I’ve said it before. As a kid, I read everything—from total junk to great stuff. And for a while there, that included stuff from the extensive YA section of the library. From coming of age angst to confusion on relationships, to figuring out just what was true and wasn’t, and a host of bizarreness mingled through it, I read it all.
It wasn’t until years later that I could identify what was so wrong with so many of the books. See, teens are rational creatures, but so many YA books are drama-filled, fatalistic nonsense. The problem is, that teens are also drama-filled and sometimes fatalistic. After all, there’s a reason Shakespeare made the answer to Romeo and Juliet’s problems be suicide. It’s ridiculous, but there’s an element of reality in it.
Interestingly enough, I don’t remember a lot of the books I read, but I remember a few. One by Phyllis Whitney, A Long Time Coming, had a line in it that totally explained how I felt about kids. The girl quotes her mother (whose name started with an E… Eve? Eleanor?) as having said, “I alarm children and they alarm me.”
It had a profound impact on my life because it spoke to how I felt about something that I instinctively knew wouldn’t go over well with the adults in my life. One just did not say that they didn’t care for an entire subset of the population!
Books like that were awesome.
They felt real and authentic. Instead of sermonizing at you, they acknowledged that sometimes you thought or said shocking things but it wasn’t always because you were trying to be shocking. Sometimes you just wanted to vocalize a thought without having it wielded against you like a switch.
Some books, weren’t so awesome. They were full of hate, angst, bitterness, and self-loathing. It was as if the authors tapped into the worst parts of being a teen and made it as if that was all there was to becoming an adult—getting drunk, experimenting with drugs, having sex or having something forced on you. Toying with the occult, depression, suicide… All the ugly, horrible things.
Now, let’s face it. We needed to be aware that these things were a common part of many peoples’ lives. The problem was, so many of those books offered no hope.
The books that were hope-filled so often felt fake, trite, canned. “Here’s a problem. See how bad it is. Here’s the solution. See how wise this Mary Sue character is? Be a Mary Sue.”
I’ve no doubt that if someone had asked me if I could come up with a way to help parents find good YA that I would have had a million suggestions that took way too long to explain. Kind of like this post. Hee hee. Still, I decided to summarize what I, as a kid, and tempered now with a few decades of adult experience, would (have) recommend(ed).
Note: links may be affiliate links that provide me with a small commission at no extra expense to you. Additionally, I requested a review copy of this book and chose to share what I thought of it.
The Best Tips on How to Select YA for Your Teen
Yeah. That title? Not my fave. See, #1daughter sets up my blog posts for me. She gets all the Celebrate Lit stuff put in for me, gets me a title, and schedules. Sometimes, titles can be hard to come up with—especially when you’re trying to pay attention to things like “What will Google say?” That’s WWGS for the uninitiated.
Not really. I just made that up.
Anyway, this title was awkward, but it got a GREAT score, and I realized I could come up with tips for finding good YA fiction. So why not do it? Here goes.
What to look FOR:
Characters who aren’t too perfect OR too messed up.
Even kids who do not do drugs, party, have sex, or swear still have sins! Pride, arrogance, lying, lust—whatever. It’s there.
Books can be full of heavy, dark topics. But there needs to be hope in them—redemption. Even books like the Hunger Games trilogy ended on a semi-hopeful note. Everything was horrible. They had been through the worst of the worst, but it was over. They could heal. Suzanne Collins didn’t wrap it up in a happily-ever-after tied bow. That would have killed the power of the story.
Kids can spot phony plots and thinking like nobody’s business. One popular series for girls drove mine nuts. Why? Because when the girl’s boyfriend broke up with her, she moped and went into a deep depression for nine months. LONG, MISERABLE, ACHINGLY emotic months. Not one of them knew anyone who would respond that way. Sure, it made for drama in the book, but like a third of the book was able to be shown in one, slow, panoramic view of the movie camera. Seasons changed through the windows and boom! Done.
Intelligent reasons for things.
Look, teens are smart. When we treat them like they have no sense, we lose them. They don’t care if a teen does something stupid in a book. They don’t. But they sure do care if that teen does it because “that’s what teens do.”
What to avoid?
An overdependence on stereotypes.
Not all girls wearing black goth makeup and piercings are using them as protective walls because of some deep, dark angst. Sometimes they’re the quieter, funny, gentle souls, Girls you hope your sons will marry.
