Blockbuster-Free Summer Reading Exchange

Welcome to the Blockbuster-Free Summer Reading Exchange (BFSRE)!

As Kerri described in her blog, we’re dedicating a whole YARN page (or more, if it becomes necessary) to the BFSRE.  We’ll recommend some of our favorite YA novels that are NOT blockbusters, which means NO “Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” or anything else on the New York Times Bestsellers list.  Listen, we love them, too–but they are not the point of this project; they don’t need our help.

But our staff is just here to get the ball rolling.  Really, we want YOU, Readers, to tell us what lesser-known YA YOU are reading, or what you have loved, and why, using the Comments section on the page.  Please consult the current NYT Bestsellers list to make sure your suggestion isn’t on it, and try to stay away from classics like Judy Blume or S.E. Hinton, too, since obviously those are perennial blockbusters in their own way.  Also, if you are a writer, please don’t just post about your own book–we’d love to hear your recommendations about other books, and if you happen to add the url to your own book in your signature, we promise not to delete it 🙂

Remember, part of the point here is to bring attention to writers and books that haven’t gotten enough of it.  We hope, also, that a dialogue will start on the page about these books, and why we love them, so please respond to others’ posts.

Bring it on!

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48 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Kerri says:

    “Flygirl” by Sherri L. Smith is an inspiring story of Ida Mae Jones, who wants more than anything to fly airplanes like her father. When the USA gets into WWII, she has her opportunity to do it with a group of eleite women flyers–but she has to pass for white in order to do it. This love of flying, this passion, costs Ida Mae–and I found her plight riveting.

  2. […] the idea of YARN’s Blockbuster-Free Summer Reading Exchange. They’re collecting summer reading suggestions that aren’t the big […]

  3. Lourdes says:

    I think one of the great things that makes this a blockbuster-free novel is the cover. Usually, the books that want to be blockbusters have girls in sweeping dresses, or grass, or both. This book has the face of a determined colored girl (and more novels with varying racial protagonists be it African American or Hispanic or Asian should be feature on covers) who wants to prove something and it is obvious what her goal is. The cover is direct and not ambiguous at all. It knows what it is about and stands behind it a hundred percent.

  4. Hannah says:

    I’m really super enjoying the Stork series (trilogy) by Wendy Delsol, currently. I love fairy tales retold in contemporary settings, but I get tired of reading Cinderella and the other classic Grim tales in 10,000 different forms. This series instead takes the lesser known Icelandic fairy tales (like Jack Frost, Yule Cats, Snow Queen) which makes it fresh, unpredictable, and culturally interesting. Also, the voice of the main character, Kat, is just hilarious and snarky. Even though the third book is coming out this summer nobody has heard of it! I love it!

  5. Hannah says:

    Also! I just looked up one my all time favorites on goodreads and cannot BELIEVE only 32 people rated it. TOGETHER APART by Dianne E. Gray is a fantastic historical fiction novel that focuses upon the aftermath of the “School Children’s Blizzard,” a huge storm that hit the American plains on January 12, 1888. A two-narrator story–Isaac, an honest and resourceful young man with an evil stepfather, and Hannah, a plucky, stubborn, wanderlust girl—where they trade off the first person perspective in each chapter, it’s a coming of age story where both move out of their parents house at 16 and are learning how to be independent. There’s a good love story and great insight into a little known chapter of history. I reread it every year and can’t believe people are missing out!

  6. Pam says:

    For a fresh, new YA novel, try “Set in Stone,” by Beth Balmanno. It’s about a young girl struggling through her teen years with a distant mother, and over-worked father and a best friend that has moved away. She finds an interesting stone in the woods which leads her on a quest to discover its origin, and in the process, meets two very handsome boys. It’s a real page-turner!

  7. Kerri says:

    These are great suggestions, Hanna and Pam! TOGETHER APART particularly appeals to me… Looking forward to more!

  8. Lourdes says:

    Pam and Hannah,

    These books sound uber-interesting, and this is the first time I have heard of them. I have a query though – How did you find them? I usually found the great, non-discussed books by simply browsing the YA shelves in my local library and once the librarian noticed my interest in YA she and I would discuss different books and what each of us should be reading.

    Also, Hannah I also have read books that have very few votes on Goodreads. It just blows my mind sometimes.

    Thanks for sharing ladies.



