Looking for YA novel series recommendations for niece's 15th bday.
June 11, 2019 6:30 PM   Subscribe

My step-niece has just turned 15 and I'd like to get her a good YA novel series as a gift but have no idea where to begin. If you please, I'd love some recos from the good people on the green! Inside is some additional info in case it's helpful as well as some past gifts listed below.

She came into my life when my sister-in-law started dating her (now) husband 7.5 years ago but I've only seen her about every other year for Christmas or a family vacation (heading to a big family vacay in a couple weeks where husband and I can give them to her in person). She is very shy but incredibly observant. Her parents believe she is on the spectrum and has a hard time coping with and processing big emotions outside of those that come with being a teenager. We've been told that emotionally, she's younger than her age. She doesn't talk much but from the bits and pieces we've chatted, I *think* she appreciates a bit of sarcasm. She has shown no interest in boys/girls/romance in general as far as anyone knows. She's had it a bit rough growing up in that her mom is an alcoholic but her dad (my BIL) is an amazing father and with his wife (my SIL) have created a stable and loving environment for my niece and her sister.

I always ask what she's into these days but my sister/brother-in laws can only give me so much info bc she doesn't really talk to them much either. Here are some past gifts that went over VERY well:
- When she was younger (11ish?) and started showing an interest in drawing, I got her a spirograph set and some cool Gelly Roll pens which she LOVED.
- In the last 2 years or so, she's really gotten into drawing a lot so for her birthday last year, I bought her "real" art supplies from my local art supply store -- the kinds of pencils, charcoal, sketch books, kneaded erasers that both husband and I used when we went to art school. She gave us a huge, very genuine smile.
- She had recently gotten into comic books/graphic novels. For Christmas this past year, we got her 3 graphic novels based on what she was currently reading. What we got her: Justice League - The Ties That Bind, Batman & Robin - Bad Blood, Batman - White Knight

She's been doing a ton of reading and prefers actual books to an e-reader. I don't know what she's currently reading (and can't really find out due to brother/sister-in-law doing a lot of travelling). So, with the info above, does anyone have any suggestions on an awesome trilogy that would make a great gift? Ideally, I would love a female protagonist whose storyline isn't centered around a love story. If there are any aspects of what I've written above that happen to be apart of the protagonist's personality (creative, artistic, troubled early life, difficulty processing emotions etc.) all the better!
posted by tealeaf522 to Human Relations (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Graphic novel: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl!
It's wonderful and very well reviewed.
posted by gemmy at 6:50 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about possibly expanding to quartets? A lot of Tamora Pierce's works might suit, perhaps the Circle of Magic books most of all. Three of the four protagonists are girls, and they all have to overcome difficult early beginnings and personal/emotional issues in order to control their unique magical powers. Found family and friendship are the focus far more than romance. Pierce's Mastiff series might be a good fit, too.

And I can't recall how significant the romantic storyline is (I think not particularly), but Kristin Cashore's Graceling books might suit as well. There's a minor romance in each but the larger storyline is overcoming abusive upbringing and/or uncovering a terrible family secret and figuring out how to make amends.
posted by TwoStride at 6:53 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

It was about that age when my oldest kid started reading Terry Pratchett's discworld books and it was so great that he was enjoying my favorite author. The Tiffany Aching books are specifically aimed at a YA audience
posted by selfmedicating at 6:53 PM on June 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

Take a look at the Ruby Redfort books, by Lauren Child. Super smart female protagonist, no romance, interesting puzzles to solve. Skews a bit younger than 15, but these were/are still my young/ish 15yr olds favorite books.
posted by msbubbaclees at 6:55 PM on June 11, 2019

I want to recommend the YA book Eliza and Her Monsters to everyone. It's about a very shy, reserved teenager who is secretly the author of an incredibly popular webcomic (with a fandom and fanfic and merch and everything). Her parents don't know, and they don't get her online life--they're very athletic and outdoorsy and are loving but kind of puzzled by her.

She meets a boy she likes, but the real point of the story is her learning to relate to the people she loves IRL as well as she relates to her online community. And the hints you get about her comic will make you WISH it existed.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:59 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix is awesome! There are 5 books in the series, the first three and last one are my favorites. Start with Sabriel. Number 4 was not so much and can be skipped in my opinion. I think your niece would really like the female protagonists in the first three books based on your description.
posted by snowysoul at 7:29 PM on June 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

Disclaimer: not a series! Just one book but I think it might be liked.

