Top Ten YA Road Trip Novels by Ben Kuhlman
When the weather starts to warm up, the trees put their leaves back on, and the sun decides to stay up for more than just a few hours, many of us start to think about travel. There are just more places to go in the summer, more time to go there, and more desire to get out and look around.
In short, the summer is a great time for a road trip.
I’ve participated in a few of these, from family trips to Grandma’s house in Columbus, Ohio, with my five siblings packed (or maybe smashed) into a station wagon for three hours, to a 14-hour haul across seven states to our college Senior Trip in Myrtle Beach, to driving across the plains from Chicago to Denver (Nebraska is HUGE!). Road tripping (sorry, bear with me) is a staple of American life. So, it follows that it might be a staple of American YA fiction. We remember these trips because they so often aren’t merely empty time spent behind the wheel. Things happen on road trips – bizarre things, scary things, sad things, beautiful things. The trip itself is often part of the event, and part of the story we tell – and hear. So, here’s my best attempt at tipping my hat (metaphorically, of course) to some of my favorite YA Road Trips, and some that you might want to check out.
In reverse order of awesomeness:
10. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
I tried several “girly” road trip books, and many of them were disappointing for one reason or another. This book didn’t feel formulaic or Disney-esque. It was just a good story with some quirks, some fantastic Old World settings (which were not all uniformly positive or interesting, a nice way of making it feel more real), and two strong, distinct voices (the primary narrator, Ginny, and her crazy aunt who orchestrates this continental scavenger hunt). Perhaps some parts of this book are predictable – the introduction of the love interest, Keith, feels inevitable when it finally happens – but there are several false romances, and Johnson plays around with some of the expectations we have of her. The best feature of this book is how messy everything is. There are lots of loose ends, or problems that crop up during the trip. There are disappointments that are unresolved. The ending is disappointing but completely believable. And the characters are distinct and interesting. It’s a fun read, despite the sad premise, because the adventures feel real, and Ginny’s struggles are honest.
9. Savvy by Ingrid Law
This is probably the “cutest” book on the list, and the only one involving the use of fantastical “powers.” Perhaps this isn’t a pure road trip book, and it’s probably a stretch to call this book YA. But it has a solid, road-trippy premise and much of the material common to the type (new faces, growth or change played out through travel). So I’m including it. I like the quirky voice of this book a lot, and that goes a long way toward getting a sophisticated reader like myself (ha!) beyond the young characters and the mostly-PG rating. Mibs is a pleasant mix of naughty and nice, and her “savvy” is unusual – something that makes her uses of it unpredictable and interesting. And I like poor Lester – he’s such a hard-luck case that his turnaround (though predictable) is a lot of fun to watch. Throw in some mean bad guys, and it’s a fun story about a really crazy family on the run.
8. Chaos Walking/Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Okay, I’m cheating by putting this on a “road trip” list. But it’s a fantastic sci-fi series with a kind of Mark Twain/Huck Finn feel. With aliens. It has some rough parts, with some violence and some seriously dark themes. But most of the story is the story of a journey. And the main characters are discovering things and growing as they go. There is also a mystery (and some serious problems) to solve. It’s a great sci-fi road trip story, and Ness does a great job creating an unusual context with interesting, believable characters. We sci-fi nerds talk a lot about world-building, and this world is built strangely but well. I love the talking dog, Manchee, and I’m afraid of the Mayor and the preacher. Most fitting of all for this novel on this particular list, Todd is forced to change his entire way of thinking about the world. Perhaps all of the women in his town didn’t really die from the germ that makes men able to hear each other’s thoughts. (So what did happen to all the women? Hmmm. . . .) It’s a really original story, and a great example of a kind of road trip.
7. The Disenchantments by Nina Lacour
I really enjoyed this book, and I’m putting it on this list, though I’m worried that many of you reading this will try to read it and fail. I don’t know if this is an idiosyncratic, subjective choice, but I think it’s worth sharing because it’s such a nice imagining of a YA road trip. Basically, the main character (Colby) agrees to help drive his best friend (Bev) and the rest of her band around the Northwest on their last summer “tour” before the band moves on to college. Of course, Colby has a romantic interest in his “best friend,” and has for a long time. Of course, something goes wrong. Bev announces that she will not be accompanying Colby on the tour of Europe that they have been planning together for years. Instead, she will be moving on to college without him. Colby, crushed, betrayed, and with no plans for his future without the trip to Europe and the girl of his dreams, is forced to follow through with the band’s “tour,” despite this horrible disappointment. He gets petty, mean, and the rest of the band tries to cope. Lacour resists the temptation to make this story about musical genius – the band is terrible – and the choice is refreshing and fitting. The ending is a little uncertain but satisfying. But it’s a solid, interesting story with some unpredictable twists and turns that make this a fun take on road tripping. (It helps that it’s a rock band on tour through an interesting part of the country.)
6. Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
I’ve read other books by Joan Bauer and enjoyed them, so I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this one. But I sat down and read this book in one sitting, and it was great. A fantastic Road Trip novel if there ever was one. Jenna, the main character, is talked into driving her (female) employer from Chicago to Dallas, with stops at her shoe stores along the way. Of course, she becomes close with this woman, and the plot thickens nicely. Bauer is a master of the carefully-crafted simple sentence, and she manages to put together a positive, hopeful story that doesn’t feel sappy or cloying. This book is adorable in places, suspenseful and action-packed in places, and wrenching in places. Jenna struggles with her father’s alcoholism, and Bauer doesn’t dismiss or sugarcoat the suffering this entails. But it can be beaten. That’s the lesson here – despite the shoe-store main plot, the real story is about dealing with alcoholism, and Bauer tells that story clearly and honestly.
5. Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen
Adam Sandler made Tourette’s Syndrome into a joke, and I’m not sure that was a good thing. In this book, the main character, who has Tourette’s, starts a journey that helps him change from the “freak” who was teased and horribly bullied in high school to a mature, well-adjusted adult with a manageable disability. In the first half, he leaves his abusive step-father behind and moves into the “Old Coot’s” house to work in his landscaping business. In the second, he takes a Road Trip to Jerk, California, because his friend wanted him to, and because a beautiful young woman wants to go with him. It’s a good story, with some real conflict and internal struggle. The self-loathing and its gradual defeat really drives the novel, and Sam/Jack (he changes his name halfway through) fights constantly with himself, easily backsliding into despair, and losing control of himself at inopportune times. It’s a thoughtful, sensitive, and vivid portrait of a young man struggling to like himself when so few other people want to.
4. Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
This book is solid all the way around, with several interesting characters, an engaging setting and scenario, well-crafted plot twists, and a masterful sense of tone. This is a great road trip story because of the breadth of learning that the main character, Henry, goes through as he gets to know and understand Chay, the Cambodian refugee who is so badly mistreated by Henry’s prosperous New England community (and his older brother, Franklin, a leader in the abuse). This book is just so full of tension – in a good way – that it’s incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Poor Henry is tied up in knots, and his mixed feelings about his brother take a long time to unravel. Plus, the whole Mount Katahdin thing (which is also the end of the Appalachian Trail) is a nice goal for a Road Trip book.
3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
I read this while I was still in high school, and I didn’t die, so I’m going to call this YA. It’s a fantastic example of the road trip as philosophical and spiritual exploration, and it’s deep and probing. It’s a hard book, and I’m not sure that it’s a great book for most YA readers. I had a philosophy professor say to me once, “you should read this book once every four years.” I’ve tried to stick to that, and it’s been a different book for me every time. It’s about a father and son driving across the United States on a motorcycle, while telling the story of a philosopher/writing teacher, and making connections to motorcycles and taking care of machines. I’ve identified with the son, the father, and with the teacher at various points in my life, and I’ve always found time with this book to be well-spent. It’s a worthwhile challenge, in my humble opinion.
2. Whirligig by Paul Fleischman
This is a great book by an original YA author (also the author of Seedfolks, a similar kind of multi-voiced work of fiction about interconnectedness and community). It’s about a kid named Brent Bishop who makes a huge mistake that causes the death of an innocent young woman. He spends months traveling around the country building whirligigs – decorative, wind-powered weather-vane things – to atone for his terrible decision. Through a series of interlaced chapters, between Brent’s experiences traveling all over and building these things, and the chance encounters people have with his work and how it changes them, we find out about how one person’s actions can affect another, through good or ill. All of the chapters connect with Brent and his whirligigs. While some of the connections are serious and life-changing, and some are not, it is clear that Brent is changed as a result of the experience. It’s a strange reading experience, and the connections are not always immediate or close to each other. But they’re there. It gives Brent’s penance a weight or a kind of echo that it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s short, and dense, and challenging, and the collective weight of so many interlocking stories is imposing, perhaps even inspiring.
1. Abundance of Katherines/Paper Towns by John Green
I’m not ashamed to be a John Green fanboy. Both of these novels are fantastic in so many ways. Green has, in my opinion, become one of the best YA writers working today. Perhaps one of the best of any kind. Margo Roth Spiegelman fascinates me, not only because of her image at her school, but also because of the intricacy of her planning and the . . . ending. Her revenge before her disappearance in the beginning is breathtaking. Paper Towns is a kind of missing-persons mystery, and it culminates in a hilarious-yet-scary road trip that made me laugh, made me scared, and resolved the mystery in a satisfyingly ambiguous way (is that possible?). It’s true that the road trip comes late in this novel, but that doesn’t ruin its awesomeness. If that really is a problem, I added An Abundance of Katherines to this spot. It’s an earlier novel by the same author, almost as awesome as Paper Towns, and almost wholly about a road trip and extended stay. Heck, read both. They’re both worth it. If you don’t know John Green, he’s a master craftsman of teenage character and dialogue. Check him out.
This has been a fun task – hope you enjoyed reading the list, or maybe some of the books! I’m thinking about writing a post about writing this post . . . and about what didn’t make this list. Thanks for reading!
Mr. Kuhlman is a 7th grade Reading and Writing teacher in the Chicago area who loves to read, loves to talk about reading, and who wishes he could read in his sleep. He’s very proud to officially join the ranks of the Nerdy Book Club after years in training. He’s also a reading specialist, a member of the National Writing Project, a Reading Specialist, and a Skylanders fiend.