Beautifully Written Books for Young People
March 18, 2010 2:04 PM   Subscribe

What young adult novels (or chapter books for kids) are written in particularly elegant prose styles? (Bonus points if the story and characterization are good, of course, but I'm especially looking for books where the writing style itself is beautiful.) Examples include The Graveyard Book, Haroun & The Sea of Stories, and When You Reach Me.

Oh, and I should mention that these are books for a grownup (me) to read, not a kid or young adult; I'm writing a novel aimed at a youngish age range, and looking for inspiration on how to write beautifully but age-appropriately.
posted by yankeefog to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
George Saunders makes a strong case for Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain.
posted by Iridic at 2:14 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Once and Future King is really beautiful and melancholy.

I've always been fond of the The Dark is Rising Sequence
posted by Think_Long at 2:18 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

I guess I just like Arthurian legends.
posted by Think_Long at 2:20 PM on March 18, 2010

Do they have to be recent? My favorites for this are older--Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence, Madeline L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:20 PM on March 18, 2010

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
posted by Babblesort at 2:21 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

At 800 or so dense pages, I'm not sure if it's a kid's novel, but Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a beautifully-written book to get lost in.
posted by alygator at 2:21 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

When You Reach Me is wonderful. You might also enjoy Fever and Chains, both by Laurie Halse Anderson.
posted by mothershock at 2:21 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky Trilogy: Below the Root, And All Between, and Until the Celebration.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:25 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and reminded by PhoBWanKenobi, anything by Madeleine L'Engle. Anything.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:26 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd also highly recommend reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. She was a formidable, legendary children's book editor, and you can learn a lot about reading children's books and writing them from it.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:28 PM on March 18, 2010

"I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house. The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went down the road; and by the time I had come as far as the manse, the blackbirds were whistling in the garden lilacs, and the mist that hung around the valley in the time of the dawn was beginning to arise and die away."

It may however infect you with a weakness for semicolons; this is the peril of too much 19th century fiction-reading.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:29 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Any of Russell Hoban's children's books, most famously Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Mouse and His Child, and the Frances series.
posted by Iridic at 2:31 PM on March 18, 2010

I think Kelly Link's book Pretty Monsters is inspired and written to both be accessivle but also evocative and was the first thing I thought of when I read your question.
posted by jessamyn at 2:32 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Once and Future King?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:35 PM on March 18, 2010

How about The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle?
posted by tomboko at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Of the stuff I read when I was actually a child, I'd single out Swallows and Amazons for its lovely plein air style (I am rereading it with my 7yo and freshly reminded of its beauty), Watership Down - still perhaps the best and most moving book I have read about World War Two - and Alan Garner's poetic and wrenching Red Shift.

I join wholeheartedly in the upthread love for TH White - a stylist of really incomparable range, read Mistress Mashams Respose and The Goshawk as well as The Once and Future King - and for Susan Cooper. (The NYR Childrens Collection is a motherlode of beautiful writing. Russell Hoban! James Thurber! Esther Averill! Penelope Farmer!) I'd add EB White, Lloyd Alexander and Rosemary Sutcliff to their ranks.

And I have a particular thing for pony stories, where Joanna Cannan, Enid Bagnold, Mary O'Hara, KM Peyton and Lucy Rees have the loveliest prose for my taste. If you've never read National Velvet or My Friend Flicka, prepare to be blown away.

National pride requires me to mention Colin Thiele's Storm Boy and Patricia Wrightson's The Nargun and the Stars, two books that woke me to a sense of what language could be made to do.

Of stuff that's been written more recently, you might love Angela Johnson's The First Part Last; I know I did.
posted by rdc at 2:47 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
posted by exceptinsects at 2:56 PM on March 18, 2010

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
posted by bethist at 3:02 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was pretty impressed with The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:23 PM on March 18, 2010

Wonderful character creation and cleverly elegant elevated language in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley — oh and there's a sequel!
posted by nicwolff at 3:26 PM on March 18, 2010

I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but my (adult) friend swears that Feed by M.T. Anderson is her favorite book ever, not just in the YA genre. She also highly recommends his other books, one of which is mentioned in the comment above mine!
posted by a.steele at 3:29 PM on March 18, 2010

Oops, nevermind. Two comments above mine: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
posted by a.steele at 3:29 PM on March 18, 2010

Hi! I'm a young adult author --- my debut comes out with Random House early next year, and literary YA owns my heart. A selection of my favorite somewhat recent books:

Jellicoe Road
by Melina Marchetta (my favorite)
How I Live Now and What I Was by Meg Rosoff
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Hold Still by Nina LaCour
Sold by Patricia McCormick (a novel in verse)
Red Glass by Laura Resau
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Feed by M.T. Anderson (written in future-slang, but my god is it packed with beauty/tragedy)
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson (two books)

As for Middle Grade, I see you mentioned When You Reach Me -- great choice! I also love Wringer by Jerry Spinelli and of course, Lois Lowry's The Giver. Also, Louis Sachar's books -- Holes, of course, but also There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom (ignore the godawful new-issue cover) and Someday Angeline. They're simple and layered and lovely.

Any combination of these books is a great crash course in present-day YA renaissance appreciation. The industry is booming, and there's so much depth and richness here for adults as well as teens. Happy reading!
posted by changeling at 3:30 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh and yes definitely Octavian Nothing and its sequel.
posted by nicwolff at 3:36 PM on March 18, 2010

The Ennead by Jan Mark. Kind of social satire in a scifi setting, it's bleak, tense and very funny and the writing is spare and grim and elegant and does not let up.
"Outside, unseen, the moon came up and cast abrupt shadows in the streets where no-one walked. Between its two hilltops the stony roads of Epsilon were empty, and the shadows were empty. There was no more life in Epsilon by night than in the desert below it or in the mountains that overlooked it. No-one walked by night in Epsilon. The flat houses, battened down against each other, stood apart, cold shoulders angled against the sky. Envious Euterpe looked over the horizon, saw nothing to covet and sank again."

