Young Adult novels are often centered around coming-of-age stories which highlight the adolescent experience and the transitional period between childhood and adulthood. The characters of YA novels often experience moments in their life that unveil the comforts of childhood and innocence and expose crushing truths about the reality of society. In a few of the novels in this article, the protagonists were born and raised in conditions that stripped away their innocence from the start. Others experienced trauma or tragedy outside of the usual coming-of-age story. Each of the albums paired with these novels, while not specifically reflecting on the adolescent experience, correlate to some emotional or societal theme displayed by the characters in the novel.
1. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
Album: Wheel, Laura Stevenson (2013)
Melinda Sordino, the protagonist of Speak, is entering her first year of high school. Over the summer, she was sexually assaulted at a party and became ostracized by her peers after calling the police. At the point the novel picks up, she is struggling to deal with the ramifications alone. Melinda’s pain is echoed in Laura’s Runner, where she repeats again and again, “the summer hurts.”
As a result of the party, Melinda’s friends abandon her, and her parents, struggling with their own tumultuous relationship, fail to support their daughter. Melinda falls into severe depression as a result of this event, which is only perpetuated by the responses of those around her. Melinda is largely nonverbal to those around her and extremely uncomfortable in her own skin.
Laura’s whole life involved complicated family dynamics, which is reflected in the contents of the album. Not only that, but she has suffered many lasting bouts of depression, which deeply affected her self-image, productivity, and overall health. Like Melinda, Laura’s lyrics reflect feelings of being overwhelmed and overshadowed by the world around her. The trauma inflicted by the complicated relationships in her life or other circumstances caused her to feel or act in ways that she did not like. Laura and Melinda alike experience depressive feelings that seem to make their minds and bodies feel like prisons.
In spite of all the insecurities and baggage that cause each of them to feel the way they do, they are still human beings, desiring love and capable of giving it, in spite of their inability to show this to the outside world. While Melinda experiences solace and growth through her art, Laura is able to exorcise guilt and other overwhelming feelings through song.
2. The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton (1967)
Album: Christmas Island, AJJ (2014)
Getting Naked and Playing with Guns, the fifth track on the album serves as a perfect encapsulation of the novel. It shows the danger of being different from the norm and the expectation to be manly. The Outsiders follows a group of high school-age boys who are born and raised neck deep in the reality of the unforgiving nature of the socioeconomic disparities in the world. Children of God, which defamiliarizes the event of childbirth, reflects this idea of being born into a miserable fate. Boys like Johnny, who remain soft in the face of trauma and hardship, are chewed up and spit out by the social circumstances in which the boys have grown up.
Additionally, their roles as males in society put an expectation on them to be strong and macho, while they are clearly sensitive and emotional deep down. Even Dally, who is considered the most delinquent of the group, has a fierce and loving heart on the inside. Dally is a reactionary person — his volatile behavior is a symptom of the world around him. On the outside, he seems a violent young man, but on the inside a hollow shell of a scared boy, much like the unloaded gun he carried around. The track Best Friend reflects the way that hardship and grief can haunt you, much like the death of Johnny haunted Dally.
AJJ frontman Sean Bonnette, evidently more sensitive and internally anxious in nature than the ideal image of a boy or man, finds himself and others like him to be an easy target. In addition to that, the songs grapple with impenetrable self-hatred, likely caused by insecurity, anxiety, and disillusionment with contemporary society. This paints the world as a vicious place, one that suffocates purity from the moment of birth to the moment of arrival into a world that the speaker views as unwaveringly cruel.
Understanding life is meaningfully worthless
The world was born to kill all of the Jesuses
There’s something big and powerful and wise
And it’s begging us to end its worthless life-AJJ, Temple Grandin Too, Christmas Island (2014)
3. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)
Album: Vacation, Bomb the Music Industry! (2011)
The Catcher in the Rye follows the narration of Holden Caulfield, a jaded sixteen-year-old boy who has experienced extreme mental anguish due to grief and turns to unhealthy ways to cope. After his expulsion from school, he travels around New York City to avoid returning home. While not a vacation, like the album title, the misery and revelation in Holden’s travels are similar to that reflected in Bomb the Music Industry! frontman Jeff Rosenstock’s own experience.
