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I started this last decade a few hours before most of you—sitting in my parent's backyard in New Zealand, I slopped some more not-quite-champagne into my glass, reflecting upon the fact that I would never ever have to go to high school again and anticipating the beginning of university in February, where I would, by some mysterious alchemical process, become a full independent and grown-up woman—but hopefully not a boring one who stopped liking everything fun, like reading.

As it turned out, I kept the love of the literature of my teenage years, and a high point of the next decade's beginning will be the publication of my own young adult novel. In between, I have read some damn good books. In the grand and lazy tradition of end-of-year columnists everywhere, here are my personal favourite SFF young adult books of the decade. (Not, I hasten to add, a "best of" list. This is almost bound to reveal more about my reading prejudices than it is the relative quality of books on and off the list.)

Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2002)

This story, notable for terrifying adults and entertaining children, is a concise, imaginative tale of loneliness and curiosity, and their possible consequences.

Protagonist Coraline is one of my favourite heroines. She's independent and practical-minded, but open to the possibilities of a mysterious house and a secret door, and I don't blame her for being seduced by the other world she finds, since her real parents are obnoxiously neglectful. The Other Mother, with her black button eyes, is one of Gaiman's creepiest creations, and Coraline's triumph over her is not only an ethical tour-de-force, but a triumph of stubbornness, a much underrated quality in young people.

Runaways, Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphona (2003-2007)

So, no shit, there you are, hiding with a group of your buds and watching your loving parents murder a girl only a couple of years older than you in a ritual sacrifice to a bunch of old gods. Then you run away, discover your superpowers, defeat your parents, save the world, and then have to cope with avoiding the authorities who want to separate you from your friends and put you in the system and clearing up some of the messes of the power vacuum your parents left behind.

This would be an excellent time to fall in love.

The strength of Vaughan's run on this comic book (I like the Joss Whedon and Terry Moore runs much less) is the skillful mix of superhero adventures and the complexities of adolescent life, with a resulting metaphorical richness that's probably closest to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "High School is Hell."

Moreover, although both superhero comics and young adult SFF have trouble with their general lack of characters of colour, queer relationships, and interracial relationships, Runaways doesn't hesitate to include them all. Vaughan writes with a complete lack of preachy fanfare, yet acknowledges that being outside the norm isn't the same as complying with it. Awkward adolescent love, for example, gets even harder for Karolina when she's struggling between her love for her genderqueer girlfriend Xavin and her still powerful crush on her gothic best friend, Nico. That Karolina's a light-powered alien princess, Xavin, a shapechanging Superskrull-in-training, and Nico, a staff-wielding witch, are almost incidental to her angst, but it definitely adds a lot of superpowered punch to the witty dialogue and fast-paced plots.

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff (2004)

Some might query the inclusion of this deceptive little novel on a list of SFF books. And yes, the main science fictional element is matter-of-factly subsumed into a stark narration of young people in wartime, and the conflicts and deprivation of living in a conquered (Western) nation.

But though the psychic abilities of protagonist Daisy's cousins might seem incidental to the story, they are integral to its thematic underpinnings. This is a story that asks what it is to be emotionally human. How much empathy can we bear? When does emotional interconnectedness become torture? How much can we stand to know about each other? And is love possible, even then?

This is a thinky wee book, but it should not be read directly before one travels to England to stay with relatives. One regretted that quite a lot.

Peeps, Scott Westerfeld (2005)

Others might vote for Westerfeld's Uglies series to be on this list, but although I like fast-paced adventures in a post-apocalyptic world as much as the next girl, if the next girl likes them a whole lot, this book features a) a pre-apocalyptic world in the process of getting more apocalyptic, and b) vampires.

Westerfeld's version of Our Vampires Are Different is fantastic—vampirism is caused by a parasite, with a number of delightful symptoms including psychotic strength, light-sensitivity, and an aversion to things previously significant in the victim's former life, such as religious icons, the company of friends and family, or Elvis memorabilia. Fortunately for Cal, he's only a carrier of the parasite. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people seem to be getting infected, and the end of the world as we know it is well and truly nigh.