    For some reason these books remind me of “A Heart Divided” though they little in common all have strong plots and well rounded characters:

  9. Pam says:

    Lourdes, I downloaded “Set in Stone” when it was offered free on Amazon. It’s only available right now as an ebook. You can look at Beth Balmanno’s FB page, however, and see when it will be available in print–I remember seeing that it was coming soon.

  10. Lourdes says:

    Thanks Pam. I think many people now discover under-the-radar YA through e-books/Kindle. I guess my description now sounds entirely old fashioned but which one is more preferable? Does one benefit the writer more than the other? If there is pre-publication buzz does this up the sales when it is released as a physical copy? I just think this topic goes hand in hand with non-blockbuster novels. Because one wonders: Why are these books not blockbusters?

  11. Lourdes says:

    One of my favorite YA novels of late that really deserves more attention is Natalie Standiford’s “How to Say Goodbye in Robot.” I mean the title alone is sufficient reason to pick up with wonderful book, but the book design is amazing. The pale pink dominates the sides of the pages and (if I remember rightly) the first page of every new chapter. But the best part is the relationship between Bea and Jonah. It is so complicated, interesting, and refreshing. You want the book to end a certain way and it does not. It ends in a much better way. It is like a YA version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” excerpt with radio codenames involved. I hope you all check it out.

  12. Lourdes says:

    YA graphic novels in the last few years have been slowing getting more mainstream attention. Due partly to blockbuster authors adapting their works into GN form (Stephanie Meyer and Meg Cabot come to mind), but mainly because there are some fantastic stories out there. One example is Richard Sala’s “Cat Burglar Black.” This is a colorful, quirky, mystery driven fantastic read about K. Westree and her pilfering ways- ways she tries to escape but can’t seem to. The well-drawn out (in both senses of the phrase) characters will lure you in and trap you in the entrancing plot until the very end.

    What graphic novels do you think deserve more recognition?

  13. Beth says:

    Kerri — so funny! I *just* picked up Flygirl from the library the other day! Haven’t cracked it open yet but plan to soon.

  14. I have three, is that OK? Two of them are part of the same series.

    Cruddy by Lynda Barry is one of the most fun and interesting books I’ve ever read. It’s insanely good and you don’t see too much YA horror out there that isn’t Goosebumps related. Cruddy is dark and AMAZING.

    Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler are both interesting post apocalyptic stories about a young woman discovering that her religious views are different than those of her parents / the larger world, and learning how to survive in a world that is unfriendly to diversity and education. These are fantastic books that are hauntingly similar to a world we are escalating towards and were written in the 90s back before we had some of the problems we have now.

  15. Lourdes says:

    Thanks Robert!

    These sound awesome. I have a warm spot for 90’s YA. I agree that there is not much of YA horror out there and if there is it is very underground. Also, YA tackling religious issues are always interesting to read. In the last few years more books covering this topic has been released which is great.

  16. Mike McDonnell says:

    Dennis Cooper’s “My Loose Thread” is among the most unflinching portraits of teenage angst and confusion that I’ve ever come across. The story follows Larry, a high school student who has been paid by a senior to kill a younger classmate and retrieve the boy’s notebook which contains intimate information about Larry and his peers. As a narrator, Larry is fascinating in that he makes no attempt to appear reliable, but merely seems to be struggling to make sense of his own actions and the events unfolding around him.

    In 120 pages, Cooper manages to address issues such as incest, chemical dependency, mental illness, parental neglect, and sexual identity while depicting characters that are chillingly real. This is also the only YA novel I know of that responds to the events of Columbine. Not exactly light summer reading. Not exactly for the faint of heart, but immensely powerful in its simplicity.

  17. I read The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner earlier this summer and it was so good! I’m an English teacher, and I would totally use this book as a whole class novel. It would also make an excellent pairing text for Of Mice and Men.

    Description from Amazon:

    While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, Scooter, is dying from a freak disease. The Scoot’s final wish is that Nick and their quirky classmate, Jaycee Amato, deliver a prized first-edition copy of Of Mice and Men to the Scoot’s father. There’s just one problem: the Scoot’s father walked out years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. So, guided by Steinbeck’s life lessons, and with only the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off to find him.

  18. Lourdes says:


    When you decided to make this your BFSRE book I was instantly intrigued, It sounds very interesting, especially with how much you describe going on in such a small amount of pages.

    In response to your statement that this is the only YA novel you know that responds to Columbine, I would like to change this fact and introduce you to a few more that kind of go down the same vein:

    Bullyville by Francine Prose (Yup she writes YA too.)

