Jess Rothenberg on YA Narrators from Beyond the Grave
Jess Rothenberg's YA debut, "The Catastrophic History of You and Me"--out this month in paperback and published in more than a dozen countries--was inspired by a rare but real medical condition called "Broken Heart Syndrome." Her novel features a teenage girl who dies of a literal broken heart and must, with the help of a handsome and funny lost soul, learn the truth about love all the way from the great beyond.
Here, Rothenberg picks for Bookish some of her favorite YA stories featuring narrators from beyond the grave.
Gabrielle Zevin sets the bar high with "Elsewhere"--a novel about a 15-year-old girl who meets her end following a fatal hit-and-run accident and winds up in Elsewhere--an afterlife where things, at first glance, don't seem all that different from real life. There is, however, one striking difference: Here, everyone ages backward until they are quite literally ready to be born again. Zevin is a master of vivid, lyrical storytelling that manages to stay light (being a dog lover, I particularly loved Liz's discussions with deceased canines), despite some heavy themes (she is, after all, dead). Beautiful, brilliant, a must-read.
Upon hearing the premise of this novel--"Groundhog Day" meets "The Lovely Bones" for teens--lots of things come to mind. (Bill Murray trapped indefinitely with Punxsutawney Phil, for one.) But, dip into the first lines of Lauren Oliver's unforgettable debut--in which a popular, not-so-nice girl must relive the day of her death until she learns her life is not the one to save--and all things marmot quickly melt away. And, while Oliver's subject matter is obviously high school (mean girls, peer pressure and bad boyfriends abound), her luminous prose and overall message is anything but. Full of wisdom, warmth, depth and truth, "Before I Fall" has more than earned its spot as a modern classic--whether you're 13 or 35.
In this story set in Nazi Germany about a girl who develops a secret passion for stealing books following her brother's funeral, the narrator isn't just dead--he's Death. (And, given the setting's political climate, he's been very, very busy.) Personally, I loved Zusak's unexpected narrative twist, and found Death's frank, unsentimental observations--contrasted beautifully with the wonder and delight Liesel discovers as she learns to read her many stolen pages--a refreshing take on the genre. Exploring themes of friendship, family and the healing power of words, this is a poetic and amazing novel not to be missed.
The 17-year-old cello prodigy at the center of Gayle Forman's deeply moving novel isn't dead, per se; she's in a coma and the sole survivor of a horrific car crash that's killed her entire family. Now, as the title tells us, Mia must choose whether to stay or go--waking to a life that can never be the same, or slipping away forever like her parents and little brother before her. A powerful concept, no doubt, but what really makes this story shine is Forman's attention to detail--
"There are so many tubes attached to me that I cannot count them all: one down my throat breathing for me; one down my nose, keeping my stomach empty; one in my vein hydrating me; one in my bladder, peeing for me; several on my chest, recording my heartbeat; another on my finger, recording my pulse. The ventilator that's doing my breathing has a soothing rhythm like a metronome, in, out, in, out. "
--as well as her ability to move seamlessly between past and present, showing us Mia's impossible dilemma via a mix of cherished family memories and the powerful love she feels from those still on earth. This book will make you cry, that's a given. But more than that, it will make you think about what makes us whole, and how beautifully fragile our worlds really are.
If it's a fast-paced thrill ride you're after, look no further than kid lit blogger-turned-author Lenore Appelhans' YA debut, about a girl trapped in a stark white afterlife somewhere between heaven and earth, with only the digital memory files of the boy she once loved to keep her company. That is, until she learns there's a rebellion brewing deep within Level 2… aaand cue rollercoaster. There's action, adventure, and plenty of heartache for all you romantics. Plus, Appelhans raises some big, thought-provoking questions about time, religion and memory that give her afterlife a life all its own.
Jess Rothenberg is the author of "The Catastrophic History of You and Me" and a former children's book editor. She graduated from Vassar College and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, newborn son, and a very bad cat named Charlie. Visit her at www.jessrothenberg.com or on Twitter (@jessrothenberg).