As a middle school English teacher, I’ve read a lot of young adult literature and, quite frankly, there’s a lot of crap out there (I won’t even climb on my anti-Twilight soapbox). Navigating the muddy waters of YA lit can be akin to, well, teaching middle school, but there really are some amazing reads in this genre.
As a result, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. Some are old standbys, while others are recent publications. They all deal with a greater theme worth discussing and a style that even grown-ups can appreciate. And for those of you who were racking your brains for ways to connect with your adolescent daughter that don’t involve vampires or LMFAO, you’re welcome.
Hinton’s requisite novel of classism and coming-of-age tells the story of Ponyboy, an orphan from the wrong side of the tracks. He and his fellow greasers are constantly at war with the Socs, the West-side rich kids who enjoy picking fights with the poor kids in town. Not only is the story a timeless struggle of classism and the danger of stereotypes, but the non-stop action and relatable characters make this one hard to put down.
The original dystopian novel for kids, The Giver is set in a futuristic world without choice or true emotion. The main character, Jonas, begins to see that things can change for himself and his people after being given an honored, yet painful role in his community. Lowry took her time writing two sequels to the novel, Gathering Blue and The Messenger respectively, and once you reach the ambiguous ending of the original, you’ll be scouring your local library for the next volumes in the series.
The Hunger Games
There’s not much I really need to say about this one, as the recent media hype surrounding the movie has likely clued you in to the plot. I will mention the important message this novel sends to a world increasingly obsessed with spectacle, even at the expense of our fellow man. At the rate our society is devolving, it may only be a matter of time before we’re watching our children kill each other for sport.
We all knew someone in middle or high school who was quiet, strange, and sometimes bullied for the aforementioned qualities, and in Speak we see the world through that person’s eyes. Of course, like many of the wallflowers we once knew, this protagonist, Melinda, is haunted by a memory that transforms her from normal adolescent to ostracized leper who refuses to speak. My one recommendation is that you avoid the Wikipedia page for this novel because it gives the damn secret away in the first sentence of the synopsis (though you’ll probably infer it yourself within the first few pages).
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Set in Mississippi in the 1930’s, this coming-of-age novel follows the Logans, a tight-knit African American family living in the Jim Crow South. Cassie, our narrator, is too young to fully comprehend the level of racism that she’ll endure throughout her life, but we witness a series of injustices through her innocent eyes. Based on all they experience, the Logan children are a symbol of the generation that becomes champions of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for equality.
Told through a series of letters, diary entries, and court reports, Monster is the fictional account of 16-year-old Steve Harmon’s murder trial. The young African American is suspected of serving as a lookout while older guys from his neighborhood rob a convenience store, but the clerk is killed and Harmon is charged for felony murder. As the plot unfolds, we see that this kid, who’s been forced to act callous and indifferent on the mean street of Harlem, is truly a scared little boy facing the possibility of a life behind bars.
Nothing But The Truth
Also told in a similar style to Monster, this book follows the media frenzy after a kid is sent to the principal for reciting the pledge. The kid, who is a trouble-making little punk just trying to get a rise out of his teacher, is portrayed on the news as a true patriot who has been denied the right to honor his country in a public school classroom. A circus ensues, and the veteran teacher responsible for disciplining the student is attacked in the media and threatened with her job and a civil rights lawsuit. This novel is a quick read and a true testament to the damage done by irresponsible journalism bent on sensationalism.
The Chocolate War
Tensions run high when prep school boys are forced to sell chocolate as a campus fundraiser and uphold the social hierarchies of the time. Think Lord of the Flies meets Gossip Girl meets Dead Poets Society. The novel often appears at the top of banned book lists (my own litmus test for awesome), and its controversy is the reason every teenager should read it.
This is the one book on this list that comes with a disclaimer: the language can be a bit crass. But if you’re willing to understand the reason behind said language (a statement on the deterioration of proper speech), then it’s easy to overlook. Set in a future in which all humans are wired with a feed of information which allows them to chat with one another telepathically, learn about the latest and greatest products for sale, and even reach a state of intoxication by purposefully causing their feeds to malfunction, the novel is a satirical warning of excessive consumerism and an increasing lack of privacy as our world shrinks with technology.
Written in verse, this novel follows Verna LaVaughn, a 14-year-old high school student who offers to help 17-year-old Jolly babysit her two small children from different fathers. Jolly struggles financially and emotionally to raise her kids without anyone’s help, but Verna’s willingness to lend a hand changes both of their lives forever. Powerful, poignant, and heartbreakingly hopeful, Make Lemonade will remind you how amazing life can be when you’re willing to open yourself up to the experiences of others.