The MashUp: A Blog About Books For Teens
Jamie Watson is AdLit.org's consultant for young adult literature. Jamie is a reviewer for School Library Journal and she is active in the Young Adult Library Services Association, serving on several of its committees, including Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults. She is a librarian in suburban Baltimore.
A recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer article called this the "golden age of young adult literature." Teens are buying 25% more books today than in 1999.
However, it's only recently that a significant segment of these young adult books has targeted the older end of the age group--readers ages 16 through 19. The appeal of these new books is not controversial content, but simply protaganists and situations that are relatable to teens facing adulthood.
In 2005, Mary E. Pearson wrote a moving and literary book, A Room on Lorelei Street. It features 17-year old Zoe, who tires of caring for her alcoholic mother and gets a job so that she can have her own apartment. The story of Zoe brings to mind the heyday of the Oprah book years, with a strong female character rising above her dysfunctional upbringing.
This year brings us National Book Award nominee Deb Caletti's The Nature of Jade. Jade is also 17 and a senior in high school, and while she suffers from an anxiety disorder, this isn't a "disease of the week" book, the anxiety is simply one part of her life and world. Jade's parents seem superficially happy, but there's a quite a bit of discontent under the surface. When she meets Sebastian, after seeing him on the webcam based at the local zoo, she finds true love but also a bigger mess than she bargained for.
Again, romance, dysfunction, and a healthy dose of subplots allow older teens to read books much like those their parents are reading, but about characters their own age. Kudos to Simon & Schuster, which put Deb Caletti's picture on the back cover of The Nature of Jade , so that the book even looks like an "adult" book.
In the 1980s, lots of attention was paid to the baby boomers, children of the 1960s, becoming parents, and the generation gap. The TV series Family Ties explored this gap with care and humor—the liberal, activist parents vs. the more conservative, traditional children. Once again a counterculture gap exists, this time between punks of the 1980s and their children of the 21st century. Two great recent books have dealt with these "punk rock parents."
Gordon Korman's Born to Rock features Leo, an uptight Young Republican who finds out that his "father" isn't his father after all, but actually punk rock singer King Maggot of the band Purge. Through some fun but far-fetched plot devices, Leo ends up accompanying Purge on their reunion tour, and comes to discover lots more about himself, his real dad, and punk than he bargained for. Though the book includes some sex, drugs and rock and roll, it takes place off the page, and has serious consequences, making this book suitable for middle schoolers.
Cecil Castellucci's Beige has a similar premise, if for an older audience and with a plot more grounded (somewhat anyway!) in reality. Here, Katy has always known her father was "The Rat" of the original punk rock band Suck. But her parents are estranged—her mother making a new life in Montreal, while The Rat continues his rocker ways in LA. When work takes her mother out of the country, Katy is forced to stay with her father and his edgy friends. Katy feels "beige" amid a sea of more colorful folks, but soon finds her own color. Since Katy is just 14, her transformation seems very believable, and the realism in this book extends to some sex and profanity, but high schoolers will find this adds texture and is to be expected of the characters.
Recently at an event at the American Library Association annual conference in Washington, DC, the conversation turned to One Book and The Big Read programs. These reading events bring libraries, schools and community groups together to plan programming around one book, uniting communities in a massive book discussion group.
Washington, D.C. recently chose Zora Neale Hurston's wonderful Their Eyes Were Watching God for their program, and this spring, Durham, NC chose The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey. This book follows four promising high school basketball players from Coney Island, New York as they pursue college scholarships as a means to escape the crime and poverty of their neighborhood.
The librarian I was speaking with said some of the adults she worked with didn't want to read the book and complained "that they didn't like sports," "they didn't like non-fiction," or "reading about kids in difficult circumstances is depressing." This, even though they are generally avid readers and dedicated library customers.
Certainly, we're all entitled to our tastes, including the tweens and teens we work with, who also resist when presented with books outside of their own tastes and offer similar excuses —- "it looks boring" or "I don't like science fiction," etc.
Many adults think length is the only criteria to consider when choosing titles for young people -— "short" equals appealing and "long" equals the kiss of death. During my years of working with reluctant-to-read teens, I've found that kids, like adults, are drawn to appealing covers and subject matter. For example, the first of Stephanie Meyer's incredibly popular vampire series, "Twilight," was named a Top 10 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers in 2006, despite being nearly 500 pages long. Length did not deter reluctant readers from devouring a hot vampire romance, and word-of-mouth encouraged it, while other, shorter vampire books received cooler receptions.
This is something to keep in mind as you try to find titles with appeal to reluctant-to-read tweens and teens. There are no one-size-fits-all books. What matters is whether the subject appeals to the individual reader.