Why teen books aren’t just for teens

Off the Shelf

When I was eleven years old I read a book that grabbed me by the throat. It was summer and I was bored, so I did what I often did in this situation: I snuck into my older sister’s closet, rifled through her boxes of books on the floor, chose a title with a cover that looked interesting, and ran outside to the field behind my backyard. I found a cozy spot with tall grass and hunkered down for the afternoon to read. What I’d inadvertently chosen that day: S. E. Hinton’s classic coming-of-age novel The Outsiders. From the first page I was hooked. I was too young to fully grasp many of Hinton’s complicated and mature themes of family dysfunction, gang culture, and tensions between communities of different socio-economic levels, but the fact that the book opened up to me this mysterious world of teenagers who looked so different from me and yet with whom I felt such a kinship was enough to fascinate me. The Outsiders is considered by many to be the first novel written specifically for teens, and captures so well the frustration and alienation felt at this age, a feeling that we as adults often feel as well. As The Outsiders celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it astounds me to think about how much this genre of literature has come into its own. Since The Outsider’s release in 1967, the market has been flooded by millions of books written specifically for this age group, and the myriad of book awards now given to this area of literature demonstrates its influence on the publishing and reading world.

Despite the fact that I am now an adult, I continue to be a fan of the young adult fiction genre, and what has become clear to me over the past three years is that I am not alone. The teen fiction genre is becoming increasingly popular among the library’s adult fiction readers, and for good reason: some of the most exciting, socially relevant books of the past ten years have been written by young adult authors. If you have yet to dip your toe into this genre of books, here are some of my all-time favorite titles to get you started:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Collins’ mega hit was a genre-defining work. A dystopian setting in which the disenfranchised scrabble to survive while the uber-wealthy mostly sit in passive complacency, this nail-biter has enough twists and turns that I was kept guessing until the very end. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen defies so many of the usual stereotypes; she’s almost unlikeable she’s so abrasive and emotionally suppressed, yet her authenticity makes her a uniquely compelling heroine.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Myers’ New York Times bestselling work is an astounding look inside the life and mind of a sixteen-year-old Harlem native on trial for the murder of a drugstore owner. Did he do it? Is he the monster everyone thinks he is? Our unreliable narrator – and the way in which this book makes his experiences real for the reader – forces us to wrestle with this question, and ultimately makes Monster one of the most important teen novels of the past 20 years.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

High school freshman Melinda Sordino has stopped talking. Even more disturbing than her sudden refusal to speak is the fact that no one really seems to notice. Speak is an important piece of literature that powerfully demonstrates the oft-unseen brokenness and damage that sexual assault can leave behind, as well as the difficulty of speaking up for yourself when it feels like nobody is listening.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park’s lives could not be more different; Park, an Asian-American, comes from a loving, well-off family. Eleanor lives in poverty under the constant threat of Richie, her abusive and controlling stepfather. The pair quietly builds a relationship while riding the bus to school every day, wordlessly sharing comics and eventually music on the commute. Eleanor’s dignity in the face of impossible circumstances and Park’s gradual understanding of his own privilege – as well as Eleanor’s strength – makes this one of my all-time favorite teen books.