Best YA Fantasy Books for Your Book Club

shutterstock_141036148One of the best parts about being a YA author is the fact that I get to read all the latest and greatest YA fiction in the name of research. As fun as it is to dive into a new world, analyzing the text afterward is even better. That’s why I love being a part of a monthly book club were we tear apart everything from fantasy to romance to nonfiction.

Since YA fantasy with strong heroines is my passion, I thought I’d share my top picks in this genre to read and discuss with your book club.

Divergent by Veronica Roth
One of the most lighthearted and enjoyable book club discussions I’ve had surrounded this book. In Roth’s world, everyone is split into five factions that are essentially personality types. Our book club had a blast deciding which faction we would belong to, and what it said about our character. The book also has a strong and unconventional female heroine who resonated with each of us in different ways. The author doesn’t shy away from making tough choices, and debating Roth’s decisions led to more serious discussions. Click here for some great questions to kick off your book club discussion on Divergent from the official HarperCollins guide.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Despite being a hot topic in pop culture right now, this trilogy raises some surprisingly complex questions about he nature of love, PTSD, and ethical questions of war. Click here for some great questions to kick off your book club discussion on Hunger Games from the Galesburg Public Library.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Giver is a simple, relatively short book that yields awesome discussion. Lowry is a master of her craft, and everything from the futuristic society that she created to her complex characters resonates. Whether you love it or hate it, everyone has strong opinions on their take on Lowry’s world. Click here for some great questions to kick off your book club discussion on The Giver by LitLovers (incidentally, LitLovers is a great site to check out for book club questions and ideas in general).

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
I know, I know. The Twilight series is probably not the most intellectually stimulating collection of books that you’ve stumbled upon. But it brings out the teenager in you, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think you’ll enjoy debating Edward vs. Jacob. If you need a break from discussing heavy, serious texts, this is the perfect vacation for a lighthearted book club. Click here for some great questions to kick off your book club discussion on Twilight by Shmoop. I like these questions because they are some of the same ones I had in my head about the series.

Do you have favorite YA fantasy books that your book club has loved?


Deconstructing Hunger Games Heroine Katniss Everdeen

Hunger GamesA few years ago I stumbled upon a series that I knew was special. Before the movies, before the screaming fans, when I first read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins I knew I’d found something special. It wasn’t the premise that drew me in – I almost didn’t read the book because it sounded too gory for me – it was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She was tough but vulnerable, self-sacrificing but a survivor. I had already finished the first book of my own series, The Conjurors, and it made me rethink how to create a memorable, compelling YA fantasy heroine.

Below are some of the lessons that I took away from my analysis of Katniss.

Serious flaws make for a more compelling protagonist.
I think most authors know that their protagonist can’t be perfect. But at least for me, I find myself not wanting to make my heroine, Valerie, too flawed. I am afraid she’ll be unlikable. But analyzing Katniss taught me that this is a mistake. It is because Katniss can be angry, weak, and even lose track of her moral compass that I felt like she was so powerful. When she indulged her flaws, like when she got drunk and wound up in the fetal position in a basement after finding out she would be thrown into the hunger games for a second time, she felt human. When she overcame a flaw, like when she found the courage to inspire the rebels with her words in Mockingjay, it felt like a greater triumph because it didn’t come easily to her.

Protagonists don’t always have to take the moral high ground.
From the time in The Hunger Games when Katniss uses trackerjackers to attack her enemies to the end of Mockingjay when she assassinates the new president, Katniss doesn’t sit around over-analyzing the moral implications of every decision. She is a creature of action, which is part of what makes her so fascinating to watch. She isn’t like Superman, who refuses to kill. She is willing to do what it takes to survive and protect the ones she loves, even if her conscience is tortured by her decisions later.

Romance should not be the protagonist’s primary motivator.
I am willing to admit that I love romance, no matter what book I’m reading. Would I have objected to a few additional tender moments in The Hunger Games series? No. But I love that for Katniss, romance is always secondary to greater concerns. She’s not a girl to wallow and make all of her decisions based on the whims of her heart. Contrary to what I would have expected before reading this series, this makes the romantic triangle in the story more compelling, because we care more as readers what Katniss’ decision will be than she does herself. She’s too busy trying to save her district and fend off insanity.

When pushed past what she can stand, it’s okay to let your heroine break.
So many heroines and heroes come close to being broken by their experiences, but it’s not every day that you see a protagonist who truly is destroyed. The series is as much about Katniss rebuilding herself after extreme trauma as it is about breaking down in the first place. And though many of my friends were not fully satisfied with how the series ended, I thought it was courageous. It was the happiest ending possible for her character. PTSD doesn’t vanish overnight, it is a lifelong struggle. But I felt that Katniss didn’t give in to her tragedy, she fought to make a life for herself that was full.

Who are heroines and heroes in literature who have inspired your writing?

Read It and Weep (Literally)

shutterstock_102844172This week I killed off my first character, ever. It was difficult – even though I wasn’t super attached to him, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. After all, he was a good guy and under different circumstances maybe he could have lasted for another chapter or two. But after reminding myself that he was, in fact, a figment of my imagination, I was able to focus on the most important part. How to make his death compelling.

What is it that makes death truly gripping in great young adult fantasy writing? I remember crying when Sirius Black and Dumbledore died while reading J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series. And little Prim got a sniffle or two when I read Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy. But I wasn’t sad so much because the characters were gone, but rather because of the emotional toll it took on Harry and Katniss. It was their response that sparked the reaction in me.

Gandalf‘s death in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, however, didn’t move me in the same way. He was my favorite character in the series, but when he died I felt more like shrugging than crying. Maybe it was his age. Maybe it was because he died a victor and had led a full life. Of course, then he returns as Gandalf the White, and as happy as I was to see him, I was glad I hadn’t wasted any time grieving for him. So it’s safe to say that you won’t find any of my characters coming back from the grave.

As a reader, I like when an author isn’t afraid to kill off main characters. It makes me feel like no one is safe, which heightens the tension during the action scenes. Now I just have to work on writing the emotion of these moments well.

Do you have any suggestions about things to consider for writing about death in young adult fantasy?

Falling in Love on the Page

Picture1I’m writing the second book in my series, The Conjurors, and my main character is falling in love. Writing this in a way that feels real and conveys the power and passion of love when you’re 16 has been exceptionally hard for me to do well. If I keep it too minimal, readers won’t have an emotional investment in the relationship. But take it over the top, and it starts to feel like a cheesy romance novel.

Not to be controversial, but my one gripe with J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter (of which I’m a HUGE fan) was that I never felt invested in Harry and Ginny. Hermione and Ron, I was totally rooting for. But somehow I always felt like Harry deserved a more compelling love story.

At the other extreme, Stephanie Meyer‘s Twilight series hit a nerve with YA girls for the romance, but for the rest of us who were looking for more substance to the world and the action surrounding that story, the series was disappointing.

hungergamesSo how do writers find the right balance? I think that The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did a great job of weaving a dynamic love triangle with a gripping story. It gave the series an emotional center that made the stakes higher and the consequences more poignant.

What YA books do you think have done an exceptional job with romance?