slowdown to get ahead on the upcoming tax season?

Use this time to get organized and prepared before tax season rolls around, and also to get ready for next year’s bookkeeping. Spending a little time getting everything in order now can save a lot of hassle later.

If you have any questions about how to prepare for the upcoming tax season, be sure to ask your tax preparer.

1. Follow up on invoices

Now is a good time to go through your records from this year and see who still owes you money.

Like many freelancers, there’s a good chance you still have an outstanding invoice or two.

Check the terms of your contracts to see when each outstanding payment is due and, if they’re late, reach out to those clients. Sometimes it takes a little time to track down your money, so it’s a good idea to start soon.

prepare for tax season2. Find your receipts

What do you do with your receipts for tax-deductible expenses?

Do you carefully file them away the day you make a purchase? Or do you cram them in your junk drawer, wallet, purse, or car and figure you’ll just deal with them later?

Now is the perfect time to gather all those receipts and sort them out for tax time. Check with your tax preparer if you’re not sure what you can and cannot deduct.

Take a few minutes and go through your credit card and bank statements for the year to make sure you’re not missing anything.

Don’t forget about digital receipts. Sort through your emails and maybe even take a quick look at your order history with your favorite online retailers to make sure you don’t miss anything.

3. Organize your tax deductions

Once you have all your tax-deductible receipts gathered in one place, go ahead and start sorting them out.

It is usually helpful to organize them by deduction category. Look at your taxes from last year and, if you have similar types of expenses this year, you’ll see what categories of deductions you may have.

Then sort the receipts out. File folders are often helpful. Paper clips also work. Avoid staples or anything that may damage the receipts or make them difficult to separate. Some people also like to scan their receipts to have a backup digital copy.

Next, make a spreadsheet for your expenses and organize it by category. This will help you have everything ready for your tax preparer. Include information like the date of purchase, vendor, business reason for purchase, cost, method of payment and anything else that might be helpful.

4. Prepare to receive 1099s

At the end of the year, while you’re preparing for your end of year review, you’ll want to know how much money you earned this year. It makes sense to tally up how much you received from each client so you can evaluate each one, but also so you can prepare to receive your 1099s in the new year.

Throughout the year, be sure to keep records of all your income. Keep your paystubs or photocopy checks if you don’t receive a pay stub.

Be sure to go through bank statements and note any direct deposits. Look at PayPal and other payment systems and check these records. You’ll likely want to print these all out for your tax preparer (or provide a digital copy).

Once you have all your income records together, make a spreadsheet recording the payments you received from each client.

You can use this information to double-check your 1099s when you receive them and to be able to file your income accurately if you do not receive a 1099. If your records and the 1099 you receive do not match up, double-check your records and contact the client for a corrected 1099 if the one they initially sent is inaccurate.

5. Start next year’s folders and spreadsheets

Pretty soon, the new year will roll around and you will start receiving checks, contracts and other important information for the new year. Be sure to prepare your organizing and filing system ahead of time so you’re ready to go as soon as January arrives.

Make the physical folders you’ll need and set up your digital ones as well. Create next year’s assignment and income spreadsheets and be ready to hit the ground running in the new year.

6. Ask questions

If you have questions for your tax preparer or accountant, take advantage of the slow season to ask them or set up a meeting.

As soon as January arrives, people will kick into high gear and they will likely be quite busy, but it might be easier to ask a few questions when things are slow.

The end of the year is a great time to get organized, catch up and get ahead on accounting for the new year. So when January rolls around, you’ll be ready to focus on your writing.

How do you prepare for the end of the tax year?

The post 6 Ways Freelance Writers Can Prepare for Tax Season Right Now appeared first on The Write Life.

A Book Launch Plan for First-Time Authors Without an Online Presence

While it’s not easy to launch a book without any kind of online presence, many first-time authors are in exactly that position. Unfortunately, it’s an exercise in frustration to launch one’s online presence—and get up to speed on social media—in conjunction with a book release. It’s like trying to drive a car at the same time you’re building it. At some point, you’ll end up on the side of the road.

I recommend authors who are starting from “online zero” to look at their strengths and opportunities that exist outside of their own newly started (or nonexistent) website, blog, or social media. If done well, the book launch will help draw people to you online because they’ve read your book and enjoyed it, not because you’ve tweeted at them to buy it. When your book achieves a reasonable foundation of readership or success, so too will your online presence; the two go hand in hand. (Note: Prior to the book launch, I do recommend you establish sites or accounts you plan to be active on for the long term—just be aware they’ll be most useful, marketing-wise, for your next launch, whenever it is.)

