Oregon, My Oregon: 10 Fantastic YA Books Set or Written in the Beaver State by Wendy Gassaway
I love how reading takes you places you’ve never been. But I also love reading something that I connect to. One way to connect is by reading a book set in your area, or even a book written by a local author. My students feel the same way. Here are ten books that make me proud to be an Oregonian–and that I love to hand to students.
1. The River Why by David James Duncan
One of my forever favorite books, this is a coming of age story. The beginning is hilarious, and then Duncan guides you into deeper and deeper reflection on faith, family, and the environment. The River Why focuses a lot on fishing, but I love the book despite my complete lack of interest in that activity. Set in the 1970s, most of the action takes place in the rainy Coastal Range, with a cameo appearance by the Otis Cafe just outside of Lincoln City.
2. The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream by Steve Wilson
Illuminating nonfiction. Wilson, a sports writer, spent a year with the all-Latino Woodburn Bulldogs soccer team as they worked towards their 20th straight state playoff game, hoping to not lose the championship to a wealthy white team yet again. Not written as YA, but of interest to teens.
3. Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman
Ginny, orphaned and living with cousins, is married at age 10 to a pioneer who wants the extra land a married man can claim. At aged 15, her husband comes to claim her. Luckily for Ginny (and the sensibilities of younger readers), he drops dead of a heart attack before their wedding night, and Ginny is suddenly a landowner.
4. Make Lemonade series by Virginia Euwer Wolff.
One of the first novels in verse I remember reading, this is set in the projects of Portland. LaVaughn is an earnest high school student who needs money for college, so she signs up as a babysitter for a teen mom named Jolly. The girls slowly form a friendship, and both learn some new things about life and themselves. I love the character of LaVaughn’s mother, strong, loving, and flawed, and I love seeing LaVaughn and Jolly stretch their wings and think new thoughts.
5. The Program series by Suzanne Young
One of my “reading is boring; I hate reading” students came into school one Monday morning, clutching this book in her hand and said, “I’m on chapter 19! This book is incredible! ” Young writes a dystopian teen romance in which a suicide epidemic has struck the U.S., and teenagers who show signs of depression are taken away for treatment, only to return cheerful, but without any memory of their previous lives. The romance angle is a little over-emphasized for me (and is a little steamy for younger readers), but it clearly appeals to teenagers. I enjoyed the prequel, The Remedy, more.
6. A Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin
How I adore this long-time Portland author. She’s written many other books, from picture books to children’s series to YA novels to adult sci fi, essays, short stories, poetry, and even historical fiction, but this is the series that I still recommend to middle schoolers. Ged is the ultimate anti-hero, prickly and confused. Tenar, introduced in the second book, is a young woman who has her entire life stolen from her twice, and still maintains her dignity and strength. The series now continues beyond the original trilogy. Le Guin is a feminist, a philosopher, and a poet, and this series showcases it all.
7. Roller Girl by VIctoria Jamieson
Roller Girl is a delightful graphic novel about a 12-year-old named Astrid discovering her place in the world through roller derby. She is an underdog on the team (which practices at Portland’s beloved Oaks Park), and she is drifting apart from her best friend. (Having gone through the “You’re not cool enough to be my friend anymore” devastation as a 6th grader, I found that storyline particularly poignant.) With the support of her mom, her teammates, and her roller derby idol, she toughs it out and grows a ton. Your students who loved Smile will probably love this.
8. Tiger’s Curse series by Colleen Houck
Ms. Houck had a nephew at my school, and offered to come talk to our students. She did a terrific job, told some great stories about herself and backstories about the novels, and left us with plenty of copies…or so we thought. Seven months later we still can’t keep them on the shelves, and kids who didn’t self-identify as readers at the beginning of the year have read all five “doorstop” books in the series. The series has to do with an Indian prince, cursed centuries ago into the form of a white tiger. A teenaged girl from Salem becomes first his keeper in the circus, then his escort back to India, then, as magic ensues, his true love.
9. Winger by Andrew Smith
Ryan Dean is smart, rich, awkward, funny, horny, a winger on his elite private school’s rugby team, and in love with an older woman–two years older, which is significant in high school. The book includes lots of graphics, lists, and charts. Most of it is funny, then it is horribly sad. Although describing the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, it reminds me somewhat of Diary of a Part-Time Indian. If your students are mature enough for the language and lewdness of that, they are ready for Winger.
10. Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor.
This fascinating fantasy series is set all over the world, but author Laini Taylor calls Portland home. Karou is an art student in Prague who loves to sketch imaginary monsters. But the creatures are real–they are her surrogate family. Then she meets Akiva, warrior angel, sworn enemy of her people, and all hell breaks loose. Also, romance. Taylor writes evocatively, with humor and great beauty.
Wendy Falconer Gassaway learned to read early because she couldn’t stand waiting for her big sisters to come home from school and read to her. Everything else–being a wife, mom, teacher, hiker, knitter, baker, traveler, and dogged optimist.–came after reading. She currently teaches middle school language arts in Forest Grove, OR and blogs at http://falconerslibrary.blogspot.com/.