Young Adult Fiction can be hard to define. It loosely applies to books that would be read by teens, and yet the age span from 12 to 19 is developmentally wide and vast. Books that appeal to an older teen may not be appropriate for a younger teen. The content can vary from “light and sweet” to “dark and disturbing.” The latter often include relevant current issues and can be very poignant and thought-provoking. I know that many adults, including myself, enjoy many of the wonderful novels that are designated to the YA genre.
One current example is Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, about a sixteen-year-old girl, Starr, who witnesses the murder of a childhood friend by a police officer. This book is beautifully written, addressing race and class and exploring depths of emotional terrain that are vital for our time. Starr’s first-person account of the divide between her poor neighborhood and her upper-class prep high school is authentic and illuminating. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t want it to end. It’s a YA novel that every adult should read and was recently released as a movie. I’m still trying to decide whether or not to see it, not wanting to lose the sanctity of the words on the page.
Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is another YA novel that should be on every adult’s list, especially if you’re a parent. Teen Hannah Baker leaves behind tapes outlining the thirteen reasons why she committed suicide. It addresses the struggles and traumas many teens experience and, in some ways, leaves more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it raises relevant issues to ponder and address. It was also translated to the screen in a Netflix series.
Another important and industrious book was I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. Having worked with immigrant teens for many years as a psychotherapist, I found the issues explored in this book relevant and timely. The protagonist, Julia, has to navigate not only her own grief following her sister’s tragic death, but also the grief of her Mexican parents and extended family which exacerbates the already challenging cultural and emotional divide she experiences with them. She feels different, unable to place herself, and disconnected. I found myself empathizing with her in much the same way that I have with many of the teens I have worked with in therapy.
I’ve been drawn to these types of emotional struggles in YA books since I was a teen, perhaps foreshadowing my future career. One of the books that I felt most impacted by in high school was Sylvia Plath’s A Bell Jar. The authenticity and depth with which it was written fascinated and terrified me. Today, the historical window into mental health treatment is illuminating and heartbreaking.
For a more lighthearted YA book for younger teens, I enjoyed Jenn Evans Welch’s Love and Gelato. It was an endearing story of first love and the meaning of family, with a little mystery and the charm of an Italian setting thrown in. Lina, the protagonist, pieces together secrets from her deceased mother’s past while exploring Florence and falling in love.
A similarly enjoyable story with a foreign setting was Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss. Against her wishes, Anna is uprooted from her home in the US to spend her senior year of high school in Paris. She misses home, struggles to fit in, makes new friends, and falls in love. There were some obstacles to conquer, but nothing that isn’t resolved happily. It was an enjoyable, fast-paced book that I could easily see being made into a very sweet movie.
What YA novels are on you list? Which do you think are “must reads” for adults?