Here’s a high-level view of the plan, which works for both traditionally published and self-published authors.

  1. Market and promote to the people who know you (existing readers or fans, even if there are only a couple).
  2. Encourage existing readers and fans to share your book with their network.
  3. Get influencers to help spread the word.
  4. Market to strangers or readers who don’t know you yet—but have demonstrated interest in work similar to yours.

Before you begin

  • Consider creating a page at your author website or a media kit stored at Google Drive (or somewhere in the cloud) that has all the needed publicity information about the book and you. Then you’ll have a link you can share via email or elsewhere whenever people want to know more, have info requests, etc. Here’s a good example that is more extensive than what most authors need, but gives you an idea of what to include.
  • You may want to sign up for a service like InstaFreebie or BookFunnel to help securely share advance digital reading copies of your book. This is useful when approaching anyone to blurb, review, or otherwise offer coverage of you or your work; send print copies only when necessary.

1. First, reach out to the people who know you

“People who know you” are the people who would happily answer your phone calls, texts, or emails. Once your book is on sale, use your personal email address to let people know, one by one. This is critical. If you send a mass email, recipients will feel free to ignore it. You want to send a personal email, or at least one that looks personal.

If you’re lucky enough to have an email newsletter through a service like MailChimp, then consider the following beginner strategy:

  • About one month before the book is available for sale (or while it’s on pre-order), send an email announcing you’ve got a new book out. Include a link to Amazon at minimum, and/or your preferred bookstore.
  • On the day the book goes on sale, send out another message, including any positive reviews, blurbs, good news, etc.
  • About one to two months after the book has been on sale, send another follow-up, including any new or positive developments, and ask people to review it.
  • To the extent you’re active on social media, you can make similar posts there, focusing on news surrounding the release and sharing happy developments, reviews, and so on.

2. Encourage existing readers to share your book with their network

Think through the “assets” that each of your good contacts have (those people who answer your calls, emails, etc). Do they have an active blog? Do they have an email newsletter they send out? Are they active on Twitter? Etc. If you can pinpoint a single action they could take to spread the word about your book, and you’re fairly confident they’d be happy to do so, then write a brief email with a specific request, asking if they would do X. Generally this should happen after the book is on sale, but if what you’re asking would take time to plan, then ask earlier, to time the publicity as close to your book’s release date as possible.

Some of the people you know may be “influencers” (see below) and they should also be part of your outreach. Consider how/when/where they influence or reach people, and match your ask as best you can to their typical pattern of behavior. E.g., if they typically talk about books and authors or colleagues on Goodreads, your ask would be along those lines.

3. Get influential people or publications to spread the word

This is where things become difficult because you’re reaching out to people/publications who are likely inundated with requests and may not know you well or at all. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; just expect a success rate that’s not as good as #2.

As with all marketing, the key to getting through is matching your request to the typical behaviors, abilities and interests of the influencer, and you may need to do some legwork to identify who these influencers are in the first place. You ideally want to target publications, bloggers, reviewers, journalists, podcasts, critics, newsletters, etc., who are highly affiliated and interested in your genre, or in the ideas, themes, and topics in your book. Ideally, you’d create separate, targeted lists based on interest area. For example, for a noir set in New Jersey, you might have an “noir” influencers list and a “New Jersey arts and culture” influencer list.

Hiring an assistant could prove very helpful here, to comb through and identify opportunities and people/publications to approach. I encourage a mix of traditional and online media, but you may want to focus on the more specialized or niche outlets who are most likely to respond rather than, say, the New York Times. (Traditionally published authors: Be sure you know who your publisher is targeting and have a divide-and-conquer plan when it comes to approaching and pitching media, bloggers, podcasts, and so on. Don’t duplicate efforts!)

Timing: This is the area where it’s typically important to reach out early, prior to book publication, since you may have to do a lot of follow up—and it can take a long time to identify influencers and write up specific requests to each of them. This is also where book publicists can be invaluable, assuming they have the right connections (and you have the money to invest).

4. Market to strangers or readers who don’t know you yet but have interest in work similar to yours

Efforts here would include paid advertising (online and offline) as well as any kind of giveaways or price promotions through online services like BookBub, InstaFreebie, etc. Usually giveaways and price promotions don’t happen until the book has been out for a while.

Before you consider advertising or paid promotions that would send people to purchase, usually on Amazon, first you want to make sure that your Amazon book page is as optimized as possible, so that when potential readers get there, they actually buy. To optimize:

  • Include a sales-driven “headline” in bold at the top of the book description.
  • Readers tend to skim book descriptions, if they get read at all, so for each new paragraph in the book description, use ALL CAPS, bold, or a catchy lead-in. Write your best sales lines in the first sentence of each paragraph.
  • You should claim your Amazon Author Page (at Amazon Author Central), and fill that out completely. It will then show up on your book description page at Amazon automatically.
  • Choose the most accurate and best possible Amazon categories and keywords for your book.

