The best YA novels featuring strangers in strange lands

The Books I Picked & Why

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

Years ago, I was browsing in my local bookstore when I picked up The Book Thief. I read the first page and was so captivated by the voice, I forced two total strangers book-browsing nearby to read it, too.

Death, who is “haunted by humans,” narrates the story of Liesel Memimger, a young German girl displaced by World War II, and forced to live with strangers in a city she doesn’t know. Liesel’s strange new world gets even stranger when she discovers the Jewish fist-fighter her foster parents are hiding in the basement. I found this haunting novel hard to read but impossible not to.

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The Darkhouse

By Barbara Radecki

Book cover of The Darkhouse

Why this book?

The stranger in a strange land theme is unveiled slowly in The Darkhouse.  The story follows Gemma, a teen abandoned by a “crazy” mother. She lives on an island and her only friends are either old or imaginary. Her very protective father is dutiful, though consumed with rodent experiments in his shed out back. Yes. It is creepy! Also poignant: both a goosebumpy thriller and and a heart-breaking coming of age story. And I must mention the lyrical writing, like this line: “The ache of wanting what I can’t have throbs like blood.”

Disclosure: I read this in manuscript form at The Rights Factory, a literary agency where I work. I devoured it in one sitting in a Toronto café, after which I had to go outside to ugly-cry.

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The Land of 10,000 Madonnas

By Kate Hattemer

Book cover of The Land of 10,000 Madonnas

Why this book?

I bought this book for the title, and happily there are Madonnas galore in this story, including in the apartment of “two motherless dudes,” dying teen Jessie T. Serrano and his dad. This quest novel—before he dies, Jessie sets up a mysterious trip to Europe for his three cousins, best friend and girlfriend—follows five grieving young adults on a doomed pilgrimage in a strange continent. If you have ever been a teen (as I assume you have) you will connect with the six (!!) point of view characters, each flawed but achingly human. "Not all stories are about love," says one of them, but this story most definitely is.

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This Book Betrays My Brother

By Kagiso Lesego Molope

Book cover of This Book Betrays My Brother

Why this book?

Molope’s twitter profile features my favourite Toni Morrison quotation (one I want used in my obit, when the day comes), so I had to buy this novel.

Its core is about doing, or not doing, the right thing. I loved the writing, the moral complexity and the exploration of strangeness from the point of view of Naledi, a young teen, living in post-apartheid South Africa. She has moved from the bottom, a place of outhouses and rocks, to the top, a place of fountains and statues, and then discovers her brother is also a stranger. But then she warns us early that the township Marapong is a place you arrive at after "experiencing that unnerving feeling of being lost in a strange country with a strange language.”

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How I Live Now

By Meg Rosoff

Book cover of How I Live Now

Why this book?

Daisy, whose life “so far has been plain” leaves New York to visit relatives in London. After she arrives, war breaks out and Daisy’s ordinary world becomes extraordinary. Like the British children’s novels I used to gorge on (a long time ago!) all the grownups are gone, paving the way for a taboo relationship. I was surprised at how easily Rosoff convinced me that England was at war. But mostly I was captivated by the writing. Meg Rosoff writes this novel in the kind of run-on sentences I hate unless Salmon Rushdie is writing them, except…they work. Beautifully. I can’t show you one; it would exceed my word limit for the blurb, so you’ll have to trust me.

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