Funny Young Adult Novels that Take Themselves Seriously
September 12, 2009 6:46 PM   Subscribe

I need more books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but without so many boners.

I am leading a four-session reading group for kids 12-18 on humor in literature. We're going to read one book together, and some supplemental materials. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is just perfect for what I want: it's funny, the protagonist deliberately uses humor to deal with complicated, hard situations, and yet it tackles meaty issues (racism, poverty, assimilation) without being simplistic or didactic.

Why not read that, you wonder? Well, the group is part of a new homeschool co-op just starting up, and the kids come from a very diverse bunch of families--everything from conservative Christians to practicing Wiccans and everything in between. The kids on the younger end, the 12- to 14-year-olds, are likely overall to be less sophisticated than their schooled peers. This group is a grand experiment in working together and I don't want to end up embroiled in controversy right out of the gate.

So, what I need: funny young adult novels that are not mere fluff. The book we choose needs to be able to illustrate some of the ways that literature uses humor to, for instance, tell hard truths, or relieve tension, and so on. It doesn't need to be tackling "serious" subjects, but it should take itself seriously as literature.

And it should avoid having too much sex and so on without being overly sanitized. The Absolutely True Diary just went a little over the line for me with how often the word "boner" turns up, for instance.

As an added bonus, it might have a girl as protagonist, though that's not essential.

It does not have to be contemporary. Older books are welcome (and may even be safer for navigating the potential minefield) but copies should be easy to get.

I welcome all suggestions; I have quite a bit of time for planning and am happy to read through a stack as I'm looking for the perfect book--or the "good-enough" one.
posted by not that girl to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You're looking for something of a holy grail: anarchic, hilarious, profound, clean-but-not-sanitized, YA fiction. Francesca Lia Block may be your friend, as might other Sherman Alexie (Flight), but you're gonna have a hard time. Still, you might try:

Sharon Creech (she of 'Walk Two Moons)
Louis Sachar (Holes & its sequels are a little ubiquitous, but good nevertheless)
Jerry Spinelli ('Crash' will be too easy, but it's a great book)
William Goldman (Princess Bride)
Meg Cabot (still fluffy, but not as terrible as you may think)

You could try some entry-level genre fiction - sticking to obvious, signposty titles in each category, e.g. Raymond Chandler, Orson Scott Card, Philip K. Dick., etc., picking from the easier (read: less sophisticated) ends of the spectrum.

Drama may also be your friend here -- reading plays/comedies/screenplays for films you've enjoyed would be a great way to access literature beyond the normative canon.
posted by mr. remy at 7:01 PM on September 12, 2009

Well, Flight, also by Sherman Alexie, doesn't have so many joking references to boners, and is short and easy-to-read enough for young adults. However, it's a lot darker, and there's a couple of references to adult-male-on-young-boy molestation. From Google Books, here's the most explicit sentence I remember: "...did evil things to me. Things that hurt. Things that made me bleed."

Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea is awesome, but there's a full-blown lesbian sex scene in it, so no go. Hmm.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:04 PM on September 12, 2009

Maybe one of Daniel Pinkwater's YA novels? I think he's pretty hilarious. The Education of Robert Nifkin" is his new one.
posted by vespabelle at 7:21 PM on September 12, 2009

My boyfriend, a soon-to-be high school English teacher, recommended the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services) website for extensive (and useful) reading lists - this is a good place to start.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 7:23 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman? A Fate Totally Worse Than Death by Paul Fleischman? Raising the Griffin by Melissa Wyatt? Feed by M.T. Anderson?
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on September 12, 2009

You might try

"An Abundance of Katherine," John Green -- breezy and funny, not as dark as Green's other (excellent) novels. The most questionable thing I remember is a scene where Hassan sees "God hates fag" carved into a picnic table and recarves it into "God hates baguettes."

