As a person who writes about books (and a former bookseller) I have definitely honed and fine-tuned my book recommending skills to near perfection over the years. I've got my best handsells in my back pocket for anyone looking for something they might have missed in YA fantasy, or one of the all-time best, must-read contemporaries. I've got book comparisons for days, from adult to middle grade, fiction to non-fiction, and tons of "If You Like This, Read That" lists under my belt. Introducing someone to a book that you know they will love, one that might become one of their favorite books of all-time is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of being part of the bookish community.
But what's harder is to make those unexpected book recommendations; the books that, on the surface, might have nothing in common but in actuality would make ideal reading combinations for various reasons, from themes to settings, characters and atmosphere. If you can get someone who loves young adult to pick up a modern classic, or someone who is a literary fiction reader to grab a graphic novel... well, then you've helped broaden someone's reading horizons and open them up to more of the great lit out there. Below are seven unexpected and unconventional pairings that, with an open mind, will make for some seriously awesome reading experiences.
'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath and 'Ten Girls To Watch' by Charity Shumway
On the surface, you might think that a revered modern classic like The Bell Jar and an entry into the chick lit genre like Ten Girls To Watch would have nothing in common... and for the most part you'd be right. The Bell Jar is set in the 1950s and explores the dangers of women's inequality and female disillusionment, along with the realities of mental health, all set on the glittering backdrop of the glamorous world of magazines. But that's where Ten Girls To Watch comes in.
It also frames New York City and the publishing world as its backdrop, and follows another young woman trying to make it on her own. It even utilizes a magazine contest much like the one Plath herself once won and subsequently used as her inspiration for The Bell Jar. But here we get an uplifting tale of woman power, with diverse portrayals of those fierce and bright, lost and problematic, but overall supportive and supported, both by each other and themselves. It is interesting to compare these two portrayals of femininity, young professionals, and the different ways our lives can go when faced with adversity.
'Up To This Pointe' by Jennifer Longo and 'Everything I Never Told You' by Celest Ng
Up To This Pointe is a modern day YA about a girl whose lifelong dream to become a professional ballerina goes up in smoke... so she follows in her famous adventuring ancestor's footsteps and decides to leave home for six months to live in the dark of Antarctica. Everything I Never Told You is literary fiction, the portrait of a mixed-raced family in a small town in the 1970s. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
So, what do they have in common? Well, they are both about family, and the lies we tell each other. They are about the weight of expectations, and how we tell ourselves what we need to in order to survive. They are about young women and the obsession with perfection, and what happens when they discover that it can never be reached, and how that changes their lives forever.
'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood and 'Moxie' by Jennifer Mathieu
It's no secret The Handmaid's Tale has become a huge pop culture phenomena since the Hulu version of the story hit screens early this year. The celebrated dystopian novel is set in a terrifying future world in which women's rights have regressed so far that women are now Handmaids, paid based on the viability of their ovaries and expected to become pregnant and bear children for other families. Women cannot read. They cannot have jobs, families, or money of their own.
On the surface, The Handmaid's Tale has very little in common with Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu's YA novel inspired by the Riot Grrrls of the '90s. Vivian Carter is fed up with the sexist policies of her high school, and the sexist attitudes of the boys in her class. So she takes a page from her mother's past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously. But when other girls respond, she realizes she has started a revolution. But to read these two books back-to-back is to take a look at modern fights for female rights versus what could happen if we collectively, little by little, turn our backs on women.
'More Happy Than Not' by Adam Silvera and 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning' by Jonathan Mahler
Adam Silvera's More Happy Than Not was one of the biggest tear-jerkers of 2015. This speculative fiction YA follows a teen named Aaron Soto, who is dealing with the aftermath of his father's suicide and his own suicide attempt, while also grappling with his sexuality, his friendships, and his future. So what does that have to do with a non-fiction book about New York City in 1977? Nothing much on the surface. But both books capture the essence of the city at a very particular moment in time.
Silvera's book is set in the Bronx, a part of the city that is ever-changing and ever-remaining the same. His characters leap off the page with authenticity, and the book doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of inner-city life. Mahler's book does the same for the whole of New York City in the now legendary year of 1977... when Son of Sam was lurking, Yankees fans stormed the field, and the Bronx was literally burning during a blackout that plunged the entire city into darkness. If setting as character is your thing, you will love reading these together.
'Station Eleven' by Emily St. John Mandel and 'Speak Of Me As I Am' by Sonia Bolasco
Emily St. John Mandel's revered Station Eleven opens one snowy night when a famous Hollywood actor dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time, this novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony.
This literary dystopian landscape seemingly has no relation to the YA contemporary in Speak Of Me As I Am. But it follows Melanie and Damon who are both living in the shadow of loss. For Melanie, it’s the loss of her larger-than-life mother. For Damon, it is the loss of his best friend, Carlos. Through a staged production of Othello, the lens of Damon’s camera, and the strokes of Melanie’s paintbrush, the two teens find that, rather than moving on from their losses, they can learn to live with their sadness. Both books are about the power of art, the different ways a life can end, and how we can learn to live again.
'The Circle' By Dave Eggers and 'One Of Us Is Lying' by Karen McManus
Dave Eggers takes on an imagined future of social media in The Circle. Mae Holland can't believe her luck when she is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity. But soon a strange encounter with a colleague leaves Mae shaken and what begins as the story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon raises questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.
Karen McManus's YA mystery novel, however, looks at a group of high schoolers in detention. But one of them, Simon, never makes it out of that classroom. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates. These books may sound totally different but both take in-depth looks at the power of social media, the sometimes harmful effect of online personas and how we can become people we never meant to be.
'Juniper Lemon's Happiness Index' by Julie Israel and 'So Much I Want To Tell You' by Anna Akana
Julie Israel's YA contemporary follows Juniper Lemon, whose sister died unexpectedly 65 days ago. Then she finds the love letter: written by Camilla on the day of the accident, addressed mysteriously to “You,” but never sent. Desperate to learn You’s identity and deliver the message, Juniper starts to investigate. Until she loses something. A card from her Happiness Index: a ritual started by sunny Camie for logging positives each day. It’s what’s been holding Juniper together since her death... and this particular card contains Juniper’s own dark secret: a memory she can't let anyone else find out.
Anna Akana's collection of essays is dedicated to her younger sister, whom she lost to suicide in 2007. In So Much I Want to Tell You, Anna opens up about her own struggles with poor self-esteem and reveals both the highs and lows of coming-of-age with humor and heart. Though one is fiction and one is memoir, both explore the loss of a sister, how we cope with life after death, our own long journeys with mental health and stability, and the many lessons we can learn about ourselves, and about others, along the way.