The Window by Amelia Brunskill

Main character is a twin, but not very close with her more popular sister. She's a bit of a loner and has trouble relating to people and processing her emotions (implied on the spectrum but never stated). Her twin dies in an apparent accident. She spends the book figuring out why. (She also makes the decision to focus on improving her relationship with herself rather than dating a complicated boy, which is a nice bit.)

Possible problems to note: distant parents, light sexting, teenage drinking, (obviously) coping with death.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It had a lifetime movie troubled teen feel (in a good way) with the perk of being well written.

Bonus! I know the author of the book because of Metafilter!
posted by phunniemee at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2019

She sounds a lot like my daughter (except she is about to turn 14), and I second the Tamora Pierce books, especially Circle of Magic. I just bought her the Immortal series, which starts with Wild Magic. She had already read, but she also likes having the actual books in her room. I bought hers used, which would maybe not be great for a birthday, but something to keep in mind if you find she really likes Pierce books - there are a lot of them!

Alternate idea for future, if there is a great local book store, getting a gift certificate is great fun at that age. She was thrilled that her aunt gave her enough for several books.

Last idea, The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, only two books, with a third companion book yet to be released.
posted by dawg-proud at 7:45 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Arrgh - I didn't realize that The Night Country isn't released yet either, I thought she had read it already. Sorry.
posted by dawg-proud at 7:52 PM on June 11, 2019

If she hasn't read it yet, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is fantastic, and would fit the bill. Otherwise, nthing Tamora Pierce.
posted by dizziest at 8:32 PM on June 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

My tween/teen self was really into the Weetzie Bat series: wiki linky
posted by PistachioRoux at 8:37 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would highly recommend Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, Shadow Scale, and Tess of the Road (the latter is technically a companion novel). They are fantasy YA novels with interesting plots and strong, relatable, imperfect young female protagonists. Both Tess and Seraphina's story arcs, especially with Tess, involve navigating family issues and their emotional responses to same, working through the emotional impact of specific events, and generally carving out a positive life for themselves. They feature some love interest content but this is not the focus. Content warning: sexual assault is described in Tess of the Road. It is depicted in what I feel is a very thoughtful way however, and shows a journey of healing rather than being shown as a shocking or graphic event.
posted by DTMFA at 8:56 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

She’s 15yo?

I feel strongly that it is the role of Uncles and Aunts to push the boundaries set in place by parents. So if it were me, I’d just go for it: Gaiman’s Sandman (with Death on the side).

If nothing else, she’ll think of you as the Aunt who thinks of her as a person, with a mind of her own.
posted by doctor tough love at 8:57 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would actually also recommend Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series- so often recommended on Metafilter! I don't feel like there is one particular protagonist, especially in the first book, but many of the main characters would be female and all of them are great characters with their own emotional "stuff" going on. The books are original and thought provoking, and I also find them very comforting to read. My 12 yo daughter devoured them and has already re-read them at least once.
posted by DTMFA at 9:05 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. I'm like a broken record on this one. The first volume is very slim, and they grow from there. They also grow in complexity in each volume. Some damn good writing and a twist on the usual coming of age - go to school trope.
posted by Gotanda at 10:23 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

She might like Gunnerkrigg Court. There are more than three books (the story isn't over yet) but that would make for a good start. The main character is a girl sent to a mysterious/magical boarding school, and whether because she's on the spectrum or because of her upbringing, she has very atypical social skills and trouble processing big emotions (although the latter issue only really develops in the latter books). A bonus for someone interested in drawing is that the artist's drawing skills and style evolve over the course of the story.

If she liked Harry Potter at all, she might also like Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, which is about a college freshman who's kind of a loner who writes fanfiction based on an in-world Harry Potter-like series called Carry On, Simon. Rowell then actually wrote a book by that name, and they'd make a nice gift in combination. Both books have a love story but they aren't the only focus of the plot, and in both the main characters have a bunch of family stuff to deal with.
posted by trig at 10:35 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was thinking of Rainbow Rowell, too, specifically Eleanor & Park. Awkward kids become friends via exchanging comics and music, while one copes with a tough home life. Check it out, or at least read the Wikipedia description, to make sure it isn't too intense.
posted by salvia at 12:36 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

My recs, from others mentioned above, are the Graceling series (Cashore), Sandman (Gaiman), The Hazel Wood (Albert? Alpert?), the Old Kingdom books (Nix; she will likely love Lirael, but should read Sabriel first), and Discworld (Pratchett; the “adult” books should be fine for most mid-teens readers). Diana Wynne Jones might skew too young, but Howl’s Moving Castle and the entire Chrestomanci series are wonderful. The POV characters in the Chrestomanci books change from volume to volume, and some are young boys.

