Dear Reader,

Some years ago, my youngest got hooked on to a Young Adult (YA) series. She spent hours glued to her Kindle, reading City of Bones.

‘It’s junk, full of sex, why are you letting her read it?’ demanded her elder sisters.

My performance as a literary parent was under fire and I speedily decreed City of Bones be banned.

Later I regretted my censorship. I remembered the injustice I’d felt in my youth, when I was scolded for sneakily reading The Godfather. The objection then, as now, was ‘too much sex’.

‘You have to let read your kids read a book that is not a classic, that will not enrich their life or help them do their placement interviews better. A book they might read simply for sheer pleasure, a book that everyone around them is reading’ the youngest told me later. She had read City of Bones anyway, she said.

‘I liked the fantasy, the worlds it created. It had so many interesting tropes, borrowing from the Bible, with angels and demons, from Star Wars with the light sabre-like weapons it had. And the sex, it’s what people at school talked about anyway, it’s part of every YA novel’

Nowadays, with self-publishing, and with sites like Wattpad, YA pushes many boundaries. And whilst you may not censor your children, it’s good to read along with them. Author Menaka Raman believes in reading as a family as well, scroll down to read her reasons why, and also find her reading recommendations.

The best o YA books are racy and pacy, they explore deep themes like the need to belong, family, environment, life and death. Here are five such books for your reading pleasure.

Book 1 of 5: The Future is Now

Poster Girl.
Poster Girl.

This latest book from the author of the Divergent series is about the search for a missing girl. It’s also about surveillance, and the moral choices characters have to make. Poster Girl isn’t technically YA, but it has the feel, with its youthful protagonists and its pacy action. If you liked Divergent and The Hunger Games, you will likely love this too. Also, check out the fabulous Six of Crows books. And hop onto time travel with Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson.

Book 2 of 5: Start with Family & Belonging

The Outsiders and Ballet Shoes.
The Outsiders and Ballet Shoes.

I discovered The Outsiders recently, even though it was written in 1967! It is the story of Ponyboy Curtis, the youngest of three orphaned brothers, and the street fights and struggles he gets into, to find his space in the world. We all loved it, especially the youngest, who identified the most with the protagonist.

Another old favourite that appeals to both generations in my family is Ballet Shoes. It features three adopted sisters, Polly, Petrova and Posy, who each find their niche in life. If you enjoy this, there are other shoe stories by Noel Streatfeld waiting for you – Skating Shoes, Circus Shoes, Theatre Shoes and Party Shoes.

Also read Wonder, the poignant story of a boy who fears he is ‘ugly’, yet has the courage to go to school and look for belonging.

Book 3 of 5: The Environment

Between Sea and Sky and The Little Rainmaker.
Between Sea and Sky and The Little Rainmaker.

Pearl and Clover are sisters who live on a floating oyster farm in the sea, in a world hit by climate change. Like the girl in Where the Crawdads Sing, they live below the radar, in the mudflats; their world has a one-child policy and one of them is illegal. Then ‘landlubber’ Nat and his scientist mother come aboard. Read Between Sea and Sky to find out what comes next- there’s plenty of action, the characters are layered and nuanced and their world is beautifully rendered. Also read The Little Rainmaker, a touching story of a little girl in Chennai, who fights to being back rainfall.

Book 4 of 5: Thrillers

In my teenage years, I read Alistair Maclean and Fredrick Forsyth for thrills. Now in addition to these evergreens, there is a whole panoply of youthful criminal masterminds, agents and double agents. Start with Alex Rider, also check out Artemis Fowl.

Book 5 of 5: Death and Horror

The Graveyard Book.
The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman does a gorgeous dance between the dead and the living in this fun story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. The genius of this book is how lightly it deals with weighty subjects – the morbid and macabre, human history, witchcraft, good and evil. If you like this, you have all of Neil Gaiman as treats in store for you, starting with fun time travel tales like Fortunately, the Milk and going onto Anansi Boys. For more intense horror read Cuckoo Song – where the lead character Triss must uncover socio-economic reasons for the horror that is being visited upon their family.

Finally, meet Menaka Raman. This award winningaward-winning picture and YA book author, talks about her writing process and also tells us how reading YA makes her a more patient and more empathetic parent to her two boys. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Menaka Raman.
Menaka Raman.