To know whom you should target (or advertise to), it helps to come up with a list of comparable authors or titles, then analyze the activity, reviews, and readers around those titles at Goodreads and Amazon. How do people talk about these books? What keywords or keyword phrases consistently come up? And where do the readers of these books tend to find out about new books? This kind of information often surfaces when you start looking closely at who is actively reading/reviewing books like your own, and provides additional leads as to what sites, blogs, communities, social media sites, etc., would be a good target for any kind of paid promotion—or to approach for editorial coverage.

Big warning: Most paid advertising does not work out well unless you have deep knowledge of the publication’s audience (you know for sure they will be interested in your book), or you have experience and insight into digital advertising strategies on sites like Facebook, Amazon, etc.—and are willing to experiment over a period of weeks and months. It’s very easy to blow a lot of money on online advertising without any results, and too many authors are running ads that are amateurish, with poor imagery, poor marketing copy, and poor design.

For more help on book launches

Your turn: If you launched a book without an online presence, what worked for you? Share in the comments.

The Best YA Books To Get Excited About

If you’re shopping for the YA lover in your life (or if you’re a YA lover yourself!), it’s time to look beyond the adventures of Katniss Everdeen. YA has only gotten more popular in the years since The Hunger Games came out in 2008. Blockbuster adaptations of stand-alone novels and series like The Fault in Our Stars, The Maze Runner, and Divergent have made YA familiar even to those who haven’t picked up a book written for teens since they were a teen themselves. But just because the box office is dominated by dystopian landscapes and John Green doesn’t mean that’s all YA has to offer.

Recent titles destined to become classics represent all sub-genres. There’s everything from historical fiction to magical realism and literary fiction. Here are some recent YA titles that should be at the top of your must-read pile. And feel free to ask anyone who tries to mock you for reading “kids’ books” how many times they saw Toy Story 3. Anyone and everyone can enjoy YA.

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The Upside of Unrequited, Becky Albertalli

Molly Peskin-Suso has had 26 unrequited crushes over the course of her 17 years. She hasn’t ever had her first kiss. Now, she has to watch her twin sister, Cassie, fall in love for the first time.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio

Technically Wonder is a middle-grade book — but people of all ages should read this novel. August Pullman is about to begin his first year of school. Born with severe facial deformities, Auggie had been home-schooled in between the 27 surgeries necessary for medical and cosmetic purposes. Now, he faces his biggest challenge yet: Being accepted for who he is. Wonder has an extraordinary effect on readers. You’ll feel kinder for having read it.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, Ambelin Kwaymullina

In post-apocalyptic Australia, a group of children have developed strange powers to control the natural environment around them. The government is rounding up these children, dubbed Illegals, and sending them to detention centers. Ashala Wolf lives in a refuge, but is betrayed by another Illegal and sent for questioning. Who are these kids? Why do they have these powers? And how the heck is Ashala going to get out of this one? We first heard of this book in a Money Diaries entry.

Turtles All the Way Down, John Green

YA superstar John Green drew on his own struggles with crippling anxiety and depression to write this novel. 16-year-old Aza Phillips suffers from an intense form of O.C.D., to the point when she’s often unable to focus on anything but her mind’s spiral. Green sits with Aza’s thoughts — what she calls “light-swallowing wormholes” — for more time than will be comfortable. Yet as a result, you’ll walk away from Turtles All the Way Down with a much deeper sense of empathy for those struggling with mental illness.

When Dimple Met Rishi, Sandhya Menon

Dimple Shah’s just graduated, and is almost out of her parents’ clutches. After this summer, she’ll stop hearing all about her mom’s schemes to marry her off to the perfect Indian husband. So, Dimple heads off to a pre-college summer program for web developers, without realizing this, too, is part of a match-making scheme.

Rishi Patel is also heading to the same summer program. He’s been told his future wife is there, waiting for him. Craving stability and tradition, Rishi’s much more on board with the whole notion of arranged marriage.

What’ll happen when Dimple meets Rishi? A charming, funny book — that’s what.

City of Saints and Thieves, Natalie C. Anderson

After fleeing the Congo as refugees, Tina and her mother think they’ve found their saving grace in the estate of wealthy Kenyan Roland Greyhill. Her mother is employed as a housekeeper. But when Tina’s mother finds that the fortune is actually built on shady business deals and corruption, she’s killed.