As a bonus, Westerfeld includes numerous instructive and revolting facts about parasites, and is directly responsible for me singing the happy birthday song in full whenever I wash my hands.

Valiant, Holly Black (2005)

Tithe was the first in the Modern Faerie Tale series, but Valiant is my favourite in the loosely linked series and its surly, street-living, sword-wielding heroine Val is my favourite Black-created character.

Valiant doesn't shy away from depicting the rougher details of life for some kids with strength and clear-eyed empathy. Betrayed about nineteen million times by everyone she trusts, Val takes to the subway tunnels, to a scavenger's life of addiction, and eventually makes herself a dirty kind of redemption among other human and non-human outcasts in this distinctly non-Disney-approved tale of Faerie.

American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang (2006)

A gorgeous blend of legends, magic, and contemporary culture clash, this beautiful graphic novel ties its three apparently separate narratives into a fantastic payoff. It explores the complexities of identity and self-making with wit and depth, presents a hideously offensive stereotype of a Chinese kid to excellent purpose, and has a lot of pee jokes.

Naturally, I love it.

Rapunzel's Revenge, Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale (2007)

This graphic novel is a fun-filled romp starring the very determined and likeable Rapunzel, who defies her witchity adopted mother and is imprisoned in a tree-tower for her troubles. What follows is a quest story of overthrowing the wicked old witch, filled with humour, adventure, and the cutest friendship-to-love narrative I'd read in a long time, without any patronizing princes.

Plus, Rapunzel has weaponised her hair.

Set in a fictionalized fantasy-style American Wild West, but with much more attention paid to the ethnic makeup of the real Wild West than much purportedly "historical" fiction manages, Rapunzel's Revenge is one of my very favourite fairy tale retellings.

Tales of Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan (2008)

Here's a fun experiment, particularly if you haven't encountered Tan's weird, gorgeous artwork and precise sense of timing before. Take Tales of Outer Suburbia onto a train or bus or other form of public transport. Read "Eric," a whimsical story about a little foreign exchange student and the difficulty of cross-cultural communication. Turn to the final two-page spread.

When you start crying, try to allay the concerns of your fellow passengers with your wide, joy-filled smile.

(You can read/view "Eric" in full online, but it's really much better on the page.)

Here Tan proves that his skill at "drawering" extends to the written word, with these polished, well-crafted stories showcasing the weird, uncanny, shadowy, and gorgeous possibilities that lie just beyond the calm facades of suburbia. It's a common enough theme, but the combination of illustration and text, with each carrying the narrative and mood as appropriate, makes this book uniquely unforgettable.

The Demon's Lexicon, Sarah Rees Brennan (2009)

An urban fantasy with an underlying premise that is excellent, but unfortunately so spoiler-ridden that I cannot even hint at it, Rees Brennan's debut novel takes the brooding, dark, ever-so-slightly sociopathic hero of gothic romance and turns him inside out, telling the story from his disturbing point of view. Filled with things apparently purpose-built to make me go "oooh," The Demon's Lexicon is a heady mix of brash teenagers, awesome ladies, daddy issues, brotherly bonding, demon dancing, black magic, sexy hot times, and revenge served cold.

Book I Can't Tell You About, Author Who Will Kill Me (2009)

There's a book that should be on this list, but I can't name it because even including it could be considered a spoiler. It was certainly a great book! Full of words! There were some characters who did some things! If you are going "Aha!" then yes, that one. And if you aren't, my apologies, but I couldn't leave it out.

Happy reading! I hope you have/have had great holidays of whatever kind you celebrate. As for me, I plan to enjoy myself immensely: it's summer in New Zealand, and my parents still keep a lot of not-quite-champagne.

Karen Healey teaches high school, writes genre fiction, and ignores her dishes in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her most recent publication is "Where We Walk, We Walk on Bones", in the NZ sff anthology Monsters in the Garden.
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17 Jan 2022

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