All of those are evocative fantasy, and all likely to be enjoyed by the same sort of reader, although Discworld is more whimsical, The Hazel Wood is contemporary, and Sandman has big chunks in 1990s bohemian settings (and not, especially, a young female protagonist). So because of that, I wouldn’t discount Gunnerkrigg Court, the Squirrel Girl rec, or Eliza and Her Monsters. I just haven’t personally read those.

15 is a tricky age (any teen age is) because it’s likely that something that a lot of 13-14 year olds enjoyed will skew too young and be appreciated but unsatisfying, and it’s also likely that adults will misjudge and skew too young with their selections in an attempt to be age-appropriate, especially if the intended recipient is a voracious reader. My experience is that most teenagers respond well to books about characters who are maybe 2-3 years older than the reader, so I’d look for protags around 17-18. Sabriel and Graceling’s Katsa are both, IIRC, around 18.

Eleanor and Park is lovely, but it’s a downer, and the storyline (which is almost entirely a romance) is driven partly by parental abuse. Worth reading but not something I would give as a sole birthday gift any more than I’d give Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (which is about surviving and overcoming rape trauma). It doesn’t sound like your niece would be into what we used to call “problem novels.”
posted by verbminx at 1:34 AM on June 12, 2019

Do not give her Eleanor & Park, it's super racist. Like, really racist, and the fetishization of Park's race ruined the book for me when I read it.

I'd recommend Gene Luen Yang's graphic novels (Boxers and Saints has one female protagonist and one male, set during the Boxer Rebellion) and second Seraphina and Tiffany Aching. Is she mature enough for Persepolis?

Most of the YA I've enjoyed are stand-alones. Nina LaCour's We Are Okay is about a girl both grieving for her grandfather and going to college for the first time, the protagonist is queer but the story is about friendship and found family rather than romance. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is similarly friendship-focused with a queer protagonist whose parents sent her to conversion camp. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith is about a future New Orleans after a plague-caused dystopia, one of the two perspectives is a young Black girl. No romance, because the focus is on surviving the city. I also really liked Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker books, about a post-climate apocalypse world.

Tbh a lot of YA featuring "diverse" (meaning not-white and not-straight) protagonists, especially written by writers who are non-white or non-straight, is either stand-alone or newly published so without more than one or two books out. I really enjoyed the beginning books of:
- The Belles (Black protagonist with beauty-based magic, rumination on beauty as art but also a deconstruction of the idea of beauty in the second book)
- Warcross (hacker protagonist in an esports tournament, both protagonist and love interest are Asian, more romance-heavy)
- Dread Nation (alternate history, kind of a Wild West book that deals with slavery and racial oppression but is mostly about the Black protagonist kicking ass against zombies, light romance heavy zombies)
posted by storytam at 1:46 AM on June 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes to Philip Pullman.

The Sally Lockhart books are not as truly amazing and necessary as His Dark Materials, but they are a lot of fun, are very well written, have a great heart, and a wonderful female protagonist. I re-read them to this day!
posted by Balthamos at 1:48 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Wool series by Hugh Howly has female lead characters with great development.

Save Madeleine Miller’s Circe for after she has read/studied the Odyssey, or not. It could make her more interested in classics.
posted by childofTethys at 4:52 AM on June 12, 2019

Look into the Lumberjanes series.
posted by BibiRose at 5:22 AM on June 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am very fond of Phoebe North's Starglass series. The main character is an artist-- who becomes a scientist-- from complicated family.
posted by BibiRose at 5:25 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can I recommend Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy yet again on this site? Everyone uses she pronouns, there are just small hints of romance, and not involving the main character.

Maybe the Monstress graphic novels? They're absolutely gorgeous, but, fair warning, pretty violent in parts.

Not a series, but how about Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud? I think he has some other books on comic design too.
posted by esker at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for all of these fantastic suggestions! I will definitely look into all of them (starting with those that have been nth) and have decided to also make a list of these books/series/graphic novels to include in the gift with whichever series we go with.

Just out of curiosity, any of these mentioned above happen to be a little funny? Not looking for humor as a genre at all, but just wondering if any of the protagonists or even supporting characters have some fun, witty banter? Not necessary, just as an added bonus.