For the next four years, Tina lives on the streets and works as a thief. She’s entirely motivated by revenge, and eventually makes her way back to the Greyhill estate to uncover the truth of her mother’s death.

If Birds Fly Back, Carlie Sorosiak

Linny and Sebastian are both haunted by loss, but that’s not what brings them together initially. Both are obsessed with the novelist and filmmaker Alvaro Herrero, who just reemerged after a three-year disappearance. As they investigate the great enigma that is Alvaro Herrero, Linny and Sebastian come closer together. The mysteries that hound them — where Linny’s sister disappeared to, and who Sebastian’s father is — might be uncovered in the process as well.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon

Welcome to the perspective of 15-year old Christopher John Francis Boone. He knows a lot about a lot of things. He can name all the countries of the world and their capitals, and has memorized a whole lot of prime numbers. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Christopher is not as good at reading emotions, or relating to people.

The action begins when Christopher’s neighbor’s poodle is killed, and he becomes the prime subject. Christopher applies his logic skills to solving the crime, and ends up uncovering some of the neighborhood’s secrets in the process.

Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

Set over the course of the 1986-1987 school year, Eleanor & Park tracks the course of “true love” between two high-school misfits. But, as Shakespeare said, it never did run smooth. Eleanor & Park captures the frenetic fury of first love, and the realization that love doesn’t alway stay.

Ash, Malinda Lo

Who can pass up a though-provoking retelling of a fairy tale? In this retelling of Cinderella, a girl escapes from the torment of her stepmother after she meets an alluring fairy, Sidhean, who will grant her wishes — if she submits to his pact. While she sinks deeper in the fairy world, Ash meets the King’s Huntress, a woman named Kaisa. She’ll have to choose between Sidhean’s fairy promises and a true love right here on earth.

Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver

To continue the morbid theme in teen literature (see: Thirteen Reasons Why), Before I Fall is about a high school Queen Bee trapped in a Groundhog Day- esque purgatory after a car crash. She repeats the same day over and over again until she can change her behavior, and escape the cycle.

Saints and Misfits, S.K. Ali

She’s only a sophomore in high school, but Janna Yusuf is already torn between just about a million communities. Her struggles with her Muslim identity come to a head when a) Jeremy, her non-Muslim crush reciprocates her feelings and b) the boy who assaulted her at a party is also a pious and well-respected member of their community.

Uglies, Scott Westerfeld

Before the dystopia craze swept over the landscape of the YA literary scene, there was Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, an unsung hero of science fiction. In this futuristic society, all 16-year-olds are initiated into adulthood through a comprehensive and mandatory surgery that makes them excessively beautiful. Though Tally Youngblood is, at first, eager for the pretty surgery, she gets tied up with a group of people who choose to live on the fringes and abstain from the surgery.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

After witnessing the police shooting of her best friend, 16-year-old Starr Carter is awakened to activism. Starr’s previously cordoned-off world begin to collide, as the stress of serving as the only witness to Khalil’s shooting and attending a private school begin to collide.

Looking for Alaska, John Green

John Green is a big name in YA; read any of his books, and you’ll understand why. This one, his debut, is about a boy who falls hopelessly in love with the pretty, damaged girl across the hall at boarding school — you know, as you do. But what sets this book apart from many in the genre (and from many of Green’s other novels) is that the boy eventually realizes she’s a real person, not just an actor in his play, and everything gets more complicated from there.

Photo: Courtesy of Speak.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Set on the Spokane Indian Reservation, this classic YA novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a 14-year-old with dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Junior’s life changes when, upon encouragement from a teacher, he decides to attend the all-white public high school in Reardon, Washington, off the reservation. Since the book deals so frankly with the realities of life on the reservation — like alcoholism, poverty, and violence — it’s landed on many “banned book” lists. All the more reason to dig in.

Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Falling Into Place, Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson intentionally crashes her car into a tree. In a twilight haze in her hospital bed, Liz’s nonlinear flashbacks piece together the short, tragic life of Meridian High’s Queen Bee. With its inventive, unconventional structure, this book will especially appeal to fans of Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall.

Courtesy of Harper Collins

Paper Towns, John Green

John Green is a big name in YA; read any of his books, and you’ll understand why. This one, which was made into a movie in 2015, perfectly tears down the “manic pixie dream girl ” trope.

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers Group.

