The term "B-side" is an old-fashioned record-speak way of distinguishing the big hit or hits of an artist or band from their more obscure work. In the old, old, old days, you might get a two-sided vinyl single or a cassette tape: The "A-side" featured the mainstream, popular song; the "B" had tunes you might not have even heard on the radio, but when you gave them a listen, often you found you quite liked them, maybe even better than the billboard hits on side A. Sometimes such songs were compiled into entire B-side albums, which superfans of a band could add to their comprehensive collections. Inspired by that turn of phrase, we have sought out the best "B-sides" of some of your favorite Y.A. and children's authors.
Often these are also successful, award-winning books in their own right, but for whatever reason they simply haven't achieved quite the same level of fame as some of their authors' other works. That doesn't mean they're not worth reading, or even, in some ways, better than the more popular books. Before there was The Hunger Games trilogy and the widespread fervor (and Mockingjay pins, as per the photo above), that ensued, for instance, Suzanne Collins was a writer for children's TV, working on Nickelodeon shows Clarissa Explains It All and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, among other programs. She also wrote a middle-grade series called The Underland Chronicles, the first book of which, Gregor the Overlander, came out in 2003. It's been critically acclaimed and reader approved, but it's hardly matched the sales or fan frenzy of The Hunger Games. Then again, not much has.
As explained in her website bio, "Thinking one day about Alice in Wonderland, she was struck by how pastoral the setting must seem to kids who, like her own, lived in urban surroundings. In New York City, you’re much more likely to fall down a manhole than a rabbit hole and, if you do, you’re not going to find a tea party. What you might find...? Well, that’s the story of Gregor the Overlander, the first book in her five-part fantasy/war series, The Underland Chronicles."
The Chronicles begin when Gregor, an 11-year-old boy, must follow his 2-year-old sister, Boots, whom he's babysitting, down a grate in their apartment building's laundry room. To their surprise, they land in a full-fledged underground world, full of "Underlanders" (people who don't quite look like Gregor and his sister), as well as rats, bats, giant cockroaches, and other threatening entities. Gregor must find his way back to the world of the Overlanders—to stay in the Underland would mean certain death—but how to do it presents some complications. If you love The Hunger Games, it's a fair bet you'll love the Gregor books, too. There are similar themes: Children forced to become adults too soon, missing fathers, bonding between younger and older siblings. There's also that Collins-esque savvy with regard to writing about varying social classes and about things that might be dark and scary, even fatal. The series skews younger than The Hunger Games, but Collins' skill at creating fully realized fantasy worlds for her characters (and readers) to explore is as evident here as it is in the land of Panem. Here's an excerpt via NPR, from 2005.
Markus Zusak came to the attention of a lot of readers with his 2006 Y.A. novel, The Book Thief, featuring the great girl character of Liesel Meminger, who steals books, learns how to read, and is pitted against the character of Death in Germany during World War II. But Zusak also wrote the 2002 book I am the Messenger, which some fans profess to love even more The Book Thief. From the book's description:
Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . .
Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?
Zusak fans: You can read an excerpt here.
Going back a bit further, obviously, you know Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It's part of a whole series, though, featuring Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe and Charles Wallace and the twins, called the "Kairos" stories; these include A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters (the first-generation books) followed by a number of second-generation books that feature the children of Meg and Calvin, the O'Keefe family. L'Engle also has the "Chronos" stories, the series that begins with Meet the Austins. When you're done with all of those, you can try the Katherine Forrester series, the Camilla Dickinson books, and any of L'Engle's single titles. She was prolific.
Sandie Angulo Chen, who blogs about Y.A. literature at the website Teen Lit Rocks, recommended "Maggie Stiefvater's early faerie books (Lament and Ballad), even though she's much better known for the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races. Oh, and before she hit it big with her If I Stay and Where She Went books, Gayle Forman published a much smaller but well liked novel Sisters in Sanity," says Chen. Another pick: "Aussie author Melina Marchetta won a Printz Award for On the Jellicoe Road, which most readers would agree is her contemporary Y.A. magnum opus, but I'm also partial to her other prep-school-based book Saving Francesca." Perhaps you should read them all: "Once you've read both Jellicoe and Francesca, you're well grounded in the themes and couples Marchetta explores in her lush fantasy series The Lumatere Chronicles," she tells us.
Of course you know Ann M. Martin, author of the incredibly successful series The Baby-Sitters Club. But did you know she wrote several other novels, including A Corner of the Universe, which won a Newbery Honor? Similarly, Judy Blume may have written Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, Blubber, and Forever, but she also wrote Iggie's House and Then Again, Maybe I Won't (along with quite a few others you may have forgotten). Beverly Cleary has a number of works outside of the Ramona series we grew up on. Personal favorite: The Luckiest Girl. Another long-held favorite of mine is E.L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Konigsberg also wrote the great Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (published the same year as From the Mixed-Up Files; Jennifer won a Newbery Honor while Files won the Medal). Decades years later, Konigsberg had another Newbery Medal winner, The View From Saturday, in 1997.
As for books that skew even younger, Chen adds, "In picture books, I think people forget that Chris Raschka, who just won the Caldecott for A Ball for Daisy, also wrote and illustrated Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (1992) one of my family's favorite biographical picture books of all time. It's how I taught my kids about jazz! Most of my parent friends only know his later work, like Yo Yes and The Hello, Goodbye Window."
It's a nice reminder: Once you've read the big books, don't forget to check out the B-sides, which may be just as good, if not better (and you get the credit of not simply reading what everyone else is!). If you've got some suggestions you think deserve their own mention, please get in touch.