Books That'll Mess You Up Good: A List by Suzanne Sutherland

Book Cover When We Were Good

Young adult literature, for most of us who are long-past those acne-fied, fumbling teenage years, is often seen as something of a guilty pleasure; it's a lingering inclination toward the immature and melodramatic that is frowned upon when carried into adulthood-proper. Yet, if we are asked to rhyme off a list of books that have profoundly changed us—either as readers, writers, or even genuinely living-and-breathing human beings—many of those titles would be books we’ve read as children and teens, books which feature young people as their central characters.

I am a young-adult author (who happens to still be a fairly young adult, though that’s another matter), but didn’t set out to be one when I wrote my first book. It was only when I’d finished my second or third draft that I realized what I’d created: a novel for and about teenagers. I told my brother, himself a writer, when I realized what had happened. “That’s great,” he said, “right on. That’s when a book’ll really mess you up, when you’re young.”
Here then is a list of particularly stellar Canadian books with young people as central characters. Books that’ll mess you up good, in the best way possible.

Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki: The one-two punch of Jillian Tamaki’s stunning art and Mariko Tamaki’s bang-on dialogue makes this a gorgeous/biting/brilliant portrait of high school life, love and witchy wonder.

Fruit by Brian Francis: Peter Paddington and his nipples were the star of Canada Reads 2009, albeit not the winner. Brian Francis’ portrayal of this loveable outsider—overweight, probably gay—is perfectly earnest and also incredibly funny.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen: While playing with some of the same narrative elements as Nielsen’s Word Nerd (the friendly, eccentric neighbours; the geeky escapist pastimes of Scrabble in the former and trivia in the latter), Henry K. Larsen hits it out of the park emotionally, and nabbed a GG, too.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton: Adolescence has never been so staggeringly poetic as it is in this novel. Catton casts a truly engrossing spell over her reader, tells a teen story in an entirely unique way.

(You) Set Me on Fire by Mariko Tamaki: Further evidence of Mariko Tamaki’s considerable empathic powers, this novel is set in the swampy grounds of first-year university, a terrain heavy with lust, underage drinking, and, in this case, fire. Mariko Tamaki's writing was such a big part of how I came of age as a writer that I'm thrilled to see her continuing to write books like this to set a fire (har har har) under more young readers and writers.

The Dead Kid Detective Agency by Evan Munday: Take a giant dose of Canadian history, add mystery and a generous scoop of silliness and you might come close to recreating this charmingly wacky book, but you’d be better off just reading it for yourself. Watch out for the next book in the series coming this spring!

A Girl Like Sugar by Emily Pohl-Weary: I fell hard for this book while I was still in high school. Carried it around with me in my Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack and dreamed of the day I might get to go on a date with an indie filmmaker/skater boy.

The Complete Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau: I first picked up this book while tabling at a Toronto Small Press Book Fair in 2006. Mercifully, the good folks at ECW have seen to fit to keep it in print (it was originally published by micropress Loose Teeth), and, along with its companion volume, this book packs a suckerpunch. While not a decidedly teen book, the presence of a seventeen year-old girl with a giant face tattoo as a central character brings a new dimension to teen depictions in CanLit which few other writers would be willing to touch.

Book Cover Mosh Pit

Mosh Pit by Kristyn Dunnion: I first came across this book when it was excerpted in Broken Pencil alongside Emily Pohl-Weary’s A Girl Like Sugar. To a punk-curious girl from the suburbs, this book was mesmerizing. I could hardly believe a publisher would get behind the kind of brutal honesty this book is full of, and it has totally informed the way I approach writing for young people.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews: Once you’ve met Nomi Nickle, it’s awfully hard to forget her. Toews’s ability to balance comic with tragic, which is such a huge part of being a teenager, is at its finest in this book.

Suzanne Sutherland is a Toronto-based writer for children and adults. Her first book, When We Were Good—a young-adult novel about girls, guitars and the Bloor Viaduct—is published by Sumach Press in April. Her writing has appeared in various magazines and journals, including Descant, Steel Bananas and The Rusty Toque.  She is also a co-founder of the Toronto Zine Library, and works as an editorial assistant at Groundwood Books.

April 29, 2013
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