    Hate List by Jennifer Brown

    Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (Yes, I know this was marketed as adult but it has been sneaking its way into YA shelves since its release.)

    Readers, I bet you can come up with many more.


    I am absolutely jealous that you read “The Pull of Gravity.” I have been wanting to read that for some time and have not. ARRRR. Also, I wish I were in your English class because discussing YA in such an environment would be a dream come true. I recently stumbled across this book, “Hemingway’s Girl” by Erika Robuck, which sounds like something that could be paired with any Hemingway novel in a classroom setting. But this book does not come out until September. Blurg.

  19. Tamsin says:

    I’d definately recommend “Losing Face” by Annie Try to anyone. Cass, desperate to impress the boy she likes, agrees to ride in his car. He takes her on a wild joyride, culminating in a terrible accident. The book is about Cass and her best friend Em and how they move on after the accident. It’s a very good read and I’ve re-read it several times because I love it so much.
    Also if you like fantasy, I’d recommend “The Elementals” by Cathy Boyle. Simon has always loved the earth, but he never dreamed that it meant anything. When he meets the mysterious Delver, he discovers that he has the power to control earth and a mission which he must embark upon immediately- with the aid of the bully who has always made his life a misery.

  20. Lourdes says:


    Firstly, great name.

    Secondly, awesome book choices. I have not heard of either one.

    I am loving BFSRE. It continues to reaffirm how much I do not read!


  21. Shannon says:

    Hi Yarn-ers!

    “Red Scarf Girl” is an oldie-but-goodie YA novel set during China’s cultural revolution. I read this book back in 1999, and its strong imagery, intense setting, and compelling main characters have stuck with me for all these years. It’s also an excellent piece of historical fiction and a great primer on the emotional toll of the cultural revolution.

    Happy reading!

  22. I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan. 
    This is a beautiful, brilliantly written novel that everyone should read. 

  23. Two books by Benjamin Alire Saenz–Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood (2004) and Last Night I Sang to the Monster (2009). Both were published by the amazing small press Cinco Puntos Press.

  24. Christen Gresham says:

    How to Say Goodbye in Robot is one of my favorite lesser known YA novels and possibly one of my favorite YA novels period. But I can see that one has already been mentioned…

    The Half Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin is a lesser known off-beat love story that I have read recently and really enjoyed. It’s like a slightly quirkier Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

    See you at Harry’s by Jo Knowles is a book I randomly grabbed at the library. It is beautifully written. It broke my heart. Read it.

  25. Jessica says:

    What great recommendations, here! There are so many great Blockbuster-Free YA books published that I tend to get fan-girly about – I think this is because I am a realism lover – lately, anything without a dystopian vampire-angel traveling through time plot tends to fly under the radar, and so I get super excited when I find a great realism author I’ve never heard of.

    One of my favorite new YA authors is Morgan Matson, Matson writes romantic realism – think Sarah Dessen’s not-so-Blockbustery little sister. I fell hard for Matson’s 2010 Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, a road trip story where two teens deviate from a parent-mandated cross-country map, taking little adventures across the West and Midwest and kind of falling in love. Also, there are playlists – always a quick way to my heart!

    And if you like Amy and Roger, you’ll definitely want to check out Matson’s latest, Second Chance Summer. I don’t want to talk about it here, because the ending made me weep openly while riding public transportation, but it’s just as good.

  26. Many of my favorites fall into the category of novels-in-verse. I just find that these books are so personal and moving. They are easy, quick reads, but ones that stay with you long after you finish them. A few of my faves include “What My Mother Doesn’t Know” by Sonya Sones, “Planet Middle School” by Nikki Grimes, “On Pointe” by Lorie Ann Grover and “Ludie’s Life” by Cynthia Rylant. These authors have inspired me so much, I have become a poet who specializes in young adult poetry as well, with my new book, “Not Afraid to Be Real”,

  27. Kerri says:

    Thanks for all the latest posts!

    Christen–so funny you mentioned “See you at Harry’s,” because I was going to log on myself and add it. Wonderful, and yes–have the tissues ready!!!