Saving Red, Sonya Sones

Sones’ latest novel in verse follows Molly, a high schooler whose chance meeting with a homeless girl pushes her into action for the first time since suffering a family tragedy a year before. Deftly handling the topic of mental illness, the book also features a sweet romance and plenty of humor.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

Still Life With Tornado, A.S. King

As Sarah deals with the fall-out of broken friends and an even more fractured family, she’s visited by her ten-year-old and twenty-three-year-old self.

Photo: Courtesy of Dutton Books for Young Readers.

This One Summer, Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel follows a preteen girl on her family vacation as she tries to make sense of her evolving sense of self, and her subtly shifting family.

Photo: Courtesy of First Second.

If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo

If I Was Your Girl tells the story of a young transgender woman who wants a new start at a new school without the burden of her past. But as she starts to make friends, she begins to wonders if she’ll ever really be close to anyone she’s keeping so many secrets from.

Photo: Courtesy of Flatiron Books.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green & David Levithan

Green and Levithan each write the perspective of a teen named Will Grayson. Though the two Wills couldn’t be more different, when they finally meet they’re able to change each other’s lives for the better.

Photo: Courtesy of Speak.

The Sun Is Also A Star, Nicola Yoon

Yoon’s latest novel is already a National Book Award Finalist. The book follows two teenagers who both have believed they don’t have the time or inclination to fall in love— until they meet each other.

Photo: Courtesy of Delacorte Press.

Shadowshaper, Daniel Jose Older

Sierra Santiago loves to create murals. But when she notices something very strange happening to the street art in her community, she learns her family history is more complicated, and magical, than she could have ever believed.

Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.

The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton

The William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist explores three generations of women as they find and lose love. It eventually focuses on Ava Lavender, a girl born with wings who was raised apart from so much of the world but still isn’t safe from it.

Photo: Courtesy of Candlewick.

Nimona, Noelle Stevenson

The National Book Award finalist follows the adventures of Nimona, an aspiring supervillain (with magical powers, of course) who finds a very reluctant mentor in Lord Ballister Blackheart, a man with a mysterious past. The story is illustrated by popular webcomic creator Noelle Stevenson.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli

Simon has never had a boyfriend, but he does have a mysterious e-mail pen pal he can’t wait to talk to every day. As their messages become more personal, Simon begins to wonder what a real-life meet-up could lead to.

Photo: Courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

As Cath goes through her first year of college, the one comforting constant is her fan fiction. Even as her sister pulls away, her relationship with her parents gets more complicated, and her love life becomes, well, suddenly existent, she knows she can go back to the characters she loves. But what happens when her story ends?

Photo: Courtsey of St. Martin’s Griffin.

Extraordinary Means, Robyn Schneider

In a not so distant future, drug-resistant TB has become a health crisis — and teens suffering from the illness live in sanatoriums meant to help them recover, and keep them separate from the general population. When Lane first arrives at the Latham House all he can think about is getting better and getting out — until he finds a group of friends that makes him feel like he belongs.

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Tegen Books.

Unbecoming, Jenny Downham

This multi-generational story explores what it means to do what is expected of you, how relationships can form out of need as well as out of love, and the power of forgiveness.

Photo: Courtesy of David Fickling Books.

The Great American Whatever, Tim Federle

When Quinn’s sister was alive, the two were a filmmaking team. They had big dreams and works in progress. With summer winding down, Quinn has to decide if he’ll make the most of it, with minor adventures and crushes and maybe returning to screenwriting. Most importantly, he grapples to come to terms with how his sister died and who he’ll become without her.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Highly Illogical Behavior, John Corey Whaley

This novel by Printz Award-winning author John Corey Whaley follows Lisa, a teen so determined to get into a good college, she’s willing to drag a fellow teen, unaware, into the psych test study that will serve as her admission essay. The teen in question, Solomon, has stayed home for three years because of his debilitating panic attacks. At first, when a “new friend” shows up on his door, he’s suspicious. But as their friendship grows, so does his interest in the outside world.

Photo: Courtesy of Dial Books.

Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel Savit

This magical realism novel imagines Poland during World War II through the eyes of a young girl who barely has time to grasp the loss of her father when a new father figure appears — the Swallow Man. While he’s not someone she quite understands, she puts her trust in him. And so they set out on a years-long walk and attempt to avoid the constant violence and danger of war.

Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, E.K. Johnston

This haunting book about a teenage girl, Hermione, learning to live her life after she’s drugged and sexually assaulted, is riveting. A departure from novels like Speak, which follows a young woman who deals with the aftermath of her rape in isolation, Hermione navigates with (almost) never-ending support from all those around her, but she still has to deal with the fear and self-doubt in the wake of her attack.

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Books.

