In past blogs, we’ve recommended novels in the “young adult” (YA) genre to students who are preparing to take the TOEFL. The reason for this simple: the best YA novels employ well-written, straightforward prose, without the complicated syntax and intimidating vocabulary of works aimed at older readers. Although targeted at readers who are in middle and high school, YA novels contain themes that resonate across generational and cultural divides. Below are four series of YA novels and two other works that we would not hesitate to recommend to any non-native English speaker.
Harry Potter Series
In J. K. Rowling’s groundbreaking series of YA novels, an ordinary boy discovers that he is the son of famous and powerful wizards. The seven books of the Harry Potter series follow him and his friends through their years at Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The books themselves become gradually more advanced as the series progresses, increasing in reading level and page count with each new entry.
The Chronicles of Narnia
Long before the current popularity of YA fiction, C. S. Lewis crafted what may very well be the definitive example of the genre. Beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a number of young people find themselves at the center of events in the magical world of Narnia. A simple, straightforward style of prose and a relatively low page count help overcome a somewhat “lecturing” tone and a less than subtle Christian allegory.
The Hunger Games Trilogy
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is almost single-handedly responsible for the popularity of YA novels with a decidedly dystopian theme. Years after their original release, Collins’ works remain one of the best examples of this sub-genre. A teenage girl volunteers to fight to the death in a tournament that is forced upon the populace of a future North America by a totalitarian government. As the series progresses she finds herself at the center of rebellion against that same government. The trilogy is most notable for featuring a young female protagonist and for being told entirely from her perspective via first-person narration. Many elements of The Hunger Games have been copied (with varying degrees of success) by subsequent YA novels. We’ll look at what I consider to be one of the most successful attempts to follow its “formula” next.
The Divergent Trilogy
Veronica Roth is one of a handful of YA authors whose dystopian fiction rivals that of Suzanne Collins. Roth’s Divergent trilogy of YA novels incorporates many of the elements that made The Hunger Games so popular, such as a young female protagonist, a post-apocalyptic setting, and first-person narration. The three Divergent novels are noteworthy to English language learners because the meanings of particular words are integral to the story. The society of Divergent is divided into factions. Each faction is named after the trait that it most seeks to embody. For example, the members of the “Candor” faction must strive to always speak the truth, even when doing so might cause harm to others.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Outside of the young adult genre, there are two books that I would not hesitate to recommend to any learner of the English language. The first is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One of only two novels released by Lee, Mockingbird uses straightforward prose to paint a devastatingly accurate portrait of the Jim Crow era American South. A small-town attorney tries (unsuccessfully) to prove the innocence of a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman. Utterly unique when it was originally published, Mockingbird filters its story through the eyes of a then young girl who is recalling the events surrounding the trial some years later. While there are better books dealing with specific aspects of the narrative (most notably the voices of African Americans), Mockingbird provides a comprehensive introduction to both the English of the American south and an extremely shameful era in America’s history that continues to have ramifications.
Lord of the Flies
This deceptively-simple book by William Golding effectively deconstructs British Imperialism even as it critiques male identity and society as a whole. A group of very young boys are marooned on a deserted island. They form a primitive tribal society that quickly becomes toxic and self-destructive. Just about every facet of Lord of the Flies can be (and has been) analyzed academically. At the same time, the story can be enjoyed as a simple allegory of what happens when people are freed from society’s constraints and allowed to make up whatever rules they want to.