If someone tried to tell me that being a teenager was easy, I’d be tempted to call them a liar. Teenagers these days face stresses and challenges that most generations before them didn’t have to face. They’re expected to do well in school, get into college on their first try, manage jobs and extra-curriculars, have a social life (that’s not too wild, but not too mild either), and nowadays, they’re frequently finding themselves on the frontline of social and political change.
Putting it bluntly, being a teenager is hard.
When I was that age, I would frequently search for an escape in books. Usually, fantasy was my genre of choice, but I also would read a lot of realistic fiction as well. “I might think I’ve got it tough, but at least my life isn’t this hard,” is what I would tell myself with every turn of the page. Even though the characters weren’t real people, I found comfort in their stories. For me, it was a reminder of sorts that I wasn’t alone, especially in how I was feeling. Indeed, books like these were some of my greatest comforts.
As an adult, I still enjoy reading realistic young adult fiction that deals with tough issues, though now I look at them through a different lens. While I still take comfort in them, I also view them as a way to keep track of some of the trends taking place in the teenage population. These books can serve as mirrors and help us as adults better assist our younger population as they grow and mature.
The following books are some of my personal favorite realistic YA books that deal with difficult subjects. As some of the topics discussed in them can be triggering, appropriate warnings will be provided. Also, please note that this blog post will contain spoilers for some of the books.
Who’s it by: Laurie Halse Anderson
Trigger warnings: Rape, bullying
What’s it about: Melinda has just started high school. Though most people would view this as an exciting time in life, Melinda is miserable. She is an outcast, shunned by everyone (including her former best friends from middle school) because she busted an end of the summer party by calling the cops. To top it all off, Melinda has effectively gone mute, communicating with her parents via post-it notes and anyone else who speaks to here in monosyllables or not at all. Her only comfort is her art class, in which each student has been assigned a topic that they’ll work on all year. Melinda’s topic is trees. It is through this class that Melinda is finally able to begin her healing process and speak the truth about why she called the cops to the party that night.
Why’s it so great: Melinda is a character that almost everyone can relate to in some way, shape, or form. While teenagers may see themselves in her, parents might see their own children. Even though the book was written in the 1990s, it still captures the social expectations that many teens find themselves struggling with. To top it all off, Melinda is a rape victim, attacked by an upperclassman who still attends the very high school she goes to. She’s forced to see him almost every day. Instead of completely imploding, though, Melinda eventually learns how to speak up once again and say her truth. She outs the classman for the rapist that he is, and in her ironic, wry voice, becomes a heroine that all students, especially female, can look up to. Melinda’s story is one that unfortunately is all too familiar, with multiple stories about rapes and sexual assaults at schools in both higher and lower education being seen on the news every year. Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, however, helps provide the strength and courage one may need to speak up for themselves and let the truth be known.
A final quote: “When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.”
Title: The Hate U Give
Who’s it by: Angie Thomas
Trigger Warnings: Police brutality, murder, racism, violence and abusive relationships, mentions of drug use
What’s it about: Starr Carter balances on a tightrope between two worlds. On one side, there’s Garden Heights, the poor neighborhood where she’s grown up and her family still lives. On the other side, there’s Williamson Prep, the posh, predominately white school that she attends. She’s been doing a good job at balancing the two until one night when she attends a party in Garden Heights and gunshots from a gang fight interrupt it. Her childhood best friend, Khalil, offers to drive Starr home, but the two of them get pulled over. When all is said and done, Khalil is dead, shot by the white police officer who stopped them. Khalil was unarmed. His death rocks the community, and a battle between the citizens and the police seems imminent, with Starr caught in the middle as the only person who really knows what went down.
Why it’s so great: With this book Angie Thomas has given a voice to a population that has found itself in the news all too often. Even though it is fiction, the scenario presented is all too real -an unarmed African-American male being killed by a white police officer. However, by virtue of it being presented as a YA fiction book, it becomes more accessible and understandable to a wider demographic. Starr’s character is both relatable and extraordinary, and the honesty and candidness of her voice lends her character immense credibility. Not only that, but Starr is in many ways the epitome of the word “brave.” She has to stand up to world and speak the truth, but she also has to do the same thing with her friends, a huge challenge for any teenager. This book is both heart-breaking and inspiring and will hopefully convince more young people to stand up and make their voices heard.
A final quote: “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
Who’s it by: Ellen Hopkins
Trigger Warnings: Drug use, rape
What’s it about: Kristina Georgia Snow is the perfect daughter. She’s a gifted high school junior, quiet, and never any trouble. When Kristina goes to visit her largely absent and in general ne’er-do-well father, she’s introduced to something that will become a new power in her life: crystal meth AKA crank AKA “the monster.” Under the influence of the monster, Kristina discovers her alter-ego, Bree. If Kristina is a good girl, then Bree is her bad counterpart. Bree will do all the things Kristina won’t, which includes attracting the attention of dangerous men who can provide her with a steady flow of crank. Told in verse, Crank is the story of what begins as wild, ecstatic ride that descends into addiction and ultimately turns into the fight for her mind, soul, and life.
Why it’s so great: One of the first things readers should know is that this book is based on real events. Author Ellen Hopkins has stated that the book is loosely based on her daughter’s own story, and is 60% fact. That in and of itself lends the book a fair amount of credibility (along with the fact that the book is used in some drug-prevention programs). Outside of that, this book is blunt, raw, and one could also argue brutal. It pulls no punches. As it’s written in verse, it is quick and to the point. It does not wax poetic or romanticize drug use. Readers see all of the ugliness and just how easily drug use can spiral out of control. Kristina/Bree’s story is haunting, and it sticks with readers for a very long time.
A final quote: “The problem with resolutions is they’re only as solid as the person making them.”
Title: The Book Thief
Who’s it by: Markus Zusak
Trigger warnings: Suicide, war
What’s it about: 1939, Nazi Germany. On her way to her foster home in Munich, Liesel’s brother suddenly dies. When she and her mother get off the train to bury her brother, Liesel takes The Gravedigger’s Handbook when it is left in the snow by accident. Liesel, however, cannot read, though that doesn’t stop her from stealing books from Nazi book-burnings and even the mayor’s wife’s library. It is only with the help of her accordion-playing foster father that she learns to read and eventually shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as the Jewish man hidden in her basement. As the war rages on, Liesel’s world is both opened up as it is closed down and the power of books truly emerges.
Why it’s so great: The world that Liesel is forced to live in is a bleak one. She’s effectively an orphan (never met her father, mother sent her to a foster home, and her brother died on the way to said foster home), it’s the middle of World War II, and she’s uneducated. Her life is effectively hopeless. And then she meets Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and everything is changed. Where his wife, Rosa, is gruff (though also has a big heart), Hans is quiet, plays the accordion and teaches Liesel to read and write. She becomes friends with Rudy, the boy from next door who idolizes Jesse Owens. And she meets Max, the Jewish man who shows up at their house and is taken in by Hans, knowing the risk that he and his family are taken. Through this vibrant cast of characters, readers are shown that even in the darkest of times, hope can be found, even when it seems like Death is narrating the story.
A final quote: “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know?”