Updated: Jun 4, 2019
The first novel I read as a teenager was S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. If you've been to high school, you've probably read it. Published in 1967, it is one of the first novels ever written for teenagers. Hinton was only a teenager herself when she wrote it. The book tackles issues such as stereotypes, not fitting in, gang violence, strained family relationships, poverty and social class rivalries. The internet and social media have added a new level to the challenges teens face, but what Hinton wrote about is still relevant to young adults today. Since its publication, millions of books for teens have been written. In the past year I have read through 27 novels for young adults, and it is, without a doubt, my favorite type of literature. YA books bring out the ever so raw emotions of being a teen. I wouldn't go back if I could, but reading about the struggles young people face always captures my attention.
I feel young people have a ton of pressure put on them without the right tools to face them. They are as emotional and hormonal as they were in the sixties ( I think. I was born in the 80s), but something has changed. Is there more peer pressure? More drugs? Social Media? Family Issues? Everything combined? Probably. I know I struggle to get my students to pick up a book, and when they do, it's a struggle to get them to finish it. I honestly believe there is a book out there for everyone, and writers and publishers think so too.
There has never been such an array of literature available to young people offered by diverse authors. The YA Mtl Fest made that clear to me. It was held in Montreal last weekend and hosted authors from various cultural backgrounds with books in several sub-genres (fanatsy, sci-fi, realistic fiction, etc). Panel discussions were held on romance novels, diversity, family issues in literature, LGTBQ+ characters, and more. For me, it was a day of discovery. I picked up an armful of new books and a sense that I too, may have a space in this market as I push through my own YA novel.
Heather Smith, author of Ebb and Flow, The Agony of Bun O'Keefe and Angus all Aglow said about YA literature, that kids want to know they are normal. Reading about a character who has similar issues gives a young person reassurance.
Cherie Dimaline, author of The Marrow Thieves stated that storytelling is so important, because it is in the stories that we find our truth.
Kagiso Lesego Molope, author of This Book Betrays my Brother explained that her characters speak to her, tell her their story and she lives with them for the time she is writing. As a reader, I too feel characters are with me as their stories unfold. For a young reader, this is also the case.
I read aloud to my students and at the end of almost every class, they are wanting more, asking what happens, and can I read just one more chapter? Such sentiments come from what these three authors profess about storytelling.
This year I read The Outsiders to my secondary two students, as I have been for the last fifteen years, and like always, they loved it. They connected with the characters on so many levels, but particularly the way Ponyboy, the main character feels he just doesn't belong anywhere.
We also read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and although the context is different, Junior is also a social outcast, even among his tribe. In David Levithan's Every Day, which I read with my secondary three students, a person changes body every day, and doesn't belong anywhere either.
Teens, just like adults, want to feel a sense of belonging. Every YA book I read this year deals with this issue on some level, although it may not be the main story line. What I realize is that each book and set of characters deal with the issues in a unique and personalized way, making this genre of literature the most eclectic, diverse and exciting. The feeling of I can't put this down, that's the feeling I chase for my students. It's an ongoing pursuit, but by the end of every year, I get a few more students hooked on a book they never even knew existed, proving to me and themselves that reading makes you feel good about yourself and your possibilities.
S.E Hinton may have gotten the ball rolling over fifty years ago, but today's authors are honoring her endeavor to tell a story that needs to be told, hoping to catch a young reader's attention. It's not easy given how literature has a lot more to compete with. Despite Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, teens do like a good story. I live for that common gasp among my students when I read the plot twist, or the soft sniffles of sympathy for a character from different corners of the room. They may need a push finding the right book for them, but it's out there on a shelf anxiously waiting to be held. Go find it