The Ever Elusive YA Geography-Based Book

As a middle and now high school geography teacher who loves reading to her kids, I’m always on the lookout for really, really good YA (Young Adult) books that are hilarious, moving, interesting to teenagers, and somehow linked to geography so I can read them aloud in my classroom.

It’s been a tough search. There are tons of picture books relevant to my subject and curriculum, but YA book are harder to track down. It’s pretty much hit or miss, because I haven’t found a really database of YA books on travel and/or geography. Luckily I love reading books meant for audiences ten (okay…fifteen) years younger than me and eventually I know I’ll run in to something perfect.

I’ve recently hit jackpot. Not one, but TWO novels about travel. One has a main character obsessed with maps, one has a map on the cover, and they both feature road trips. Perfect.

Jennifer E Smith’s “You Are Here” is the one with Peter Finnegan, the main character obsessed with maps and travel plans:

Instead Peter planned to go to Australia and Africa and Alaska and Antarctica, and that was just the A’s. The list grew from there, ballooning to include Bali and Bangladesh, China and California and Chicago. He had marked carefully on the map the place where you might catch a ferry from Ireland to Scotland, had research mountain climbing in Switzerland and cage diving with sharks off the coast of South Africa.

When Peter’s next door neighbor steals her brother’s car to drive from New York to North Carolina in order to find herself, Peter steals another car and takes the trip with her when the initial stolen car breaks down on the New Jersey Turnpike. When his road trip with the increasingly frustrating and loveable Emma get tough and confusing, Peter realizes this:

Maybe the answer to all of his problems was nothing more than a darkened sky and a glittering city, a lofty perch above the world below. It seemed entirely possible that it was all just a matter of setting and location, and Peter wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. After all, he understood better than anyone the importance of geography.

What a great paragraph to read when my students start whining about the uselessness of geography.

The next geographically inclined novel is John Green’s “Paper Towns.” Green is one of my favorite authors, but I have to admit this isn’t my favorite of his books. The book is great, his other’s are just that much better. Like Green’s Printz Award winning “Looking for Alaska,” “Paper Towns” features a hilarious and exceedingly messed up female character that the male protagonists spends most of the book reacting to. Near the beginnig of the tale, Margo Roth Spiegelman crawls through Quentin’s bedroom window one night and ropes him into a night of law-breaking, stating: “I need a car. Also, I need you to drive it, because I have to do eleven things tonight, and at least five of them involve a getaway man.”

When Margo runs-away (and not for the first time), her fed up parents change the locks of their house and admit defeat. Quentin and his friends at school aren’t so willing to give up on Margo though. They follow her clues to discover that she is staying in a ‘paper town’ in New York. The author describes paper towns as “copyright traps [that] have featured in mapmaking for centuries. Cartographers create fictional landmarks, streets, and municipalities and place them obscurely into their maps. If the fictional entry is found on another cartographer’s map, it becomes clear a map has been plagiarized.”

Anyways, for various reasons that you will read about in “Paper Towns,” Quentin and his crew need to get to from their high school graduation in Florida to Margo’s paper town in New York in twenty one hours and forty five minutes. A frantic road trip ensues.

Now that I’ve found two YA books that have something to do with geography, I’m hopeful that there is a whole treasure trove of them out there, I just have to keep reading. “Paper Towns” may be a little too risqué to read to my 9th graders (lots of swearing and sex references. Not that high schoolers are fragile beings that have never heard a swear word, but I don’t want to be standing in front of them swearing and reading about sex. However, I can edit if I have to) and You Are Here may be a tad on the touchy-feely side.

So the quest for a perfect book continues. Let me know if you have any recs.

Jenna Vandenberg

Teacher, writer, runner, mom and wife.

Comments (2)

  • kim

    I am looking for supplemental books for my geography class. Have you come across anything since this post that would be suitable for a required reading? Not too “touching feeling” and not too risque…..

  • Not much for a young adult audience, unfortunately. There are tons of great travel-memoir books out there that mature high schoolers might like…

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