Denton Little’s Death Date, Lance Rubin

Denton Little always knew he was going to die before his high school graduation — in his world, learning your death date is just a part of growing up. He doesn’t know how he’ll die, but he begins to get an idea when he starts turning purple the day before. However, that turns out to be one of the more normal things to happen to him on the day of his traditional pre-death funeral.

Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers.

The Truth About Alice, Jennifer Mathieu

A book about a teenager named Alice told from multiple perspectives, this novel offers a truly fascinating look at projecting your issues on someone else and how a teenager’s reputation can be completely destroyed by a mob mentality.

Photo: Courtesy of Square Fish.

If I Lie, Corrine Jackson

Quinn has become an outcast in her town overnight for a perceived wrong she didn’t actually commit. But a deep friendship and love keeps her from clearing her name, so instead, she has to learn to adapt to living in a community that no longer wants her.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon Pulse.

If You Could Be Mine, Sara Farizan

This is a love story between two teen girls in Iran who always knew they couldn’t be together — but always thought, deep down, they could never be separated. As a wedding draws near for one of the teens, her lifelong best friend considers drastic measures to stop it in a country where being gay can get you thrown in jail — or worse.

Photo: Courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers.

Through The Woods, Emily Carroll

A collection of chilling horror stories that focus more on human monsters than creatures with fangs (though there are some fanged creatures — and they will haunt your dreams).

Photo: Courtesy of Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey

A 2012 Printz Award Honor book, Jasper Jones is a mystery told from the perspective of a loner teen that is suddenly pulled into the private life of the town outsider.

Photo: Courtesy of Ember.

Paper Valentine, Brenna Yovanoff

Part ghost story, part murder mystery, part love story, the core of Paper Valentine is a lifelong friendship that couldn’t end, even in death.

Photo: Courtesy of Razorbill.

Gone, Gone, Gone, Hannah Moskowitz

Moskowitz manages to incorporate the fear in the midst of the D.C. sniper into a story about the aftermath of 9/11 and multiple love stories.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon Pulse.

More Happy Than Not, Adam Silvera

In the future described in More Happy Than Not, you can chose to erase the memories that are too painful to live with. Silvera’s teen protagonist believes not even erasing the memory of his father’s suicide is worth the possible side effects of the procedure — until he’s faced with living with heartbreak.

Photo: Courtesy of Soho Press.

The Diviners, Libba Bray

There is a lot going on in 600-plus page novel by Printz Award-winning author Libba Bray. Set in New York City in the ’20s, it introduces you to a teen with supernatural abilities, a flapper with a troubled past, and a boy with a secret even he doesn’t fully understand.

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon

A teen with a rare illness that compromises her immune system has spent her whole life in her house, with only her mother and her nurse for company. But when a boy moves in next door, she beings to question if her future has to have the same constraints as her past.

Photo: Courtesy of Delacorte Press.

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith

Read the book before you see the movie. The story of a teen struggling to figure out his sexuality in the midst of a giant-bug apocalypse is getting a film adaptation from Sony Pictures.

Photo: Courtesy of Speak.

The Cure For Dreaming, Cat Winters

Set in the early 1900s, when American women were still fighting for the right to vote and an independent woman could be seen as a dangerous thing, Olivia tries her best to hide her feminist efforts from her controlling father. A mix of historical fiction and magical realism, Winters creates a believably terrifying portrait of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 20th century.

Photo: Courtesy of Harry N. Abrams.

Only Ever Yours, Louise O’Neill

A haunting dystopian novel for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale. In a society where girls are raised to be wives, prostitutes, or celibate caregivers, beauty is everything and there’s no real romance or love. But there is friendship.

Photo: Courtesy of Quercus.

Dead to Me, Mary McCoy

A Hollywood noir in the same vein as a Raymond Chandler — except that it essentially takes the misogyny of those classic books as its subject. In McCoy’s twisty debut, an aspiring girl detective finds her once-disappeared sister in a coma and sets out to find the man who put her there.

Photo: Courtesy of Disney-Hyperion.

Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan

The high school in this book is like a dream land — everybody’s free to express themselves however they like, no one judges, the cheerleaders ride motorcycles. The quarterback is also the homecoming queen, and his name is Infinite Darlene. What does it say that a novel about a high school without intolerance feels like magical realism? Well, at the very least it says: Read it. Grown-up life is hard and this novel is the perfect idealized world to escape into when our real one is just too bleak.

Photo: Courtesy of Knopf.

Unteachable, Leah Raeder

The plot is delicious, if easily recognizable: A tough girl accidentally sleeps with her teacher the summer before she realizes he’s her teacher. They can’t control themselves, rumors begin to spread — you know the rest. But what really elevates this novel (and makes it worthwhile for any adult reader) is the prose. It’s so well written, so lyric, and so electrifying that every line will give you a thrill.

