When I finished the first draft of my first book, I added this lie to the bottom of my primordial draft of a query letter:
“It is a paranormal romance complete at 90,000 words.”
It was 90,000(ish) words. It was also complete. But was it a paranormal romance? Not so much.
The year was 2009, however, and until I finished my first draft of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, I didn’t even know what a paranormal romance was. At the time, I’d spent most of my life reading literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, with a brief sojourn into the wizarding world of Harry Potter so that I could have conversations with my then pre-teen brother who would talk about nothing else. But there I was, in the later stages of revision of my novel featuring ill-behaved teenagers who may or may not have supernatural abilities, and having read no YA novels at all—not even Twilight—that’s where I decided to start.
Reader, I loved it.
Twilight has been dissected and analyzed in thousands of reviews and think pieces in the thirteen years since it was first published, so to read my hot take on it now would probably not be…hot. But it was undeniably my gateway into the world of Young Adult fiction, and at the same time, introduced me to the beautifully elastic concept of genre within it.
I’d had limited experience with speculative fiction before then, but I had read a few sci-fi and fantasy classics, enough to be able to distinguish between those genres. But when I read Tithe by Holly Black next, and City of Bones by Cassandra Clare after that, and then Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray and on and on and on, I realized that the more YA I read, the less I understood what categories like ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘paranormal’ really meant. I didn’t even know that ‘romance,’ as a genre, meant that the couple was destined to have a happy ending. In other words, Like Jon Snow, I knew nothing.
Now? I’m still not quite sure about the subtle distinguishing characteristics of ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘paranormal’—all I know, really, is that both are grounded in our contemporary reality (as opposed to another planet, or Panem, or Westeros), but are nevertheless sprinkled with supernatural flavors (witches/ghosts/zombies/faeries/vampires, and/or superhuman powers). But while I still don’t have all the lit crit answers, I do have nine years of specific reading experience under my belt, so if you’re looking to dip a metaphorical, literary toe into the world of the supernatural, here’s where I would start:
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
One of my favourites, I discovered ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake because it was being published the same year as The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, and I was immediately intrigued by the premise. Main character Cas kills dead people—the ghost kind, not the zombie kind—and with his (literal) witch of a mother, he moves from town to town dispatching the dead until he comes across Anna, a ghost of a girl who just so happens to brutally murder anyone who steps foot into the house she haunts…until Cas. So naturally, he falls for her. Troubled couples are exactly my thing, and ANNA delivers on that front and so much more, featuring a cast of genre-savvy characters, with writing that swings from horror to humor and back again.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
The author Nova Ren Suma is one of YA’s most expert and gifted writers whose books tend to straddle the line between paranormal and magical realism. I adore them all, but I first fell in love when I read IMAGINARY GIRLS, a story about two sisters, a dead girl who isn’t one of them, and how the power of love can shape not just perception, but reality. It’s on the subtler side of the paranormal spectrum, but it was like nothing I’d ever read before, or have ever read since.
This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers
The Breakfast Club meets the zombie apocalypse would be the quick-and-dirty pitch for this powerful, evocative novel by Courtney Summers, but it doesn’t begin to capture its emotional weight, or the skill with which Courtney studies and renders the novel’s cast of six. If you like dark, smart, and twisty, this is the book for you.
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Undoubtedly, Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books are further along on the Urban Fantasy side of the spectrum, but they’re so engaging, fun, and impeccably researched, with possibly the greatest ensemble cast of characters in all of Young Adult literature that it would be criminal to leave it off the list. City of Bones is that rare debut novel where every reference has a payoff, every side character has a century (or more) of backstory, and is so accessible that readers can dive in to the world, take a break from it, and then pick the series back up again years later with a later sequel or companion novel (my personal fave is Clockwork Angel), and still be able to fall for the characters and follow the plot, without having read all of the novels in between (though you’ll absolutely want to—and be rewarded—if you do).
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Let’s get this out of the way—this book is not a Young Adult novel, but it is so delightful on every level that I’d be remiss not to include it. With one of the all-time greatest first chapters I’ve ever read, THE ROOK by Daniel O’Malley introduces Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas as she reads a letter to herself, from herself, which begins, “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” After Myfanwy wakes up in a London park with no memory and surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, readers share her journey to discover how she got there and who she is in a breathtakingly paced book that I can only describe as a smart, sharp, British version of ‘Men in Black’. So jump out of your YA comfort zone and pick it up—you won’t be sorry.