I grew up reading. Throughout my elementary and middle school uears, I read and read like crazy. In high school I loved reading books from “the canon” written by all the great dead white men Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare, and Flaubert. I was a full on “lit nerd.” It was a lonely existence, because I often had no one to talk to about these books. The only “talking” I could do was in my English classes where I talked through writing papers and “analyzing” literary features of the story. There was almost no “just talking” about love of books – just analyzing for grades and to impress my teachers.
There were no YA books in the mid-eighties. There were a few awful teen magazines, and some of my friends and I wrote complaint poetry and tried out other writing forms very timidly. It was a very different literary landscape from today. There were no contemporary books written for teenagers then.
Today, I am an avid Young Adult book reader. In some ways I am an adult who is reaching back to see and feel those overwhelming emotions of my teen life and finding a whole tribe of writers and characters who actually get it and understand what I went through. I think that many of us adult YA readers are like a survivors group who find validation and healing through the acknowledgement of the feelings and experiences of our teen lives. Encountering a novelist who says “I see you and I get it” is so powerful and healing.
So, now that books like that are out there, how do you find one to read? How do you recommend them once you’ve found them? I have learned from the teenagers I’ve taught and those who have spent time with me discussing books that you do it the way that teens do a lot of things: with great passion and in stark positive or negative language. Here are some examples:
“Oh my God! You haven’t read this book? What are you doing with your life? Why are you sitting there NOT reading it right now?”
“This book is LIFE CHANGING! It’s just so… ugh! And the character is the most perfect and amazing person I’ve ever met and I can’t believe that this book even exists because it’s that good.”
“I love this book so much that I have read it eight times. It is my life and my reason for getting up in the morning. Read it now. Why are you still sitting there NOT reading it?”
This is how I like my book recommendations. The fact that I like to communicate with teens this way and hope that they’ll “talk books” with me the same way they might talk to peers is sometimes jarring to the teens I encounter. If I see a teenager carrying a book, I am most likely going to ask them about the book they’re reading.
I have attended a few book festivals, have approached teens in lunch lines or other places where they’re carrying books, and I like to read tweets and Good Reads reviews. If I hear a recommendation any less passionate or definitive than the above examples, I don’t read the book. If I see a teenager reading a book with a beautiful girl in a flowy dress on the cover, I ask if they like the book. My next question is: “Does the girl in the book DO anything or does she just sit around waiting to fall in love?” This question sometimes startles the teen I’m talking to, but I’m not interested in a book where the girl takes no other action aside from falling in love.
Once a teen reader realizes that I’m actually interested in their opinion, I usually get the full force of their passion (for good or for bad) and can decide whether or not to read the book. As I said before I get anything less than fully passionate endorsement, I don’t even bother with reading it. There are too many great YA books out there to spend time reading books that are deemed only “OK.”
I find myself speaking about the books that matter to me in the same terms. I don’t make any literary judgments or definitive style comments. I’m not writing a literary analysis. I just want you to know which books I love. They affect me deeply and stick with me for long after I’ve read them. Yes, I have favorite authors. Yes, I have favorite books. I can’t always explain why I love them, but I do.
Next weekend I am heading out to the ALAN – Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (National Council on Teaching of English) Conference. I will be seeing many of my favorite authors – Jason Reynolds, A.S. King, Andrew Smith, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan, Kwame Alexander, Jandy Nelson, Matt de la Peña, Sharon Draper and Gene Luen Yang. I will be star-struck. I will be speaking in the terms above. “The book was so… ugh… amazing and beautiful.” “I love how the character was so… and ….” My inner teen will be on full display.
Please leave a comment about the books that you recommend with such passion and definitive endorsement. My ‘to read’ list is never long enough.