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Susan guest blogs: “Walking in Sunshine”—Non-Depressing Fiction for Younger Readers

“Walking in Sunshine”—Non-Depressing Fiction for Younger Readers

“Walking in Sunshine”—Non-Depressing Fiction for Younger Readers (With no apologies to Katrina and the Wave—that’s a happy, summery, pool-side sounding tune!)

Since Diane hasn’t addressed the tempest surrounding Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article, “Darkness Too Visible,” in the June 4, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal, I guess I will. Diane is busy moving to another house, while she keeps a lookout for another position as librarian.

Cox opens her article with a vignette about a mother venturing into a suburban bookstore on a quest to buy her thirteen year-old daughter a book. She was horrified at the dark nature of young adult literature. Cox goes on to talk about the negative impact of novels that explore “pathologies.” I won’t talk about that. I believe that these novels are crucial for many young readers, but there is lighter fare out there.

I wish Diane or I had been at the bookstore to help this mother out. The books in the Young Adult section are for a wide variety of maturity levels, going up to 18 years-old.  Mom may have been better off looking in the Independent Readers section instead. These books tend to have lighter themes, and the reading level is not that different from YA.

There are times when I too do not want to read depressing books. I avoided Dave Pelzer’s “A Child Called It,” for years. Likewise, I avoided Ellen Hopkins’s “Glass.” When I did read these books, I was blown away with their power and have recommended them to readers. Not to ALL readers, but those to whom I think the book will be relevant, moving, and helpful.

I would have asked the mother what her daughter liked to read. If she could tell me titles or genres, I could take it from there. Here are books that I would recommend. These books are all in my classroom library. This list is in no particular order, and it is not data-drive (buzz word alert!). These are books that kids like. They make great summer, pool-side reading because they are “fun” reads. The writing quality is excellent.


Anything by Will Hobbs—I especially likeCrossing the Wire — Fast-paced, life-or-death drama.

Esperanza Rising– Pam Munoz Ryan — Well-to-do Mexican girl goes to the U.S. and does migrant work after her father is killed.

Both titles have special appeal to Hispanic students—they have Mexican protagonists.


Maximum Ride series by James Patterson—The books have short chapters, so they’re easy to pick up and put down. Frequent cliff-hangers keep readers hooked.


Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney—I can’t keep these books on my shelf. I lost about 10 copies this year. Kids read them over and over.

Wimpy Kid wanna-be’s– There are lots of titles coming out that have been inspired by Wimpy Kid. Recommendations anyone?

Schooled – Gordon Korman—A kid raised on a commune by a hippie grandma goes to real school for the first time—a large public school, where he is the 8th grade’s biggest weirdo (but in a good way!)

Fantasy/Paranormal Romance

Elsewhere– Gabrielle Zevin—Love, love, loved this beautiful story about a girl who dies, goes Elsewhere and ages backwards until she is reborn on earth. Really thought-provoking and liked by guys and girls. It gave me goosebumps.

Keturah and Lord Death– Martine Leavitt. – Lord Death [need to say a couple of words about Lord Death so that he or it doesn’t sound creepy and depressing]  falls in love with a girl and wants to make her his bride. She loves someone else. The teacher in me appreciated the sophisticated vocabulary.

Beastly– Alex Flinn- Modern telling of Beauty and the Beast that also made it to the big screen.

Shiver- Maggie Stiefvater- Girl falls in love with wolf, but he can’t stay in human form much longer. He shares her bed as a human, but they only kiss and cuddle. [Oops! Update from Susan: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater does have a sex scene. The protagonist has sex with her wolf-boyfriend, but it’s pretty chaste–especially compared to Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side. At least in Shiver, the girls says afterwards, “We used protection.” ]

Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld—Hard-hitting sci-fi with plenty of romance and suspense. Intense, yet shouldn’t offend anyone by being overly graphic. A great story that doesn’t need sex, graphic violence, or profanity to propel the action. I had a popular, athletic girl bring Uglies to a pep rally to read!

Historical Fiction

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis—This book is a great read. It combines history, drama, and humor. The teacher in me loves the background knowledge it will build in students. It has a Mark Twain quality in its blending of humor and drama (runaway slaves).


Behind the Curtain series- Peter Abrahams. Modern female sleuth reminds me of why I loved Nancy Drew! The mysteries are well-plotted. I couldn’t guess “who dunnit”.

So Be It – Sarah Weeks– A girl investigates her past. There is something wrong with her mother, who only has a vocabulary of about 20 words. She boards a bus to another city, based upon clues she finds in an old photograph.

Okay. These are some of my suggestions. I could certainly come up with more, but it’s tough when all of my books are boxed and I don’t have my bookshelves to look at. I would highly recommend these books for summer reading. They will hold a young person’s attention at the beach, poolside, or just hanging around at home.  As my mother said, “If you like to read you will never be bored,” a mantra I repeat to my students.

Can you recommend other titles? While I love edgy titles, they are not for everyone.  Please let me know what you would add to my admittedly short list. There is plenty of YA fiction that isn’t overly “dark.”

Readers can leave comments for Susan Norwood here or email her.