The same is true for jocks (not all dumb or full of themselves), nerds (not all are socially awkward—same for geeks). Some kids are popular because they’re kind. Not all kids with bad grades come from bad homes.
Look, stereotypes exist for a reason. They’re either generally true, partially true, or were at one time true (or perceived by the majority to be). Just remember that some jocks read books—for fun. And if every book they read portrays them in an unjust light, they’ll stop reading those books.
We all know I have an unholy horror of preaching in most fiction. Non-fiction, church, talking to a friend—love it. But 99% of the time in fiction, once it slips into sermonizing, you’ve lost me. I finally figured out the biggest reason why recently. It’s actually rather simple.
Because getting all preachy is a lazy way to convey the truth you want your readers to catch. It’s also insulting. It’s like saying, “I want you to see why sex outside of marriage is wrong. So I’m going to show you, and then have them talk about it, and then have the preacher sermonize about it, then have her talk to the counselor about it, and then have her read her Bible about it, and…and…”
Look, last year one of my kids and his buddies did something super stupid. (adding a note–nothing horrifying, destructive, or anything like that, but technically illegal). Some of those kids got in serious trouble because they were under 18. My youngest found out at one of the buddies’ houses. She’s a friend of the sisters. Got all that straight?
So she comes home and asks if her brother is grounded or in “big trouble” because of the incident. I said no. She blinked at me. After all, most of the kids were in BIG trouble. She asked why. Look, this all happened in the wee hours of the morning while these kids were spending the night at our house. I said, “Well, let’s see… what is going to happen the next time he wants to have his buddies stay all night?”
She looked at me and said, “Oooh… you’re devious.”
Actually, I’m just practical. And I hate sermonizing when “subtext” does it for me.
This one is kind of funny because this is a certain part of that coming of age—when everything seems life-shattering or changing. But it’s almost as if authors add extremes to their extremes and just blow them out of proportion (hence the realism thing up there). But it is also true of roles and things. Not all parents are great. Not all are evil. Most have a mixture of good and bad qualities. Bad parents obviously have more bad than good. But if you do white hat/black hat syndrome, you lose your audience. They see through that.
Furthermore, not all kids are smarter than their parents. Most, frankly, aren’t. That’s not to say they won’t be, but they’re still kids right now. I loved it when I saw parents fail in books back when I was a kid, but the minute the parents were always wrong and the kid was always right, they lost me. Again, realism.
That’s just a few.
Trust me there are many. But it’ll get you going.
What book got me thinking about YA stuff?
I recently requested a review copy of Melody Carlson’s Gone Too Soon. I didn’t know what to expect from it. I just saw Melody Carlson and YA and since I hadn’t read either in a while, I requested a copy. Turns out, I read a couple more before I even got to it.
What’d I think?
Carlson has created a wonderfully complex character in Kiera Josephson. Actually, all of the characters in this book are realistically complex and interesting. The way she chose to peel back the layers to show what was beneath each character gave the reader a greater insight into things that otherwise might have remained rather surface and shallow.
The topics covered in this book are deep, and while they aren’t necessarily a personal part of every kid’s life, the fact is, most kids these days encounter some element of death, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, family abuse, emotional turmoil, depression, and/or sexual assault.
Goodness, that list makes this book sound like a bad soap opera gone wrong. It actually wasn’t. Every single element that came up in this book had a purpose and a point to it. The layers unfolded, we saw motives and deeper issues, but what Melody Carlson did best was knowing just when to add those redemptive elements of hope.
No, Gone Too Soon isn’t an easy book to read.
But it’s a good one and I wouldn’t say it’s as difficult as it is realistic and relevant to the actual lives that teens come into contact with today (either in their own or that of friends).
I think I loved best that the people you most empathize with also are shown to be part of the problem as well. What I didn’t care for was that by the end, Kiera had almost become a bit of a Mary Sue—not really, but it felt almost like she lost a bit of herself and tried to “fake it until she made it” or something. Still, I enjoyed the book, drama, angst, heartache, and all.
Recommended for readers who enjoy YA fiction, have endured traumatic loss, need to feel as though they aren’t alone, and for those who recognize that the human heart was designed for hope and redemption. Carlson does a beautiful job at weaving all those elements together.