Thank you again -- if you have more, please keep them coming!
posted by tealeaf522 at 8:39 AM on June 12, 2019

Looking through the recommendations so far, the ones with humor include: Squirrel Girl, Tiffany Aching, Casson Family, and Becky Chambers' Wayfarers. I'll nth all of these.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:58 AM on June 12, 2019

Marissa Meyer's Renegades. An interesting twist on superhero / post-apocalyptic books. And they're funny. My teenage daughter loved the first one, absolutely loved it. She liked the second one a lot but wasn't crazy about the ending. Hasn't read the third one yet. (I liked the first one a lot and am probably going to finish the second, but I'm not the target audience.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:57 PM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

arabidopsis — that’s why I didn’t recommend the entire Howl series, just the first book.

A lot of DWJ’S series books are only loosely connected, focusing on one-shot protagonists with drop-in visits from the series leads, and that one — Castle in the Air, iirc — spends a lot of time trying to be an Arabian Nights pastiche before you figure out it’s actually a Howl sequel. House of Many Ways is similar, minus the orientalism. Both are pretty much fans-only, and the issues with Castle in the Air may make it a “not even fans” for some people.

But she did write critiques of imperialism and academia in Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. Both great but I’m not sure the giftee in this case would enjoy them.
posted by verbminx at 10:46 PM on June 12, 2019

Also, OP, sorry for the second post! Of the ones I recommended, the Discworld books are hilarious. The Chrestomanci books can be pretty funny (and are really whimsical in comparison to something like Graceling), and so can Howl’s Moving Castle, and so can the Derkholm/Griffin series if you get the jokes. The rest are emotional and mysterious.

The Sally Lockhart books are amazing! Strong rec for people looking for strong female YA characters. But they definitely do start to get romantic in the second volume, and they were written in the late 1980s and early 1990s: I don’t remember the plot super well, but I do seem to recall that there are Asian elements that may not have been handled in a way that we’d consider ideal 30 years later. (And because my memory of exact plot details isn’t great, I might be understating that.)
posted by verbminx at 10:59 PM on June 12, 2019

I don't think it's specifically marketed as a young adult book, but the protagonist of Among Others by Jo Walton is a 15-year-old girl trying to move past trauma. It's sort of a fantasy but mostly about growing up in south Wales in the late 70s. Also it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and got a pretty glowing review from Ursula Le Guin.

(Sorry, that's just one book and not a series, but it's good!)
posted by mookieproof at 1:20 PM on June 13, 2019

I hope it's okay I'm giving you comic book recs rather than novels!

The protagonist of Silk is a woman who's striking out as a new superhero while healing from a trauma that's left her with a case of emotional arrested development. It's warm, thoughtful, occasionally snarky, and sometimes sad in that cathartic sort of way I think I would have appreciated as a teen, though I can't speak for everyone. I've read a lot of superhero books in my time, and this one is top tier. The entire series is available in 5 volumes starting from volume 0, including the Spider-Women crossover coming between vol 2 and 3. There's also a team-up book with Spider-Man written by Silk's author with a different artist; I don't recommend her appearance with Spider-Man written by Dan Slott.

There have been many Batgirls, but Batgirl (2001-2006) stars my favorite, Cassandra Cain, who is very smart and very observant but has trouble talking to people or figuring out how to express emotions properly because she was raised by an evil assassin dad. Unfortunately only the first three collected editions are out in paperback, but if you get them for her and she likes them she can read the rest of the series on comixology.

I'm surprised I'm the first to mention the consistently excellent Ms. Marvel, and although I haven't gotten to them yet I've heard great things about the new Miles Morales: Spider-Man series, The Unstoppable Wasp, and Moon-Girl and Devil Dinosaur (which may skew a bit young for her).

For future reference, keep an eye out for the DC Ink line of standalone YA graphic novels, especially since your niece is a Batman fan - there's already a Catwoman book out, and coming soon are ones for Harley Quinn, Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, and I'm pretty sure Bruce and Damien Wayne are in there somewhere too. Plus Mera, Beast Boy, Green Lantern, etc etc.

Also for future reference, I've stuck to superhero recs since most of my non-superhero favorites are outside your remit, but you should know that YA comics are huuuuuge right now, and superheroes are only the tiniest slice of the pie. If there's a well-reviewed, newbie-friendly comic book store you or her parents could take her to and let her browse around, I highly recommend it, especially since you said she's into art and prefers physical books to e-readers. A well-laid out comic store is a visual feast!
posted by bettafish at 2:35 PM on June 13, 2019

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