What was your early reading like?

When I was in grade 2, I was studying in Hong Kong. We had this English teacher, he was a Welshman called Mr Walsh. He had a storytelling corner- like a mini library set up in the class. Every day he’d read out books to us. Later when we moved to London, we’d borrow books from public libraries.

I returned to Chennai in Grade 6. We became members of the Easwari lending library. It was on our way back from school. My mum would come and pick my sister and me up and we’d stop at the library. It was a warren of books, crammed into this tiny space and you could take as many books as you like. On vacations, I would come back with 20 books at a time!

Tell us about your writing.

I’ve written on science in Topi Rockets from Thumba, on sports and cricket in Loki Takes Guard. Children ask me if Loki was based on me – I tell them about how bad I was at sports and that Loki is the kind of girl I wished I could have been.

Recently Pratham books approached me and asked if I would like to write about what microbiologists do all day – I wrote Ira Investigates the Invisible.

One of the themes I write about is a sense of belonging, like in The Great Escape – maybe because I moved around a lot. Though I came to Chennai in Grade 6, for a very long time I was ‘that girl from abroad.’

Tell me more about your creative process.

When I am writing a story, I’ll think about my characters, their best friends or enemies, their parents their teachers. I’ll write character sketches for them- what motivates them, what they eat etc. I write a one-page synopsis of what is going to happen in the story. And then five or six lines for each chapter- this is the setting and this is what is going to happen next.

Then I start writing.

I have a bad habit of writing the first draft by hand, it sounds terribly romantic, but as I am typing it out, I’m like, why do I do this to myself?

Then I put the first draft away for a while. Later I type it out making corrections and revisions in the second draft. And then the third draft. Hopefully, by then, it is in a shape to send to a publisher. Otherwise a fourth draft.

YA books are fantastic when they are done well. I love the themes they tackle. They provide such fantastic insight into young people and what they are going through. As a mum of a pre-teeteenager and a pre teen, it reminds me of what it’s like to be a young person. It’s a reminder I need every now and then to have more empathy and more patience and kindness with my children.

What have been some favourite YA reads?

I loved Gillian Tomaki’s One Last Summer. It’s a graphic novel about a girl’s summer vacation, set on the cusp of growing up. And Savi and and the Memory Keeper is a book about grief, the environment, the climate crisis and most importantly what it’s like to be a young person. I love What Maya Saw – Shabnam (Minwalla) is absolutely fantastic at writing horror. I just bought Eleanor and Park for my son, but I think I am going to steal it and read it first! I adore the Heartstopper books by Alison Osema, after I binge-watched the show, I’m reading all the books.

Are your children readers and if so, what are they reading?

I have two boys who are 14 and 11. I’ve always read aloud to them. Recently, during the pandemic, we read aloud the Endling series. Because they watch a lot of anime, they have started reading Manga. They love the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, the Jerry Kraft books, and the Bone series. Recently my younger son read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which he loved.

How can parents encourage their pre-teens and teens to read?

If you want kids to read more, give them more autonomy over what they read – you can suggest things, leave a book lying around, don’t force it on them. And don’t put down certain kinds of books, as not being big enough or important enough. Ultimately reading is for pleasure and all the other things are secondary – like building your vocabulary or giving you a knowledge of world politics or academic excellence.

Also, visit your local bookstore – if you are blessed and fortunate enough to live in a city that has one. Independent bookstores curate their collections carefully – if you tell them I like watching this show, like Stranger Things or One of Us is Lying, and your independent bookstore proprietor will pull out 10 books for you. I think that is something Amazon can’t do- it will show you books that it wants to show you, based on its algorithm.

I go to this fantastic bookstore in Bangalore called Lightroom Bookstore and Aashti Mudnani, who is the proprietor, knows what I like to read, and what my kids like to read. When a new graphic novel is in, she will call and say, come check this out.

And finally, what are you currently reading?

I just finished The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farell. I am going to read Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House. I also recently finished Train to Tanjore by Devika Rangachari, which is part of the Freedom series. I’ve got Leslie Biswas’s book from the same series- A Conspiracy in Calcutta, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

***

With this bookshelf full of recommendations, it’s a wrap for today! Next week, I bring you books on the art of the memoir, on the reasons to write yours and how to start.

Until then, Happy Reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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