As I like to say to students, “When I was a teenager, there were almost no YA books.” Yes, I read all the Judy Blume there was. I loved her books. There were parts of each of her characters that I could relate to somehow, but those were the only books I knew of about girls my age. My appetite for reading did not wane. As a teenager I read every Agatha Christie novel I could find. Reading them gave me an escape. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the English countrysides, London’s posh locations, and other farther flung locations like Egypt. I found the predictability of having an answer at the end and someone to blame to be immensely satisfying. I think that because I was a military brat that kind of constancy and reliability in my world of moving to new schools in new towns was comforting. I still love murder mysteries.
My teen home and school life was more chaotic and harder for me to make sense of, though. My parents and I fought constantly and I didn’t have a network of friends or family close enough – emotionally or geographically – to help me work through my sadness, anger, and what was undiagnosed clinical depression. As a teen during the 1980s, John Hughes movies helped, but again, there were only so many of them.
When I decided to go back to school to earn my MEd. in Secondary English and become a teacher of teenagers, I didn’t imagine that it would be so healing to my bruised and unacknowledged teen pain. Through a class focused on Young Adult Literature, I read several books about teenage characters that spoke to my teen self in ways that brought me right back to that painful time and helped me feel like someone out there may have been feeling the way I did then – all along. That feeling of not being alone was bestowed by Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher.
I have read as much Young Adult fiction as I can since discovering those books and the way they made me feel so understood. I have also passionately recommended reading YA books to my teen students, my teen sons and daughter, and my kids’ friends. Sometimes I feel like a dealer of illicit materials, “Psst… Hey kid, you might really like this book. It’s about someone your age whose parents are worried about them and they fight all the time. But, the kid meets a friend at school who’s problems are even worse and they become friends and… Try it. Let me know if you like it or not.” That’s my hard sell. I know that is sounds lukewarm, but the teenagers I know are told what to do or what they “should” do so often that being given a choice to read a book only if they like it seems revolutionary and appealing.
Watch this spot for book recommendations and tales from a teen book reader and story “dealer.”