Reading Outside of the Box: YA Books with Unconventional Formatting

Reading Outside of the Box: YA Books with Unconventional Formatting

Jess Rothenberg

If you’re looking for a summer read filled with twists and turns set in a world where nothing is as it appears, this book is for you. Jess Rothenberg’s The Kingdom transports readers to a fantasy theme park where Ana, a park princess, has been accused of murder. Ana’s story unfolds through courtroom transcripts, interviews, and her own memories. Fans of novels with unconventional storytelling won’t be able to put The Kingdom down. Here Rothenberg shares some of her personal favorite YA books that play with the way stories are told.

It may have been decades since I last picked up a copy of Choose Your Own Adventure, but my love for “differently wired” books—stories that break convention through unique, nontraditional formatting—still runs deep. There’s just something about a book that isn’t afraid to shake things up, to break and bend the rules, to hook you in a way that makes you feel as if you’re not only along for the ride, but part of the story.

When I was writing The Kingdom, (part love story, part sci-fi fantasy, and part courtroom thriller set in a futuristic theme park a reviewer recently described as “Disney on steroids”), it was important to me that, like the park guests within its pages, readers similarly felt immersed in the world—soaring on the backs of virtual dragons, chasing mermaids into the depths, and ultimately puzzling through the clues (a mix of trial testimony, security footage, newspaper clippings, and interrogation reports) right alongside the court to decide whether or not Ana—the half-human, half-android “Fantasist” accused of murdering a park employee—is guilty of the crime. Did she do it? Could she do it? The truth is dangerous. (But the clues are really fun.)

YA has come a long way since the days of Choose Your Own Adventure, but in the age of podcasts and social media, of emoji and Alexa, of feminism and choice, stories that not only play with but seek to rewrite the rules of convention, format, and even genre are more powerful and more relevant than ever. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

All of This is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor

Four teenagers befriend their YA-author-idol to truly shocking consequences in this scary and compulsive blend of page-turner, psychological thriller, and cautionary tale of fandom culture gone way, way wrong. Peñaflor’s novel kept me up very late thinking about obsession, connection, and all the ways we idolize people in powerful positions (not to mention the unnerving parallels to social media and book culture itself). I especially loved how Peñaflor’s genre-bending structure weaves in emails, video transcripts, radio interviews, articles, texts, and seriously meta excerpts of the novel-within-the-novel.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Moving, thought-provoking, and powerful, Long Way Down is one of the most beautifully unconventional books I’ve ever read (and then immediately downloaded on audiobook). The verse novel is set in the span of a single elevator ride—sixty seconds—and in that tightly wound minute, a boy named Will wrestles over whether or not to kill the man he believes murdered his brother. Reynolds’ style is simple yet sophisticated; accessible yet profound, and the book’s brilliant elevator framing device (and the revelations that come as others join him on the ride) add an even deeper emotional layer as tension builds and stakes intensify, one floor at a time.

Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

This geektastic, socially awkward, wholly heartwarming YA novel is about a shy girl who’d rather spend her entire life online. That is, until the number one fan of her extremely popular—and extremely pseudonymous—webcomic, Monstrous Sea, transfers to her school. Zappia’s novel compellingly explores themes of friendship, fandom, family, and love, as well as the inner monsters like depression, anxiety, and impostor syndrome. Told through interspersed letters, messages, comics, and prose, Eliza and her Monsters is an imaginative and important story about finding yourself, finding your people, and ultimately, finding your way.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Warning: Sadie is a hard and heartbreaking read and deals with themes of violence against children, sexual abuse, and addiction, among others. Told in a raw and emotionally riveting split narrative, the story alternates between 19-year-old Sadie’s point of view as she tries to do what the police couldn’t (find the man who murdered her little sister, Mattie), and an adult podcaster playing his own game of detective as he investigates the disappearance of both sisters. A brutal and powerfully haunting story that shines a light on trauma too often kept in the dark, Sadie defies genre and convention (the book’s publisher, Macmillan, created an actual podcast to go along with the reading experience), and will stay with you long after you put it down.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

In this utterly unconventional novel (actually two novels in one), we follow Lyra, a human model, or replica, as she escapes from a much-creepier-than-it-looks research facility with a boy known simply as 72. But there’s a secret hiding within Oliver’s trademark gorgeous prose, for when you simply flip the book over, an entire second novel—this one the story of Gemma, a girl with mysterious ties to the same facility from which Lyra and 72 have escaped—unfolds before your eyes. Whether you approach the narratives separately or as thrilling pieces of the same puzzle, the true fun lies in finding your own unique way to read it.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Last, but certainly not least, it would be impossible to pen a post on uniquely formatted YA novels without including the literally out-of-this-world Illuminae, the first book in a standout sci-fi trilogy about a girl who breaks up with her boyfriend the same day their planet is invaded and must then work together with him in order to survive. Like the other titles on my list, I’ll warn you: Illuminae may contribute to loss of sleep and/or productivity. It subverts expectations and smashes genre walls with its combination of rollercoaster storytelling, epic emotional arcs, and seamlessly interwoven mixed-media (think hacked documents, medical records, surveillance footage, military reports, messages, maps, and more). Kady and Ezra? I’d follow you anywhere.

Jess Rothenberg is a writer and freelance editor who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. A former editor of books for young readers, including the #1 International Bestselling Vampire Academy series, Jess lives in New York City with her husband, son, and cat-who-thinks-he’s-a-dog, Charlie. Her debut novel for teens, The Catastrophic History of You & Me, has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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