Photo: Courtesy of Atria.

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

A bunch of privileged kids bring a less-privileged friend to their family’s private island — and something happens. Things begin to not add up. This book is about inheritance, death, amnesia, and its gripping plot will have you whipping through the pages. Pick up this plot-heavy book along with Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (which is all about eponymous Frankie, who tries to break into her boyfriend’s all-male secret society), and you’ve pretty much got a perfect weekend of reading.

Photo: Courtesy of Delacorte Press.

Monster, Walter Dean Myers

This affecting and all too relevant novel is written as a movie script playing out in an African-American teenager’s mind while he’s on trial and incarcerated. “Monster” is what the prosecution calls him, but Steven is about as human (flaws and all) as it gets.

Photo: Courtesy of Amistad.

Sabriel, Garth Nix

If you love Game of Thrones, read this. It has as many disturbing themes, and also, it’s better. The eponymous character is an 18-year-old necromancer on a quest to rescue her father from the other realm. Nix just finally came out with a new book in the series last year, so there’s no better time.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

Playlist for the Dead, Michelle Falkoff

Want another The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Try this, a compelling contemporary novel that manages to incorporate online gaming and communication in a way that feels natural, real, and very, very relevant to anyone living in the modern world. Plus, Falkoff’s a lawyer, so you know she’s smart; and she went to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so you know the prose is good, too.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang

This powerful and funny graphic novel follows three stories: one of aching outsider Jin Wang; another of popular kid Danny, whose stereotypical Chinese cousin totally ruins his reputation; and er, one about the Monkey King. In the end, it’s all about feeling comfortable in your own skin — which is always a good reminder.

Photo: Courtesy of Square Fish.

All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven

When this book came out, Elle Fanning immediately bought the film rights, if that tells you anything. It features two narrators, one who has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, the other dealing with the death of her sister. The ending is a little too moral, but the writing is so good that you’ll want to visit Indiana, which is saying something.

Photo: Courtesy of Knopf.

Beauty Queens, Libba Bray

Okay: A plane containing the 50 Miss Teen Dream Pageant contestants crashes on a deserted island, which turns out to be not exactly deserted. Sound mega campy? Well, it is — in the best way. It’s also a crazy, funny, satirical, feminist, Wonderland-mirror version of Lord of the Flies that will entertain you and also (gasp!) leave you thinking.

Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz

A book about being 15, queer, and of color in the ’80s. Not a barn burner like some of the others on this list, but a delicate, lyrical investigation of character, sexuality, and one very important relationship unfolding over one long summer that will stick with you for years.

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

All the Rage, Courtney Summers

The protagonist of this novel is a little like Veronica Mars — an outsider whose truth-telling has cost her everything — except, er, sort of without all of V’s redeeming qualities. A searing novel about rape culture with an extremely complicated female character at its heart? Not just good for grown-ups, but necessary.

Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin.

The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma

This powerful psychological thriller goes places few YA novels go — a juvenile detention facility, for one, where girls convicted of murder unravel the truth of their pasts. The writing in this one is on fire.

Photo: Courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers.

The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater

The story of a girl born to a family of psychics and destined to kill her true love with a kiss. Based on ancient legends, yet unique in its field, this novel is atmospheric, complex, and (for those of you who like to sink into a series) only the first book in The Raven Cycle. Side note: Stiefvater has about the most fun Twitter feed on the planet.

Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Alexie excels at just about everything: YA, fiction for adults, poetry, even screenplays. This novel, based in part on Alexie’s own experiences in an otherwise all-white school, is powerful and often hilarious. It’ll make you want to read everything Alexie’s ever written, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

A classic of the genre, but not in the boring sense — classic in that this wackadoo story is required reading for everyone. It’s a love letter to L.A., youth, and the bizarre, a postmodern fairy tale that will make all your dreams seem sparkly and spit-shined.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

An understated work of brilliance narrated by a 16-year-old aspiring writer and her family living in poverty — but in a castle. Very British, mannered, and witty, but with a bittersweet core you won’t soon forget.

Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin.

Legend, Marie Lu

This novel, the first in a trilogy, is at the top of the post-apocalyptic thriller heap. Great writing, compelling characters, gripping action —anyone with a pulse will find theirs quickened.

Photo: Courtesy of Speak.

Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi is quickly becoming a household name in adult sci-fi, and he should be a household name in YA sci-fi, too (not that the two are all that different). In this vivid novel, a scavenger searching for usable metals in shipwrecks on the future Gulf Coast finds a survivor in the wreckage who purports to be able to change his life — if he helps her.

