A Storm in Young Adult Literature
A controversy has erupted over young adult literature. In her editorial “Darkness Too Visible”, children’s book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal questioned whether the content of young adult literature has become excessively grim. Self-harm, sexual assault, abuse, and other negative behavior are more portrayed more vividly and with less grace than they have ever been before, she notes. Gurdon writes:
[I]t is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
Gurdon does not suggest that challenging subjects not be broached at all in young adult literature, but rather that the current crop of YA books does not portray these subjects sensitively enough. Her follow-up essay explains this. She worries that that books may normalize cutting, substance abuse, and depression to an impressionable audience who will begin to believe these behaviors are expected of them.
Whether you agree with Gurdon or not, most parents will acknowledge that navigating bookstore aisles (or online searches) can be tough. We would like to offer our Parents’ Choice Award winning suggestions for well-written examples of YA books tackling the struggles of compelling young adult protagonists. Each faces adversity in ways that we hope will be a positive influence on readers.
- All Things Quiet, Anna Jarzab, Random House
Popular prep school junior Carly Ribelli is dead and though there’s a man behind bars for her murder, the students of Brighton Day School are still unsettled. Something doesn’t seem right.
- The Anatomy of Wings, Karen Foxlee, Random House
The “wings “of the title is a metaphor that ties into the narrator’s encyclopedic obsession with birds. There’s a lovely scene near the end incorporating this theme that perfectly punctuates this moving story. The Anatomy of Wings is one of those Young Adult novels that make adult readers question the distinction.
- The Higher Power of Lucky, Susan Patron, Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
“When Lucky’s mother is electrocuted and dies after a storm, Lucky’s absentee father calls his ex-wife, Brigitte, to fly over from France to take care of the child. Two years later, the 10-year-old worries that Brigitte is tired of being her guardian and of their life in Hard Pan (pop. 42) in the middle of the California desert. ” — School Library Journal via Amazon
- This Girl is Different, JJ Johnson, Peachtree Press
Books about high school tend either to be about peer politics and romance or about the injustice of oppressive adult systems. This book combines both plot types, intelligently and humorously. Evie (and therefore the reader) struggles with complex ideas about justice, liberty, and responsibility, but she also struggles to manage her friendships and romances.
- Blue, Joyce Moyer Hostetter, Boyd Mills Press/Calkin Creek Books
Ann Fay Honeycutt is thirteen years old, living in Hickory North Carolina when her Daddy is conscripted into the Army to go off and fight Hitler. She is in charge of her little sisters, her brother Bobby and the large vegetable garden that helps feed the family.
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, M.T. Anderson, Candlewick Press
Octavian is trying to survive the buildup to-and his involvement in-the Revolutionary War. As a black man his lot is precarious at best. He is given a chance to secure his future and finds that freedom cannot be gained simply by siding with the enemy of one’s oppressor.
- Bread and Roses, Too, Katherine Paterson, Houghton Mifflin/Clarion Books
Life in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 wasn’t easy. Thirteen-year old Jake lives with his savagely abusive father who takes the little bit of money Jake earns in the textile mill for drink. Jake frequently sleeps anywhere, a pile of garbage, rather than return to the shack he shares with his father.
- The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, Random House Children’s Books, Knopf
A book that shows how important small triumphs can be in the most devastating circumstances. Narrated by Death, set in Nazi Germany, and utterly engrossing, The Book Thief is a fine addition to holocaust literature for young adults.
- The Darkangel, Meredith Ann Pierce, Little, Brown, & Co.
Following her mistress, Eoduin, into mountainous, dangerous territory, Aeriel is the terrified witness to Eoduin’s abduction by the Darkangel, an exquisitely beautiful vampyre. Resolutely setting out to find and confront the vampyre, Aeriel is, of course, found by him. This strange, rich, evocative fantasy not only stirs up familiar longings in the reader, it satisfies them.
- Good Fortune, Noni Carter, Simon & Schuster
Captured at the age of four in Africa, a young girl lost everything: her mother, her brother, all her other family members, and even her own name, Ayanna. Now called Sarah, she is a smart and beautiful young girl enslaved on a plantation in Tennessee. Sarah not only suffers daily brutality, which includes beatings and fear of sexual assault, she suffers from vivid nightmares of her terrifying childhood experiences.