If there’s one single element of writing I love above all others, it’s voice. (Well, voice and the occasional well-placed Buffy and/or Doctor Who reference.)
It’s that intangible thing that makes a book memorable, an author unique, a character or a story leap off the page and into reality. It can be polarizing, aggressive, strange, or even unlikeable—Holden Caufield was the original voicey YA narrator, after all, and as much as I had an aching crush on him circa age 14, he really doesn’t sound like the dinner party company I’d seek out these days.
But that’s the beautiful thing about a strong, engaging voice: even when you can’t stand what a voicey character (or author—more on that later) is saying or doing on the page, you can’t look away. Voice can make something terrible, or cruel, or weird, or just unpleasant interesting.
Voice is a huge element of my debut novel, #FAMOUS. It’s also what made the following books some of my absolute favorites in recent young adult literature:
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Release date: March 1 2012
Alternately hyperbolic, vulgar, and self-absorbed, Greg Gaines is one of the most hilarious—and therefore, to
me, absolute best—narrators in recent literature. Though one of the main story arcs deals with the illness and eventual death of Greg’s former-life friend, Rachel, the book is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, even in the midst of its darkest moments. Greg is utterly flawed, and painfully real, and I defy a reader to get through even a chapter of this sparkling debut without a fully-formed image of him tramping around their heads, camera in hand.
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Publisher: Katherine Tegen
Release Date: March 1 2016
Charlotte Holmes should be incredibly unlikeable—she’s harsh, dismissive, superior, and overprivileged. She’s also completely fascinating. Cavallaro pulls off a neat trick in her debut: she creates two fully-formed, arresting voices in a first-person novel. Though it’s told by Jamie Watson, the loveable descendant of Holmes’s first sidekick, we also get a full dose of Charlotte Holmes’s personality—dry, analytical, calculating, occasionally even cruel. Any devotee of crime dramas (or of the BBC’s retelling of the Holmes stories) knows that likeability doesn’t have anything to do with how interesting a character is. In a shelving category where identifying with characters is almost a requirement, I love that this book presents a personality almost alien in her difference…and makes me, at least, fall in love with her.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvader
Release date: September 18 2012
When you think about capital-v Voice in a book, it doesn’t really refer to a single character’s way of speaking; it’s about a style of writing that feels totally individual, like it couldn’t come from any writer other than the one you’re reading. Still, voicey novels are often first person, one of the many reasons I was blown away by Maggie Stiefvader’s third-person saga of Gansey, Ronan, Adam, Blue, and the ever-present, always elusive Glendower. Not only does she manage to convey the thoughts and outlook of each of her four main characters distinctly and fully, she overlays the entire work with a playful, tongue-in-cheek tone utterly unique to her.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Release date: January 7 2014
I love all of Jason Reynolds’ books—and he brings his incredible voice to each in different ways—but I have the biggest soft spot for When I Was the Greatest. Maybe that’s because the narrator, Ali, feels like the best friend we all wish we had; funny, generous, sly, and fundamentally kind. Reading this book almost has the quality of oral storytelling; Ali’s voice is so incredibly authentic, you almost feel like you’re chatting with an old friend, not reading about a fictional character. This is storytelling at its best: it makes you feel not only like these characters exist, fully-formed in the world, but like you’re right there next to them, living every moment right alongside them.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Release date: September 16 2014
The only thing better than a book with an incredibly strong voice? One that has two of them. Nelson’s story alternates between the points of view of formerly-inseparable Jude and Noah, twins telling a story from either side of a gulf of three painful years of distance. Both characters are believably flawed, and both practically leap off the page. Over the course of the novel, I found my sympathies shifting depending on who had control of the story at any given moment. That, my friends, is the sign of an author with an incredible gift for giving her characters voice.
When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin’s
Release Date: October 4 2016
In this lyrical dream of a novel, voice has nothing to do with the characters, and everything to do with the author. It’s a love story infused with magical realism, an exploration of growing up, but most importantly, this book is unlike anything else I’ve seen in YA recently…or maybe ever. The prose is lush and beautiful, almost poetic, and the entire story, though it’s very specific, has the feel of a universal fable of young love. Her version of voice isn’t channeled through her main characters; McLemore is simply a writer who could never be mistaken for anyone else.
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here by Anna Breslaw
Release date: January 7, 2016
Witty, fiercely loyal, passionate, and deeply flawed, Scarlett Epstein is the version of a high school nerd we all—or at least I—wish we could be. One of my favorite elements of this novel is that we get Scarlett’s voice in two different ways: both through her caustically funny (and sometimes hurtful) interactions with those around her, and through the vivid fanfiction she writes, a thinly-veiled evisceration of her former best friend and his new girlfriend. Don’t miss my standout moment of the entire novel: Scarlett’s tongue-lashing of two pretentious, anti-feminist assholes masquerading as intellects.