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

An impressively profound, deliciously lyric Holocaust novel about a young girl who comforts herself during wartime by stealing books. Oh, right, and it’s narrated by Death — but that’s not as twee as it sounds.

Photo: Courtesy of Knopf.

Silhouette of a Sparrow, Molly Beth Griffin

In this acclaimed novel set in the 1920s, a 16-year-old girl who aspires to be an ornithologist is sent to live with distant family at a resort in Minnesota. She meets a beautiful young flapper and they begin a secret affair. This book is gorgeous inside and out.

Photo: Courtesy of Milkweed Editions.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

To be fair, this novel was published before we used terms like “YA” and “adult” to refer to novels, but it’s pretty regularly classified as YA now. That said, it should definitely be read by everyone. Brilliant, flawed characters questing through time and space! A nerdy girl who wins the day! Puns! It’s great.

Photo: Courtesy of Time Quintet.

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff

In this riveting novel, a teenage girl from present-day Manhattan goes to spend the summer with her cousins at their farmhouse in the English countryside. It’s strange and idyllic for a while, with no adults around. But then, an unnamed force attacks and occupies England — and suddenly, it’s not so great to be alone anymore.

Photo: Courtesy of Wendy Lamb Books.

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

This fantasy novel follows a young girl with albinism born in America, but now living in her parents’ homeland of Nigeria. After feeling like a constant outsider, finds she has secret powers — she is one of the Leopard People. The framework is familiar enough, but the treatment, writing, and West African myths at play elevate this story into something truly special.

Photo: Courtesy of Viking Books for Young Readers.

I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson

The two halves of this novel are narrated by estranged fraternal twins Noah and Jude, artists and dreamers and seekers both, who must come to grips with the dissolution of their family — or find a way to mend it. Unique, charming, and lyric, it’s no wonder this book is a much-lauded best seller.

Photo: Courtesy of Dial Books.

Jellicoe Road, Melissa Marchetta

Three school factions battle it out every year in a small Australian town — the Cadets, the Townies, and the Jellicoe School kids, whose leader, Taylor Markham, is not only out to secure her territory, but to crack the mystery of the mother who abandoned her. And really, that’s the pleasure of this novel — the unraveling of a story complex enough to keep any adult interested.

Photo: Courtesy of HarperTeen.

Bone Gap, Laura Ruby

Original and revelatory, this novel uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of a girl’s abduction from the small town of Bone Gap, IL — where everyone knows to stay out of the otherworldly “gaps.” In this novel, reality lies down next to fantasy and something else gets up. You’ll want to see that something else.

Photo: Courtesy of Blazer + Bray.

Anna Dressed in Blood, Kendare Blake

Cas kills ghosts — but only the ones who are murderous themselves. That is, until he encounters a ghost who captivates him, despite her violence. Gory, scary, and totally unlike anything else out there, this is a must-read for any horror lover.

Photo: Courtesy of Tor Teen.

The Madman’s Daughter, Megan Shepherd

Like H. G. Wells? Pick up this novel, told from the perspective of the 16-year-old daughter of Dr. Moreau, who, six years after her father was banished to a remote island for his uncanny experiments, goes off to find him. Strange science, the boundaries of insanity, and yes, a love triangle, ensue.

Photo: Courtesy of Blazer + Bray.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A. S. King

Never has a book about accidentally drinking a petrified bat offered such a frightening, yet believable, account of what the future might bring if people in power continue to try to take rights away from women.

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Reader.

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Reader Review: “The Second Mrs. Hockaday”

by Cariola: Placidia was only 17 and not even thinking of marriage when widower Major Gryff Hockaday swept her off her. She had a single day to decide whether to accept his proposal. Only a few days after they married, the major was called back to join his Confederate troops, and Placidia was left to manage the farm, oversee the slaves, and care for Charles, her husband’s toddler son. As the situation deteriorates, Placidia finds herself charged with a crime, but she is keeping her secrets.

The novel is told in the form of letters and diary entries. Most of the action takes place in 1864-65, and the early letters are between Placidia and her cousin Mildred, but later sections set in the 1890s focus on how Achilles, the son of Placidia and Gryff, uncovered his parents’ secrets and changed the way he thought about them and himself.

I can’t say much more without giving away too much. I found the novel held my interest and that the author did a great job of heightening the suspense while slowly revealing the truth. The novel explores the hardships of women left alone to manage while their men are at war, as well as the dark side of slavery, but it also depicts a marriage that, although sorely tried, survives because of love.