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Who needs a perfect beach body when you have these YA novels with great shapes?
I started seriously reading YA in my twenties as newly-employed as a Library Marketing Associate at Random House Books for Young Readers. My job gave me access to a remarkable library, including two particularly memorable YA’s: Philip Pullman’s GOLDEN COMPASS and Suzanne Fisher Staples SHABANU: DAUGHTER OF THE WIND. Those were the books that started me wanting not just to read but to write teen fiction.
Over the next decades, my marketing career took me from publishing house to publishing house and I kept reading. Sarah Dessen, M. T. Anderson, Pete Hautman, Libba Bray, Judy Blundell, Holly Black, J.K. Rowling…I devoured thousands of pages. But I still hadn’t found my own voice as a writer. Who finally led me there? Ellen Hopkins, Sharon Creech and Karen Hesse. In their verse novels, I first saw the synthesis of my love for poetry, the cadence of dance (my first creative love), and the emotional immediacy of verse. Their work changed way I read, the way I think about creating a novel…it set me free.
Since then, I’ve realized that I have a particular taste for prose and poem-based novels that break the mold by taking unusual approaches to shaping language into a narrative form. Here are a few uniquely structured novels that, to me, FEEL LIKE POETRY, inspiring readers and writers alike to realize the power of form in storytelling.
The story: Lia did not answer one of the 33 calls her estranged best friend Cassie made the night she died. Cassie was her “secret sister” in the shadow community of girls with eating disorders. Now, Lia is alone in the wake of Cassie’s death, battling guilt, struggling to stay thin, and risking her own death as loved ones around her try to help her heal herself.
The shape: Dark, intense, present-tense narrative is peppered with overstrikes, italics, numbers, varying fonts, repetitions, and even stretches of blank page that make the experience of Lia’s anxiety, grief and illness palpable to the reader. The novel is a breathless and terrifying emotional journey, its fearless form taking it to a place of utter realism far beyond the reach of standard paragraphs.
The story: Toddler Nobody Owens (“Bod”) escapes being murdered with the rest of his family by wandering into a graveyard where he is raised and protected by the dead until reaching young adulthood and eagerly stepping out into the “real” world to live his life.
The shape: Names and naming are critical to this novel’s unique structure. Gaiman’s protagonist, “Nobody” is also “Bod”–the only living, embodied denizen of his graveyard home. Bod’s many dead friends are identified by both name and headstone inscription (this is actually quite amusing at times) which both date and characterize them. Bod’s enemy is “the man Jack.” Elegant, organic interweaving of illustrations into the book’s format and design complete Gaiman’s rendering of a fantastical world through which the reader, and Bod, journey, realizing beauty in wounds that can’t be healed and hope in places that will never be perfect.
The story: A lonely girl name Flora Belle Buckman meets a remarkable, magical squirrel (who is also a poet) who helps her on her journey to rediscover love and family.
The shape: An elegant amalgam of short, uniquely titled chapters, paper-and-pencil style cartoon storyboard illustrations, GIANT vocabulary words, multiple references to a comic book series featuring THE AMAZING INCANDESTO and snips of poetry. On so many levels—the text, the titles, the cadence of the chapters, and the poignant final poem itself-DiCamillo creates an unforgettable exploration of the parent-child bond, the glory of hope, and the redemptive power of words.
The story: In the dark, book-burning, Nazi-overrun world of 1939 Germany, Liesel Meminger lives with her foster family near Munich. Overcome by her yearning for books, Liesel steals, learns to read, and finds herself helping to hide a wounded Jewish man.
The shape: First, the novel is narrated by Death. But don’t let that put you off. This musing on life found, preserved and lost features chapter titles made of imagistic word collages, bullet-point lists, bold-faced musings, translations, transcriptions and definitions. This book is a modern classic: An homage to language, words, communication and what is most human inside all of us.
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