"Devilish" by Maureen Johnson -- Girl at Catholic school whose best friend's soul has been bought by a demon. Funny but also surprisingly truthful about girls' friendships and respectful of faith.

"Dairy Queen" by Catherine Gilbert Murdock -- Girl whose family owns a dairy farm tries out for the football team.

"The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks" by E. Lockhart -- Girl at exclusive boarding school plots to gain entrance into a selective boys-only club and pull hilarious pranks. There is some boob stuff going on and also discussion of the concept of the panopticon.

"Absolutely True Diary" is sort of in a class by itself, and anything that I could think of that's comparable has at least some questionable content...
posted by Jeanne at 7:36 PM on September 12, 2009

I absolutely loved "You Don't Know Me" when I was around 13 or 14. I'm 19 now and I'd still read it. Later my little brother stole it from me. It's funny, but the main character uses humor as a way to escape and to make terrible situations easier to handle. IIRC it has some violent situations, but they aren't sexual in nature (if that would make it more palatable to your student's parents). It may have some mild sexual content, but I seem to remember it as being pretty tame considering that it's written from the point of view of a 14 year old boy. In general it's sort of absurd and unique and it makes you laugh and cry kind of at the same time. I don't know if it's high literature but IMO it's a good book.
posted by MadamM at 7:46 PM on September 12, 2009

Daddyji by Ved Mehta (spoiler synopsis)

The story of the author's father, an extraordinary and very sympathetic character, who follows his own star in village India despite racism, religious prejudice, war, and every kind of hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Not LOLs, more wry humor. Lots of food for discussion, nothing at all salacious or offensive.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:09 PM on September 12, 2009

Absolutely Jerry Spinelli. Specifically:

- Stargirl
- Love, Stargirl
- Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush
posted by elsietheeel at 8:11 PM on September 12, 2009

You might enjoy Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler. Definitely contemporary, etc. Up front: Sarah Ockler is my second-ish cousin on my father's side. That said, I read a fair amount of YA in my travels, and it's a pretty good book. Death, virginity, first true love, etc. on the issues side. Much of the humor is situational and/or from the (usually) good-natured abuse friends exchange.

Pulling Princes (and presumably the rest of the series) by Tyne O'Connell may fit the bill for over the top, but it does run toward the vulgar in places. Nothing else on my "have read" list really comes any closer to "funny". (Dramas, I got 'em.)

@Fifi Firefox, thanks for the link.
posted by phrits at 8:12 PM on September 12, 2009

Tangerine? Catcher In the Rye? Books by Chris Crutcher.

The Goosebump books are really fun and I think they would be neat to study in a group; they deal with horrific, over-the-top subject matter that is made palatable by the way in which they're written.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman is funny, but not in a humor-as-a-defense way.
posted by ramenopres at 8:26 PM on September 12, 2009

Graphic Novels count? American Born Chinese.
posted by fings at 8:38 PM on September 12, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon would work well.
posted by cushie at 9:03 PM on September 12, 2009

Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas is pretty great.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:56 PM on September 12, 2009

John Green -- Looking for Alaska is his best (but also banned by some folks), and then I'd go with An Abundance of Katherines. Next look at Paper Towns. John Green is a bit on the racy side, but in a very good and intelligent way. Green won the Michael L. Printz award for both ALASKA and KATHERINES, I do believe.

E. Lockhart -- Absolutely seconding The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Funny, female protag, not too racy. Nominated for last year's National Book Award, YA.

Laurie Halse Anderson -- Speak and Chains are both fantastic. CHAINS was nominated for a National Book Award last year (female black slave protag in NYC during the Revolution; technically more a 'middle grade' book but absolutely fantastic for all ages). SPEAK was a Printz honor book, about a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped the summer before high school. Well-handled, well-written, also made into a cheesy but awesome movie with Kristen Stewart

Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES series has a female protag but is set in some post-apocalyptic future in which folks ride around on hovercrafts. Deals with growing pains and the idea that different can be good.