  28. Taylor says:

    I absolutely LOVED “Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel” by Michaela MacColl. I generally don’t care for historical fiction, but I read this book straight through in one sitting. As a librarian, I frequently recommend it as one of my favorites… although I might need to stop mentioning the historical fiction part, or no one is ever going to give it a try. I reviewed it on a YA book blog a while back. If you’re interested in the review, check it out here:

  29. Lourdes says:

    Hello All,

    Thank you so much for participating. There are over twenty recommended books thus far and out of all of them I have read maybe three, which means this list is doing its job! Help us spread the word so we can double the list and highlight YA that needs more recognition.


  30. Colleen says:

    I completely agree with you about novels-in-verse. And while they’re often quick reads — which is my summertime criteria — they certainly aren’t fluff. I love how Sonya Sones and Nikki Grimes tackle meaty, complex issues in their verse. Check out Samantha Schutz, too, who’s also a master at writing thought-provoking plots. We’ve been lucky enough to feature all three here on YARN. (Check out our Poetry and Interview archives.)

  31. Colleen says:

    If watching the Olympics has put you into a London-mood, here’s my BFSRE recommendation: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff.

    I’ll admit, it’s not strictly YA and it’s something of a classic — but in the 70s. So, many of you probably haven’t heard of it before. (Though there is a movie that you can probably Netflix.)

    Summer read qualifications:
    –You can read the book in under an hour while you’re out on the beach.
    –It’s retro. The characters are a book lover and a bookseller who write letters about the book orders (before the days of email and Amazon).
    –It’s funny and sweet…and might feed your need to visit literary London.

  32. The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez is a compelling and little told story of refugees fleeing Castro’s Cuba. I loved this story of courage, adjustment, and family relationships. It’s also a story of a young girl who learns to take care of herself after relying on her strong-willed mother for most of her life.

    Another book I keep thinking about is Stupid Fast by Herbach Geoff. This book has a a superbly strong voice, portraying an endearing teenage boy simultaneously dealing with adolescent anxieties and a family crisis.

  33. Michele Tallarita says:

    The book that shot into my mind was “Among Others” by Jo Walton. It’s a really excellent coming-of-age tale about a girl who has just escaped to boarding school after her (nasty, evil, dark-magic-using) mother tries to kill her. What’s great about this book is the magic system: it’s different than any I’ve come across, and it manages to use fairies in a way I didn’t totally despise (I usually think fairies are lame). Not only that, the protagonist just feels real. She’s quirky, confident, and crazy about books, most of which she talks about and many of which (if you’re a SF/fantasy lover) you will recognize. Quite simply, this book enchanted me, and I still think about it often a year after reading it.

  34. Allen Zadoff says:

    I’m having fun with two very different YA reads this month. The first is Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Karo, the description of which begins “Chuck Taylor’s OCD has rendered him a high school outcast.” What can I say? He had me at OCD. Aaron is a great new comic voice.

    My next book is Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas. Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies in a virus-infected high school. It’s dark, it’s smart, it’s action layered with social commentary. In short, it’s awesome. But if word gets out, it might lose its Blockbuster Free status, so don’t blame me if it drops off this list.

  35. Arlaina says:

    And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky…. I know it’s a little weird for me to suggest it but, why not! Thanks so much for all you do for YA!

  36. Andy Starowicz says:

    I have two favorites – “The Pull of Gravity” by Gae Polisner and “The Beginning of After” by Jennifer Castle “The Pull of Gravity” is a beautifully written story about two teenagers on a quest for a dying friend. During the adventure to help Scooter, who is dying from a disease, Nick and Jaycee form a unique friendship that will have young adult readers turning the pages. This is a gem that can’t be missed as you prepare your young adult classroom library.

    Jennifer Castle hit a grand slam (I don’t know why I used a baseball term – I don’t even like baseball) with her first novel entitled “The Beginning of After”. Laurel’s (the main character) life changes dramatically when she learns that her family has been killed in a car accident. The sixteen-year-old struggles to put the pieces of her life back together after the horrific accident. Her grandmother and friends are there for her, but she wonders if they really understand the feelings that she is coping with as she searches for closure. Like “The Pull of Gravity”, this novel must have a space for it in your classroom library.

  37. Some of these are awesome recommendations. A few of them I totally agree with, and some I’ve never heard of and can’t wait to read!

    Like a couple other commenters, I loved How to Say Goodbye in Robot. The relationship between Bea and Jonah was so complex and heartbreaking. And I really enjoyed Lexapros and Cons, too.

