As a longtime fan of young adult fiction, it’s hard for me to imagine it hasn’t always existed. There have always been classic novels that appealed to teens, ranging from Swiss Family Robinson to The Count of Monte Cristo to Pride and Prejudice. However, those books weren’t marketed first and foremost to teens.
Depending on who you ask, the award for the first modern young adult novel goes to books like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, or even Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly.
These aren’t swashbuckling adventures featuring mythical heroes—they address realistic difficulties or situations faced by real young people. And thus the “problem novel” for young adults was born.
Problem novels are sometimes, well, problematic for parents and teachers. It’s natural for Christians to want young people to see the redemption and hope we hold so dear, and many seem to be lacking in that area. Furthermore, most of us have a built-in desire to protect young people from seeing the worst in the world, attempting to guard their innocence.
But let’s face it, teens are rarely all that innocent. They are facing their own problems and hardships and learning about the hardships that exist in the wider world. If they aren’t dealing with major issues themselves, they surely know others who are.
And so the goal of a good teen novel is not to paint some bright and flawless world that doesn’t actually exist. Rather it is to present a clear view of the realities of life, including some of the worst details. In that way teens can recognize a world like their own.
At the same time, I look for stories in teen fiction that empower teens and adults to understand the needs presented, to walk with someone in tough circumstances, and to foster a sense of hope in the middle of those realities.
Two young adult books I’ve read this year fit that category. They’re well-told stories with fully developed characters and a finger on the pulse of hardships that are relevant to the world teens live in.
The Hate U Give, a debut novel by Angie Thomas, introduces 16-year-old Starr Carter, a young woman who lives with her family in a poor black neighborhood but goes to a private, majority-white high school in the suburbs. Starr lives two distinctly separate lives, her school life and her home life. That clear separation is threatened when she witnesses the death of her good friend Khalil at the hands of a white police officer.
Thomas handles the back-and-forth nature of Starr’s life with sensitivity and grace. People on both sides care for her, and people on both sides behave badly. Starr has to come to terms with her double life and decide who she really is. This is almost a racial reconciliation course in the form of a young adult novel, yet it doesn’t feel didactic.
True to life, some people use foul language—even the title comes from a Tupac Shakur quote that includes a word I won’t include here. Kids make poor choices, choices we hope they don’t make. But true to life, all of our choices have repercussions, and Thomas lets those repercussions be known too. The hope this book points to is not an easy one—it’s a call to hard work and intentional understanding.
On a completely different topic, Sara Zarr (Once Was Lost; How to Save a Life) offers the novel Gem & Dixie. Gem and Dixie are sisters bound by unusual family ties. Their bond does not stem from family jokes, road trips, or holiday traditions. Instead they are uncomfortably bound by the neglect they have suffered from both of their parents.
Their mother is around, but she’s not really there. She doesn’t make sure they have food or clothing, and their shelter is a questionable. Dad, on the other hand, is mostly absent, showing up rarely and unexpectedly. Gem and Dixie have become skilled at hiding their home life, but Gem—the older, more serious sister—is beginning to crack.
Zarr brings her characters to life, and while their problems are much bigger than those many young readers experience, Zarr brings a relatability to all of them. Adults and teens alike will empathize with the sisters, gaining a deeper understanding of how hard it can be just to keep living. The book draws readers into the stranglehold that Gem feels, leaving her unable to make any choice that will improve her situation. At the same time, hints of hope come from people who really do care, even when they are limited in what they can do.
Both Thomas and Zarr have given a fictional face to issues that real young people are dealing with. These books would be good for young people 15 and up, depending on the reader. And even if you feel that the realism is too much for your child, I’d recommend these books to adults who want to know what some of your child’s peers might be experiencing. (Both books are from Balzer+Bray)