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What Makes a Good YA Road Trip Novel?

“All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change.” And with this simple statement, the chain of events leading to Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi River begins. Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one hundred and twenty-five years ago this February, but Huck’s adventures with Jim — the excitement of two friends setting out for the unknown, the importance of the lessons they learn — has not grown old. Huck Finn still embodies freedom. As Huck put it, “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Huck’s words resonate because the allure of setting out on an anything-goes adventure transcends time, place, and even the age of the reader.

However, if we’re settling down with a contemporary book, chances are that our travels aren’t going to happen on a river, but rather out on the open highway. From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Tom Robbins’s quirky Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the harder edge of adult road trip novels has trickled down to modern YA books. Just as Huck Finn answers to the imagination in each reader, adult road trips appeal to an almost innate need for adventure. The road for YA narratives has been “paved” (pun intended) both by Huck and risk-taking adult novels.

This year’s Printz Award went to a road trip novel: Going Bovine by Libba Bray is surreal, trippy, funny, beautifully written, and has the best elements of what makes a road trip novel such an engrossing read. A good road trip adventure has the spirit of Huck’s rafting trip. It should never read like a Lonely Planet travel guide, nor should it drown the excitement of travel in excessive landscape description or getting stuck in characters’ heads for too long. A good road trip novel is a careful balance of an outward voyage with an inner journey. It is a literary smorgasbord, mixing elements of a hero’s quest, “armchair” travel, and a bildungsroman. And the very best road trip books end slightly unresolved, leaving readers with a sense of wonder and the hope of possibility.

But what is a road trip novel? What makes one book a road tale and another a vacation story? says a road trip is “a journey via automobile, sometimes unplanned or impromptu.” Well…yes and no. A road trip novel does not always need to be in a car (sometimes there’s walking, swimming, horse-riding, sailing, etc., involved). But it needs to be about a journey where the road provides both geographical and narrative structure.

Cynthia Voigt’s 1981 novel Homecoming, her first about the Tillerman family, is a perfect example of how a road trip is not always “a journey via automobile.” After their overwhelmed mother abandons them in a mall parking lot, thirteen-year-old Dicey leads her three younger siblings from Connecticut to their grandmother’s house on the eastern shore of Maryland. When possible, they get rides, but most of the time they walk. As the determined siblings trek, readers are kept on edge, wishing along with the Tillermans that strangers will continue to be kind and that police will leave them alone. After all, they’re no delinquents; as Dicey reassures her siblings, “We’re runaways to, not just runaways.” Voigt’s talent for description wraps readers in the landscape, and Dicey, as an old-for-her-age protagonist, draws them in until they are right there with her worrying about the next meal, the next place to sleep, and hoping she, James, Sammy, and Maybeth find a place to call home.

While Voigt’s novel is defined by the road trip, two of John Green’s books, An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008), are as much about quests as they are about a journey. In Katherines, Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy with an aptitude for anagrams, gets in a car with his best friend in order to forget being dumped by the nineteenth Katherine he has dated. Paper Towns, however, begins with a quest that culminates in an impromptu, kinetic drive from Florida to New York and is the more exciting travel narrative for it.

In Paper Towns, what starts as a mission for high school senior Quentin Jacobsen to find his runaway neighbor and love, the high-spirited and elusive Margo Roth Spiegelman, evolves into a lesson in self-discovery. When he finally finds her he recognizes, “I stand in this parking lot, realizing that I’ve never been this far from home, and here is this girl I love and cannot follow. I hope this is the hero’s errand, because not following her is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” In evoking the “hero’s errand,” Quentin joins the ranks of others who have undertaken quests for love, and like Don Quixote giving up the illusion of Dulcinea he too must give up the fantasy-Margo he had constructed as well as the real damaged Margo he had traveled so far to find. The end breaks your heart, and yet it feels right.

Strong road trip novels do not always need to end with an epiphany like Quentin’s, but the characters need to be changed by their travels in some way, however small. Some other good road trip novels with male protagonists like Walter Dean Myers’s Newbery Medal Honor book Somewhere in the Darkness and Gary Paulsen’s The Car are characterized by character growth so subtle it’s almost easy to miss. Somewhere is the stronger of the two stories (The Car ends too abruptly, leaving readers feeling like the trip just took a dive off a steep turn), but both novels are satisfyingly fast paced. In Somewhere, Harlem-raised Jimmy joins his father Crab, who’s fresh out of jail, on a helter-skelter voyage that is propelled more by Crab’s need for redemption than it is by Jimmy’s burgeoning maturity. The sad ending is both honest and true. Myers’s writing tugs at the heart (“There wasn’t time enough or world enough to piece together their prison dreams”) yet somehow manages to leave room for hope.

