Three Y.A. Novels About the Challenges and Charms of Growing Up

By MJ Franklin

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz

By Jennifer Mathieu

By Harmony Becker

There is no better time for reading than the fall. As temperatures drop and the leaves change, the autumn air creates a perfect atmosphere for settling into a comfy chair, under a blanket, with a good book. And fortunately, a spate of highly anticipated young adult releases, each showcasing a unique coming-of-age tale, are here to keep you company throughout the cozy season.

Readers have waited almost 10 years for a sequel to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 book “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Now that follow-up is finally here with Sáenz’s new book, “Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World,” and it was worth the wait.

In “Secrets,” readers met Aristotle Mendoza, a Mexican American teenager living in El Paso in the ’80s. Over the course of that book, Ari slowly realized that his new friend, Dante Quintana, was in love with him and that he was in love with Dante in return. This second book opens in the dawn of a new day — literally. Ari and Dante wake up in the back of Ari’s pickup truck, having accidentally fallen asleep while hanging out the night before. Even in the groggy moments of post-slumber, they are smitten. “Will you always love me?” Dante asks. “Yes,” Ari responds.

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    The truth, Ari finds out, is that love is hard. He is sure of his feelings for Dante, but he doesn’t know how romance fits within his world. “I live in a confusion called love,” Ari writes in his journal (which is formatted as love letters to Dante). On top of this confusion, Ari is grappling with the pressure of being gay in a world that may not accept him and trying to stand tall when all around him is news of gay death as a result of the AIDS crisis.

    Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, “Waters of the World” is an endlessly charming novel. Sáenz’s prose is poetic, tender and philosophical, giving even the ordinary circumstances Ari faces a kind, enchanting glow. And though the book is more than 500 pages, the chapters are short, sometimes only one paragraph long, so the story moves quickly. But the real star of the book is Ari’s mind. Watching Ari mentally and emotionally explore the new terrains of love and young adulthood is sure to be a treat for readers of all ages.

    Jennifer Mathieu’s new novel, “Bad Girls Never Say Die” — billed as a gender-flipped reimagining of S. E. Hinton’s classic novel “The Outsiders” — is a coming-of-age tale of a different order. The book opens with a killing.

    Evie, the protagonist, is from the wrong side of town; she and her friends are “the sort of girls mothers warn their daughters about.” One night, while out at a local drive-in, she’s almost assaulted by Preston, one of the rich kids in town (“tea sippers,” Evie and her friends call them). Evie blacks out in the ensuing struggle, and when she wakes up Preston is on the ground dead. Next to him is a girl in pink, a tea sipper, who is covered in blood. She introduces herself as Diane, and she and Evie flee the scene. But once they’ve gotten away, Diane realizes that she left behind the knife she used to kill Preston. Which means there’s a clue at the crime scene. Suddenly, Evie, a bad girl, and Diane, a tea sipper, are tied to each other if they want to survive. But Diane is hiding more than a few secrets.

    With her roaring, feminist book “Moxie,” about a teenager confronting sexism in her high school, Mathieu cemented her place as a Y.A. author to watch, and with “Bad Girls,” she has constructed another complex, engrossing tale for teenagers about the strength of young women. Though Evie and Diane come from different worlds, they are both fighters in their own ways. “It took courage to keep on living after everything that’s happened to you,” Evie tells Diane. Meanwhile, another character observes of Evie: “You keep your word when it counts. And you speak up when it counts. You helped Diane when the rest of us probably wouldn’t have. You’d never leave a friend in a fix.”

    The book hooks readers with plot twists and a cast of colorful characters, but Mathieu has also embedded in the story a sharp feminist commentary about the way society restricts women. “This world wants girls to be good all the time, whatever that means, but I don’t care about that,” Evie says. “I don’t care if they call us bad, because bad girls never say die.”

    In the end, it’s a disservice to call “Bad Girls Never Say Die” a reimagining — Mathieu has created a story that is wholly her own, and what a mighty story it is.

    “Himawari House,” by Harmony Becker, is a quieter story, but its heart is just as big — this graphic novel is about three young women moving through the hazy twilight that is the space between adolescence and adulthood.

    The book follows Nao, Tina and Hyejung — three foreign exchange students in Tokyo. Each has come to Japan from a different place and for a different reason. Nao was born in Japan but moved to the United States when she was a child; now she is returning to rediscover her heritage. Tina is from Singapore and is the first of her family to study abroad; she thought she could get a job teaching English, but because she’s not from a Western country she was passed over and works in a restaurant instead. Hyejung is from Korea and focused her entire life on school so she could prepare for the future, but then she realized she was unhappy, so she fled to Japan. Though they met as strangers, Nao, Tina and Hyejung now live in the communal Himawari House, taking those first tentative steps into adulthood together.

    In “Himawari House,” Becker perfectly captures that feeling of being young and, as Taylor Swift once described it, “happy, free, confused and lonely, at the same time.” The three revel in new experiences in a new country, and yet they feel unsure of themselves and out of place. “I feel sick,” Nao thinks. “I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t belong here.”

    Although it explores an existentially fraught stage of life, “Himawari House” is a fun and lively book. The story delights in the awkwardness of being away from home, of being out on your own for the first time. One character, feeling reflective and homesick, drinks too much soju and drags her friends out to karaoke, where she ends up singing and crying, drunk, into the microphone. Meanwhile, all three are intimidated by the silent, hot boy who also lives in Himawari House. But, plot twist, he’s not mean; he’s just shy too.

    The strength of “Himawari House” is its balance. Becker’s art is intricate and rich at times, quick and playful at others. The story will tug at your heartstrings and make you laugh. All told, “Himawari House” will comfort young readers who are imagining their lives ahead and trigger nostalgic joy in older readers looking back.

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