And Rosemary Sutcliff, especially Dawn Wind - "quietly elegaic" might be a way to describe it.
""You who were at the last fight by Aqua Sulis saw the last light go out. Yet I remember how we spoke once, you and I, of the Truce of the Spear; I believe that there are other kinds of truce, more binding, and some that may change and grow and strengthen...""

Also Leon Garfield and Micheal Morpurgo, and nthing Kidnapped and T.H. White.
posted by runincircles at 3:43 PM on March 18, 2010

Feed is fantastic, but not because of the elegance of the prose, which is intentionally casual and disjointed to reflect the narrator's changing mental conditions.
posted by nicwolff at 3:49 PM on March 18, 2010

I remember Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father was a fun book to read when I was in middle school.

Also, I remember my parents reading me adult versions of Robin Hood, King Arthur and Greek and Norse Mythologies as bedtime stories.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:56 PM on March 18, 2010

Karen Hesse. I've read Out of the Dust, Phoenix Rising, and The Music of Dolphins each many many times and they're all beautiful.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 3:57 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Libba Bray Gemma Doyle series. They suck you right in!

Other titles I'd recommend are Nation by Terry Pratchett, and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series (The Golden Compass, etc). All are very well written.
posted by MelanieL at 4:04 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Dark is Rising and Rosemary Sutcliff's books (my favourite is The Lantern Bearers, hi, another version of King Arthur!) have already been mentioned, so I will say Ursula le Guin's Earthsea series.
The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. - A Wizard of Earthsea
posted by Lebannen at 4:15 PM on March 18, 2010

Casting an emphatic vote for Octavian Nothing, The Once and Future King and I Capture the Castle.

The Gormenghast series, although not explicitly YA, required several tries to get over the 65-page hurdle, but once I did I canceled all my plans and spent a weekend plowing through it, drunk on the prose, which was like nothing I'd read before (or since). The last book still haunts me like a gorgeous nightmare.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy, starting with The Seeing Stone, is very lyrical in places.

I vaguely remember David Almond's Skellig as being written movingly.

I also love Moonfleet and tell the world about it every chance I get.
posted by stuck on an island at 4:53 PM on March 18, 2010

Beautiful, age-appropriate writing - William Mayne. Wikipedia article, which also mentions his conviction for child sexual abuse - this does not detract from the quality of the writing, though the knowledge of it may make one read the books differently.

The Member for the Marsh is a good one, but I can't find a useful link online. Also A Swarm in May, the first of a quartet.
posted by paduasoy at 5:30 PM on March 18, 2010

Off the top of my head...

Harriet the Spy
A Cricket in Times Square
Walk Two Moons (and everything else by Sharon Creech)
Bridge to Terebithia
Weetzie Bat
posted by serazin at 7:36 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Book Thief, and A Northern Light are my picks for excellent prose in YA.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:55 PM on March 18, 2010

Very glad to see that Octavian Nothing, Nation and Le Guin and L'Engle have already been thoroughly recommended!

One book I haven't seen yet in this list, but that definitely fits your description is Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night. Bonus points for a main character with a fascination for new words, which brings on a lot of delightful language.
posted by harujion at 8:14 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything by Francesca Lia Block (Weetzie Bat was mentioned a couple comments above, but she's written several others).
posted by SisterHavana at 8:56 PM on March 18, 2010

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Just phenomenal. So, so good.
posted by davidjmcgee at 9:18 PM on March 18, 2010

The first four of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books have been collected into Dangerous Angels; the fifth is Necklace of Kisses. My other favorite of hers is The Hanged Man.
posted by brujita at 10:23 PM on March 18, 2010

I second The Cricket in Times Square, Watership Down & My Friend Flicka, & would add the Laura Ingles Wilder series books (Little House on the Prairie, etc.) for beautiful writing, even tho they are more CH than YA. Also Abel's Island by Wm Steig and The Wheel on the School by Meindert De Jong.
posted by jsslz at 12:28 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Changeover - Margaret Mahy - is really, really beautifully written, it makes you breathless with pleasure sometimes. It's a cracking story as well.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:21 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's out of print and you'll have to buy it used, but the book that introduced me to surrealism was Stanley Kiesel's The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids. I still remember trying to wrap my mind around it as a child and figure out how all of a sudden it shifted from what seemed an ordinary conversation between a troubled boy and a school janitor to a red ant with human capacities who wanted to take over the world.

I like the sequel, Skinny Malinky Leads the War for Kidness, also.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:19 AM on March 19, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Cynthia Voigt, particularly Orfe (vaguely similar to Francesca Lia Block but more austere), all the Dicey books (Homecoming, Dicey's Song, etc.), Tree by Leaf, etc. I still have certain sentences trapped in my head to this day...

William Steig, Arnold Lobel maybe? E.B. White, moments of Beverly Cleary...obvious, but Roald Dahl.

Hans Christian Andersen, sigh.
posted by ifjuly at 9:35 AM on March 19, 2010

Yeah, Steig is amazing. Abel's island is one of the best works of Western literature, period.
posted by serazin at 10:12 AM on March 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! Looks like I've got a lot of great reading ahead of me. I'm looking forward to it!
posted by yankeefog at 6:51 AM on March 20, 2010

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