Andrew Smith’s 2009 novel In the Path of Falling Objects is another male road trip narrative worth mentioning, if only because of how different it is. Smith’s blistering book combines the best elements of crime thrillers and road trip narratives, giving it noir-appeal and a hook for the reluctant reader crowd. Objects opens with a murder and ends with a map, and in between sixteen-year-old Jonah and his younger brother Simon set out across the desert, leaving behind their New Mexico home in hopes of finding their oldest brother who may or may not have left combat in the Vietnam War. Their adventure truly begins when they hitch a ride in a convertible containing a crazed killer, a beautiful girl, and a nearly life-sized statue named Don for Don Quixote. By the end of Smith’s page-turner, the body count is high, but the brothers’ bond is strengthened. Jonah realizes, “Maybe brothers need to do that, to deal with the most horrible things, just so they can see what they’re really made of, what’s really between them. Because sometimes, I think that’s a force that’s more powerful than all those other things we can’t do anything about.”

The violence in Objects didn’t faze me, but then again even in middle school I’d read Stephen King, R. L. Stine, and Christopher Pike. However, if you like suspense without a body count, Lynne Rae Perkins’s recent As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth is an excellent book to dive into. Protagonist Ry’s madcap journey begins with a missed train in Montana, followed by a car trip to Wisconsin, then Florida, then a nail-biting plane ride to San Juan, ending with Ry sailing (and sinking) a boat near the island of St. Jude’s in the Caribbean. Though the story focuses on Ry’s growth from a lost boy with one boot and a black eye to, in his words, a “teenage ninja cowboy sailing guy,” it is also about the “Faraway but Related” adventures of Ry’s parents, his grandfather, and two dogs, Olie and Peg. Ry’s clumsy earnestness and Perkins’s quirky narration are a memorable, energizing combination.

In travel stories the co-travelers are crucial to understanding the protagonist. How would we know Huck without seeing how he protects Jim? How funny would Don Quixote be without Sancho Panza to insult? The same questions can be posed about contemporary road trip characters. We learn about Green’s Katherine-loving Colin Singleton through his rapport with his overweight, Judge Judy–loving friend Hassan. We know Voigt’s Dicey by how she takes care of her siblings. In Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Road, three gay teens’ personalities are revealed both by what they do and how they interact with one another on a cross-country drive. Humorous passages like Kyle’s ponderings about his boyfriend Jason (“Kyle had thought this trip would be their honeymoon. Instead he’d learned his dream lover snored, took dumps, and sometimes got really, really stinky after basketball practice”) show more about uptight Kyle than they do about jock Jason.

Travel buddies are the foils that reveal main characters’ strengths and weaknesses. In Joan Bauer’s 1998 novel Rules of the Road, teenager Jenna Boller gains confidence and self-awareness after a summer spent driving cranky Mrs. Gladstone from Chicago to Texas. Jenna not only grasps that she and her passenger are more alike than they at first seemed, but she also learns to stand up for what she believes and that life, like the highway, is unpredictable. “You never know where the road’s going to take you. I think sometimes it’s less important that you get to your destination than the sidetrips you take along the way.”

Though Jenna is full of awkward appeal, the protagonists from Ellen Wittlinger’s Zigzag and Deb Caletti’s The Secret Life of Prince Charming make you want to hop in the car right beside them. Prince Charming’s seventeen-year-old Quinn, along with her half sister and her younger sister, undertake a whirlwind road trip to return items their Lothario father has stolen from the women in his life. The zany hijinks are entertaining — who knew a gigantic Bob’s Big Boy statue could be so hard to get rid of? — but the moments that make the book so compelling are Quinn’s ruminations on love. “The most basic and somehow forgettable thing is this: Love is not pain. Love is goodness,” Quinn ponders at the end of the book, leaving readers with the possibility that perhaps Prince Charmings do exist if you’re brave enough to search for them.

Zigzag’s leading lady Robin begins the summer before her senior year not able to imagine life without her boyfriend. “So what if I’m young! Don’t you get it, Mom? I need him! I’m nobody without Chris! I’m nobody!” she screams at her mother. But after a road trip with her recently widowed aunt and her difficult younger cousins, Robin learns to embrace the strange, the beautiful, and the unknown. Robin’s transformation is convincing, and Wittlinger’s writing is transportive; Zigzag is armchair traveling at its best.

Anyone who has taken a long road trip knows that they are an excellent time to get lost in your own head. When driving becomes particularly monotonous, memories will surface. I like a little nostalgia with my adventure, and for similar-minded readers I would highly recommend Maureen McCarthy’s intoxicating novel Rose by Any Other Name or Sharon Creech’s 1995 Newbery Medal–winning Walk Two Moons. Creech’s layered story places thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle in a Scheherezade-like role, entertaining her grandparents on a road trip that ends with a heart-rending twist. Rose keeps readers hooked by hinting at a tragedy in nineteen-year-old Rose’s past; her flashbacks are as mesmerizing as the coastal Australian landscape she drives through.

