Charlene Diehl Brings some YA to the Beach


I’ve noticed that many adult readers completely pass over books for adolescent readers, but they’ve changed a lot over the years. Many are ideal for the beach bag—they’re speedy, smart, provocative, and often incredibly funny. Three options I recommend…

The Golden Compass trilogy, by Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass)

I wasn’t on the Pullman bandwagon when The Golden Compass movie was released a few years back, but when I heard Pullman interviewed, I knew I would track down the books. His sweeping saga of interpenetrating universes has generated plenty of controversy, but if elaborate myth-making by a deeply philosophical thinker appeals to you, this trilogy holds court with the best. From the torque of reframed geography and politics, to intriguing (and ubiquitous) demons, to the complex drive for power, Pullman shakes up assumptions about meaning and value—and tells a wickedly good story too. Bonus: The audiobooks actually feature Philip Pullman, and offer days of compelling listening. Great for long car trips, or lazy afternoons when your eyes keep drifting closed.

Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates, by Seán Cullen

Yes, this is the same Seán Cullen you’ve seen on television—porkpie hat, manic laugh, wild energy. Turns out he’s as brilliantly silly on paper as he is on stage. Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates features an indomitable young orphan forced by the Orphan Disposal Agency to make stinky blue cheese in a factory that is attacked by a gang of pirates led by Cheesebeard of Snow Monkey Mountain… You get the picture. What’s so exciting about all three of the Hamish books (for kids too) is the brazen self-reflexivity in Cullen’s writing. He carts you off to his weird world, but interrupts his narrative frequently and to great comic effect with outrageous footnotes, many of which offer gymnastic definitions and etymologies. Here’s an example:

Molasses is raw, unrefined sugar in the form of thick black syrup that is delicious on pancakes. If spread all over one’s body, it is very effective at deterring weasels and preserving body heat. Don’t ask me how I know that … I just do. Go back to the story.

Once you get the Hamish bug, you’ll be making sure Hamish X and the Hollow Mountain and then Hamish X Goes to Providence, Rhode Island are on hand. All three books are kooky and smart—and addictive.

Exploits of a Reluctant (and Extremely Goodlooking) Hero, by Maureen Fergus

Take one self-absorbed and tactless 13-year-old boy, throw in a new city (Winnipeg) and a shift in family dynamics (his mother gets a job, thereby abandoning her primary responsibility—attending to her son’s every need), then ground it all with a sharp writerly wit and a willingness to peel back the surface of the adult world. Exploits is one of those YA novels that is possibly more delightful (and certainly more squirm-inducing) for adults than for its purported audience. Anybody who made it safely out of adolescence will relate to the awkward sexuality (there’s a spectacularly funny scene with a breast pump), and the many misguided notions about adulthood. The stubborn immaturity and insensitivity of the narrator will often make you laugh right out loud. Speedy, acerbic, occasionally heart-breaking, and absolutely believable—this is social satire at its comic best, and it is set right here at home. Track down Fergus’ other books: Recipe for Disaster and Ortega.

One Comment

  1. Posted July 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I’d also recommend Jonathan Stroud’s amazing Bartimaeus trilogy.

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Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.