There have been a ton of amazing YA books released over the last few years; these are just the ones I can recommend without looking at my bookshelves. (I'm a YA reviewer.) Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like more suggestions.
posted by brina at 10:19 PM on September 12, 2009

Terry Pratchett has written some young adult novels - the Bromeliad Trilogy is a lot of fun, and has some interesting ideas about religion and society in it.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:34 PM on September 12, 2009

Not as funny as Alexie's, but Will Hobbs' Crossing the Wire was a revelation for me. It deals with the reality of illegal immigration into the United States, and manages to be thoughtful, and pretty neutral, without being heavy handed. The group of eighth graders I worked with on it seemed to open up to otherwise awkward conversations after reading it. It's exciting, action packed, and overall, awesome.
posted by LolaCola at 10:35 PM on September 12, 2009

More fluff but pretty decent: Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.

More serious (but still cursory treatment of weighty issues) : A coming of age, by Timothy Zahn.

Much more serious: Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card. (Not sci fi at all.) That might actually be a downer. But great book.
posted by Happydaz at 12:41 AM on September 13, 2009

For the younger kids (12-18 is quite a spread!), Dan Gutman's "The Million Dollar Kick" has a believable 13-year-old girl as protagonist and the story is both funny and touching.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:59 AM on September 13, 2009

May I be cheeky enough to suggest Lucy Frank's The Homeschool Liberation League? (She wants to be homeschooled, not escape homeschooling.)

And that said, you might have better luck finding the book you're looking for if you look under the category Middle Grade instead of Young Adult. MG still touches the topics that you want to examine, but it's not as aggressive in its presentation. In the vein of funny, but issue-oriented fiction, I'd also like to recommend:

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta, which is about a boy being raised by his single dad (mom abandoned the family,) and what happens when his dad takes in a foster kid. Or, it's about the fact that it's rained for 21 years straight in Moundville, which prevented the final play in a serious town v town baseball match up, and what happens when the sun finally comes out and the game can be finished. It's funny and touching, and I just loved it. (Family abandonment, foster children, competition, nature of a family.)

Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne, which is about a girl named Celeste whose aunt decides to enter her in the Miss Husky Peach pageant, and what Celeste does to get out of it. Very funny, and very sweet, touching on body image, self-esteem.

TMI by Sarah Quigley. It's about Becca, who gossips WAYYYYYY too much, and gets in way too much trouble- so she decides to create an alter-ego, and start a blog to get the gossip out of her system. Because, you know, that never backfired on anyone! This book covers a LOT of issues, but is still whimsical and charmingly contemporary.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner. It's about a 7th grade girl who has less than a week to finish her leaf identification project or she won't be allowed to participate in a cross-country race she's been dying to complete. This book is more gently funny, and it deals with classmate sabotage, and a grandmother's forgetfulness and disappearance as well.

I wave hello to Sarah Ockler's cousin, HI HI, I know Sarah, we're in a debut author's group together! Her book is smashing and awesome!
posted by headspace at 8:43 AM on September 13, 2009

Consider James Patterson's Maximum Ride series.
posted by yclipse at 10:16 AM on September 13, 2009

As long as we're talking Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching books--The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:21 PM on September 13, 2009

Response by poster: So many good ideas to explore, thanks everybody.
posted by not that girl at 6:09 PM on September 13, 2009

Oh, one more: Rules by Cynthia Lord is about a girl with an autistic brother, and has absolutely none of the sappiness that you would expect from a treatment of that topic. It's upper-middle-grade and very clean.
posted by Jeanne at 8:47 PM on September 13, 2009

The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath

Amazing, amazing book - deals a lot with death but in a funny, sarcastic humour kind of way, but is easy to read and is ultimately really uplifting. It is a YA novel, but really talks to kids as though they were adults - and even self-referentially makes fun of people who don't do this. Definitely worth checking out.
posted by sabotagerabbit at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2009

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