Finally, Going Bovine is worth revisiting and pondering. When I finished reading it, I felt the need to shake my head as if waking from a daydream. What had just happened? I swear I heard the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” playing in the background after I shut the cover: “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” indeed.

Main character sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith’s travels begin after he finds himself in the hospital with a fatal diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a.k.a. “mad cow disease.” When a sugar-fanatic angel tells him he can save himself and the world by taking a little trip, Cameron hits the road…or does he? And does it make the experience any less real if it all took place in Cameron’s head?

Bray’s allusions to Don Quixote are deliberate — the protagonist, Cameron, does name his car Rocinante after all — but nods to Jack Kerouac are perhaps subtler. At the end of his journey (I won’t ruin the book by even hinting at how it resolves), the once apathetic Cameron has learned a lot about life: most of all to appreciate it. “Who but the mad would choose to keep on living?” he asks Dulcie, his angel love-interest. “In the end, aren’t we all just a little crazy?”

Reading this I couldn’t help but think of another road trip character who understood the beauty of craziness: Kerouac’s narrator from On the Road, Sal Paradise, who famously said:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’

How do I know a road trip book is really good? Because just like Kerouac’s roman candles, it makes me go “Awww!” at the end.

An Interview with Libba Bray

CHELSEY G. H. PHILPOT: Don Quixote had Sancho Panza. Cameron had Gonzo and Balder. Who would be your cross-country co-pilot?

LIBBA BRAY: It would have to be someone who likes to drive, because I can’t. Well, technically I can, but I drive like your ninety-year-old great-grandma when she gets a new eyeglass prescription. It would take us three years to go thirty miles.

I’d probably pick one of my best gal pals, although I have to say that David Levithan and I were great road trip partners. We seem to have the same rhythms for laughing and talking and for falling into long stretches of contented silence. I would also pick my husband, but only if there’s a GPS, because he gets really frustrated when I try to read a map, and I hate to see him bang his head against the dashboard.

CP: Music plays a significant role in Going Bovine. What songs would be on your perfect road trip mix?

LB: Probably a mix of mellow and contemplative, rock out loud/head thrash, cheese-o-rama sing-a-along, and oh-my-god-you-cannot-be-serious weird stuff. For grins, there’s a playlist for Going Bovine posted at

CP: Describe your ultimate road trip vehicle.

LB: A fully stocked RV painted with pink-and-purple glitter and stick-on decals of strange, slightly-cuddly-but-possibly-homicidal anime-worthy creatures on the back.

There would definitely be bullhorns on the front. And a horn that played James Brown’s “Sex Machine”. I was also very partial to the Partridge family’s bus. But only because I thought I’d get to sit next to David Cassidy.

CP: If you could design your own bumper sticker, what would it say?

LB: “I like you. You’re neat.” I find that the friendlier you are, the more freaked out people get. I’d probably have the road to myself.

CP: What’s your favorite road trip book from childhood?

LB: If you mean what is my fave childhood book featuring travel, I would have to say The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (hey, they travel to Narnia!). If you mean what was my favorite book to bring with me on a trip, probably the Little House books. And one of my fave road trip books of all time is On the Road.

CP: How is reading a book like taking a trip?

LB: Travel is a narrative, a hero’s journey in which you always hope you will be the transformed and transforming hero of your own life. Reading takes us on an interior journey, and we are different for the experience.

CP: Any other thoughts on books and road trips?

LB: Yes. You never have to change the oil in a book. You’re welcome, readers.


Good YA Road Trip Novels

Rules of the Road (Putnam, 1998) by Joan Bauer

Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009) by Libba Bray

The Secret Life of Prince Charming (Simon Pulse, 2009) by Deb Caletti

Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) by Sharon Creech

An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006) by John Green

Paper Towns (Dutton, 2008) by John Green

Rose by Any Other Name (Roaring Brook, 2006) by Maureen McCarthy

Somewhere in the Darkness (Scholastic, 1992) by Walter Dean Myers

The Car (Harcourt, 1994) by Gary Paulsen

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth (Greenwillow, 2010) by Lynne Rae Perkins

Rainbow Road (Simon, 2005) by Alex Sanchez

In the Path of Falling Objects (Feiwel, 2009) by Andrew Smith

Homecoming (Atheneum, 1981) by Cynthia Voigt

Zigzag (Simon, 2003) by Ellen Wittlinger

About Chelsey Philpot

Chelsey Philpot, former editorial assistant of The Horn Book Guide, is the author of the YA novel Even in Paradise.

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