If I’m really honest, I like to be seen in a certain light: usually as intellectual and professional. So I try to stay away from, or hide my preference for, things that will damage that persona—things like Kraft macaroni & cheese (which is freaking delicious) and rap music (yup, I like to break it down to Eminem).
And when it came to books, I used to feel similarly about YA. There’s no way I wanted to be caught reading that riffraff. I thought that all YA was either shallow or full of vampires and werewolves—or both. There is plenty of YA (and adult!) fiction that fits both of those descriptions, but I was wrong in thinking that all of it was like that.
Thankfully, my best friend is a much better person than I am and she unabashedly indulges in YA of all sorts—which is great. Because of her, I finally broke down and read the following books, which completely changed the way I view the Young Adult genre.
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
TFiOS is the story of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Both Hazel and Gus are faced with their mortality and struggle with “the side effects of dying.” Hazel feels like a burden to her family and tries in every way to minimize her “personal footprint,” so that when she dies it only hurts as few people as possible. Gus struggles with the fact that he will never be able to do great, epic things. He wants to be a hero, but he is the one in need. They both wonder about the meaning of their deaths, and the value of their lives.
Kudos to John Green for bringing enough grace, laughter, and light to this book to keep it from being completely morbid. He skillfully allows the reader to see the gravity of this burden on two young shoulders, but gives his characters a resilience and optimism that has made thousands of fans fall in love with them.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Every day at school, Eleanor is teased for being overweight, often unshowered, and poor. When she goes home she has to avoid her step-father, who terrorizes the family and takes a more sinister interest in Eleanor. Park is reluctant to befriend her at first, but soon they find a common interest in music and comics. Eventually, Park helps Eleanor in escaping her abusive situation.
Eleanor and Park aren’t the sweet, optimistic characters that Hazel and Gus are; they communicate more fear and desperation—especially Eleanor. Her story shows the all-too-common reality that abuses often go unnoticed by others and the kids who most need our help are the ones we dislike and ignore.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
In the middle of WWII, Liesl begins stealing books from the mayor’s reclusive wife and slowly learns to read with the help of the Jewish man her adopted family is hiding. Max is forced to leave the family, and Liesl finds herself befriending the woman. Their friendship helps them deal with the effects of WWII.
WWII fiction is usually told from an adult’s perspective; this is the only fiction book I’ve ever read that handled it from a child’s perspective. This is a book about finding silver linings in the most hopeless and evil of situations.
- The Tyrant’s Daughter by Janet Carleson
This book imagines what life might be like for the children of a deposed dictator—tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. How do their children feel about their father? Where are they now? In Carlson’s story, the main character, Laila, is now in the U.S. and trying to adjust to life in a small urban apartment, when she and her family used to be waited on by a huge staff in a grand palace. At the same time, she learns the truth about her father’s reign and must question her loyalty and love for him.
A great book inspires empathy. And although Carlson’s writing isn’t the greatest, she gets all of my admiration for bringing to light the people we forget about, as we’re dazzled by the heroes and villains of the news.
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Never have I ever felt so guilty about what I (don’t) know about the people and countries and cultures (hello, there are multiple cultures in Africa). Sure, my kind heart has ached over the plight of “the poor orphans.” But I don’t know them, personally. NoViolet Bulawayo tells one young Zimbabwean girl’s story, and highlights the insulting ignorance she must deal with when she moves to America.
These books don’t escape reality. Their characters are faced with hard choices, and doing nothing is not an option. They’re not shallow, and they’re not full of vampires or werewolves. These are exactly the kinds of books that I want to read—whether the intended audience is adults or teenagers.
And I’d love to read more of them. So, please tell me. What YA books have you read that make you think? That teach you empathy? Have you ever changed your mind about a genre?
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