    A couple under-the-radar books I’ve really enjoyed:

    Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway. Audrey breaks up with her boyfriend, he writes a song about her, said song rockets to the top of the charts and Audrey is suddenly famous against her will. Witty voice, cute romance, and a really unique concept. It’s not groundbreaking, but as a contemporary romance, it is one of my favorites.

    Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. Sam’s mom has cut ties with their Sikh family, and Sam grows up knowing little about her cultural heritage. When her uncle shows up unannounced, in the wake of 9/11, she begins to learn about her Sikh heritage, despite her mother’s objections. It’s an interesting story that explores the racism and ignorance that came out after the tragedy, and shows Sam coming to terms with her religious identity.

  38. Kerri says:

    What fantastic suggestions! Thanks everyone for keeping them coming!

  39. Kerri says:

    Also, so interesting about the resounding love of How to Say Goodbye in Robot–it’s kind of a wonder it’s NOT a blockbuster!

  40. Hillary G says:

    I love Gabrielle Zevin’s books but, as one of her books was in the running for the NPR YA 100, I’m not sure if they count. However, her debut novel, Elsewhere, is probably my favorite book of all time. It deals with death and the afterlife and is reminiscent of The Lovely Bones, but far more palatable in my opinion. Her newest book, All These Things I’ve Done, is part of (yet another) YA dystopian series but is fairly unique. The story surrounds the life of Anya, daughter of a deceased mob boss, and is set in America during 2083. I would recommend both books!

  41. Julia says:

    Wow, I’m loving all these suggestions! Here’s another British pick: Skellig by David Almond. Mr. Almond’s writing is minimalist and beautiful. Short chapters. No words wasted. So elegant.

    Looking forward to more suggestions. Keep them coming!

  42. I just finished “Such a Rush” by Jennifer Echols and loved it. Also, “Invincible Summer” by Hannah Moskowitz, “The Clearing” by Heather Davis, and the amazingly beautiful “Imaginary Girls” by Nova Ren Suma!

  43. Lourdes says:

    We are up to 40 books! YAY! This is such a fantastic list featuring books that really encapsulate what YA is about. (It makes me so giddy.) Let us get to 50 books! Spread the word!


  44. Julia says:

    All righty, here’s an author I just absolutely love: Diana Wynne Jones. Her most well-known book in the United States is probably Howl’s Moving Castle, but she has written so many others that deserve to be read. I’d suggest starting with her Chrestomanci series, the first of which is Charmed Life. It’s stand-alone, but if you like it, there are five more books and a few short stories set in the same world. In the stories, Chrestomanci is a government-employed, nine-lived enchanter who oversees all the magic in the Related Worlds. Escapades ensue!

  45. Ice by Sarah Beth Durst could use more attention, it was a stunningly portrayed book. Very magical. I’m also currently reading Lady of Devices by Shelley Adina, which has a 17-year-old protagonist (the first in a steampunk series). I believe that would pass for YA also. Great prose, detailed and whimsical.

  46. Ivana says:

    Louis Sachar’s “The Cardturner: A Novel About a King, a Queen, and a Joker” is a one-of-a-kind literary gem. Nestled within a bridge tournament we find an unraveling story of our protagonist’s uncle Lester’s personal life which may or may not have much to do with a certain Toni Castaneda. The protagonist, Alton Richards, is one of those characters you can’t help but fall in love with a la Holden Caulfield. The writing style is breezy, and Sachar provides readers an option to skip the “boring bridge stuff” and just continue with the action. I especially enjoyed parts of dialogue that had layers of meaning, such as this lovely snippet:

    “Well, it’s probably just as well you can’t see me,” Lucy said. “I don’t look like myself anymore.”
    “Have you ever looked like yourself?” he asked her.
    Lucy laughed and said, “No,” but then changed her mind and said, “Once.”

    Peppered with witty humor and intrigue, “The Cardturner” is a great end-of-summer read.

  47. Maria says:

    I have a few I have read lately that I absolutely love, so I hope it’s okay to list more than one.

    Doomed by Tracy Deebs

    Pretty Girl 13 by Liz Coley

    What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen (I read this well over a month ago and still get chills when I think about it)

    & for the zombie lovers:
    Fatal by T.A. Brock

  48. Sandra says:

    Guy Langman, Crime Scene Investigator by Josh Berk. A funny mystery about a teen and his friends in a school Forensics Club, as they investigate a possible murder which may have a connection to Guy’s late father. This is perfect for students entering high school. The voices of the students are so true. Also try his book The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin.

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