Three Songs That Sound Like YA Novels

As a genre, the “story song” tends to evoke crackly tracks from our parents’ record stacks: “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash; “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by Charlie Daniels Band; Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and the like. They’re literally stories set to music, and their literary antecedents seem no more sophisticated than campfire tales. Some more contemporary songs, however, suggest stories more than tell them, and—though they’re both less literal and less likely to include a beginning, middle, and end—contain atmosphere and incidents that are downright novelistic. We thought it would be fun to pair some songs with the YA novels they sound like.

“Ghost World,” by Aimee Mann

Including this one could be cheating—lyrics were contributed by Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World and other fine comics. But, rather than telling the story of Ghost World, these lyrics perfectly evoke a vibe identifiable to many of us: an aimless summer after high school. The song begins:

Finals blew, I barely knew
My graduation speech
And with college out of reach
If I can’t find a job it’s down to Dad and Myrtle Beach

And while it doesn’t go much farther than that—the chorus has the narrator promising to bail town, or maybe tear it down, or, more likely, keep hanging around—this feels like the raw material of a hundred YA novels. Watch the video (above, set in a high school, natch), and try not to get chills of recognition when Mann sings, “Everyone I know is acting weird / Or way too cool.” For a few of the many, many books set during the summer after high school, check these out.

If this song were a book, it might be:

The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen


“Pumped Up Kicks,” by Foster the People

Unless you’ve been writing a manifesto in a shack in the woods, you’ve heard this 2010 song about a school shooting with its chilling refrain:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run, outrun my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run, faster than my bullet

There doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity here—until you watch the substance-free video that could easily have been synched to any other song by another band of good-looking young guys with perfectly tousled hair. Which begs the question: is Foster the People making a slyly ironic comment on our society’s ultimate nonresponse to the plague of school violence? Or are they themselves part of our society’s ultimate nonresponse to the plague of school violence? Honestly, I don’t know what’s more creepy, the lyrics or the video. (For a school-shooting pop song where the band seems more in touch with their message, try the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays.”) Since Columbine, this chilling fact of American life has clearly been on the minds of novelists—nearly all of whom convey their message more eloquently than FTP.

If this song were a book, it might be:

The Brimstone Journals, by Ron Koertge

Give a Boy a Gun, by Todd Strasser

Project X, by Jim Shepard

Shooter, by Walter Dean Myers

Trigger, by Susan Vaught


 “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” by The Mountain Goats

The only problem here is choosing a single Mountain Goats song. From “The Fall of the Star Running Back” to “This Year,” they’ve got a catalog ripe with material for aspiring YA novelists. (Or are The Mountain Goats avid YA readers? Who knows!) But I’m choosing this extraordinarily compact story song as representative for several reasons. It’s got humor (the band can’t decide whether they want to be called Satan’s Fingers, The Killers, or the Hospital Bombers), pathos (the pentagram in their logo gets Cyrus sent to reform school), and an the suggestion of an unresolved, ominous ending (Jeff’s plan to get even). And, given the truly staggering number of YA novels about bands, many of them set in their adult authors’ youthful heyday, we’ve got to go with this one.

When you punish a person for dreaming his dream,
don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.
The best ever death metal band out of denton
will in time both outpace and outlive you.

If this song were a book, it might be:

Heavy Metal and You, by Christopher Krovatin
The Scar Boys, by Len Vlahos
Vandal, by Michael Simmons
Wise Young Fool, by Sean Beaudoin

Surely there are hundreds more. Please share your ideas for song/book pairings in the comments!



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

4 Comments on "Three Songs That Sound Like YA Novels"

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  1.' Kirsten says:

    “Tom Dooley” – Kingston Trio, others(
    –The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin

    “The Queen and the Soldier” – Suzanne Vega (
    –Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Lynch
    –Princess of the Midnight Ball by Elizabeth Day George

    “Moon Over Bourbon Street” – Sting(“”)
    –Interview with a Vampire
    –The Vampire Diaries
    –The Silver Kiss

    “Tickle Cove Pond” – Great Big Sea (“”)
    –Anne of Green Gables
    –Brighty of the Grand Canyon

    “Un Satire Cornu” – Ars Antiqua de Paris (“”)
    –Swim the Fly

    “The Whale” aka “Greenland Whale Fisheries (
    –Moby Dick by Herman Melville

    • Keir Graff says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Kirsten! I’m not sure I’d classify Moby-Dick as a YA novel, but that’s an excellent pairing (and a song my kids loved when they were smaller).

  2. Julia Smith says:

    “Expectations” by Belle & Sebastian
    -“The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy” by Kate Hattemer

    “The Sporting Life” by The Decemberists
    -“Winger” by Andrew Smith
    -“The Beginning of Everything” by Robyn Schneider
    -“Rules for Becoming a Legend” by Timothy Lane

    “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” by The Magnetic Fields
    -“Why We Took the Car” by Wolfgang Hernndorf
    -“Swim the Fly” by Don Calame

    “Super Model” by Letters from Cleo
    -“Modelland” by Tyra Banks
    -“Beauty Queens” by Libba Bray
    -“Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality” by Elizabeth Eulberg

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