Holden is an avid critic of the world around him, calling everyone and everything “phony” while failing to recognize or admit to his own display of shortcomings and hypocrisy. Like Holden, who has been expelled from several schools, Jeff can only seem to respond to his own spiraling with behavior that furthers said spiraling. No matter how many times he finds himself in the same cyclical patterns of unhealthy coping mechanisms or becoming a burden to those who love him, he feels like he is unable to change. They both are clearly feeling very emotionally hollow and acting in ways indicative of a cry for help, but they are unable to find solace in all the wrong avenues in which they search for it.
We sympathize with Holden because he is young and he is dealing with tremendous feelings without a proper outlet, but we recognize him as an extremely flawed person. Holden himself, despite his criticism of everyone else, must be aware of this because he lacks the ability to truly get close to the others in the story. He is soft and sensitive, and he desperately wants to feel loved and protected, but his mountain of buried emotional baggage prevents him from displaying these parts of himself, and he keeps looking to fill his void with all the wrong things. In Savers, Jeff sings:
I got so hung up things that keep me down
That I start feeling lost when they’re not around
When relaxing feels like sinking
Into a bubbly pit of one arm reaching out,
Hey, can you save a life?-Bomb the Music Industry!, “Savers,” Vacation (2011)
4. Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)
Album: French Exit, TV Girl (2014)
Alaska Young has been seen by many critics as Green’s own rendition of a manic pixie dream girl or an essentially static character whose main function appears to be helping along the personal development of a male protagonist. Of course, when we consider our narrator Pudge’s character, a sixteen-year-old boy who never really had a lot of friends, it makes sense that he would develop such an infatuation with her and view her the way that she is portrayed in the novel. TV Girl has also been called out for the depiction of women in their songs. It seems that both Pudge and the voice of TV Girl’s French Exit have fallen into a habit of negotiating the terms of their worlds and their own insecurities through their ideas about women and relationships.
The Getaway and Daughter of a Cop capture the feeling and thrill of youthful delinquency and love, which mirrors a lot of the goings-on in the novel. Although Pudge is not used to being a troublemaker, his newfound friendship with the Colonel and Alaska leads him to be involved in a number of pranks and hijinks which heighten his sense of togetherness in the group, along with being a lot of fun. Although a few pranks for the sake of forming lifelong bonds aren’t all that bad, Pudge’s idealizations about teenage social dynamics and Alaska ultimately become crushing in the face of reality.
The dreamlike, nostalgic quality of the album, featuring samples from various media from the mid to late 20th century, further gives off that feeling of idealization. The songs that most remind me of Pudge and Alaska are Hate Yourself and Lovers Rock, as I feel they grapple with idealizing a person versus actually engaging with them. Hate Yourself is from the perspective of someone who watches their love interest in a series of what he views to be shallow relationships. Petering sings, “How long will it take / Until you start to hate yourself and go / Straight to the arms of someone else and I’ll just / Wait ’til those arms belong to me.” While Pudge doesn’t necessarily view Alaska this way, the nature of their relationship is one in which she strings him along, and he waits for her to look his way despite her having a boyfriend.
5. The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
Album: Amerikkkan Korruption by Capital STEEZ (2012)
The Poet X is simultaneously a story about a young Dominican girl named Xiomara who is struggling to find her voice and a love letter to spoken word poetry. Xiomara faces societal pressures from many angles, both due to the fervent religious beliefs of her mother and the objectification that she experiences from men. In his song Dead Prez, STEEZ asks, “Is there a heaven for us hip-hop heathens?” which echoes the tension Xiomara has with religion. Despite her extensive collection of personal poetry, these pressures prevent her from being able to communicate her feelings to the outside world.
Through her poetry, however, and with the encouragement of other people in her life, Xiomara is able to use her words to empower herself. In Amerikkkan Korruption, Capital STEEZ uses hip-hop as an outlet for his discontent with society, as well as one to assert his capabilities. In Free the Robots, STEEZ discusses his distrust of the government and scorns its propensity for violence. While the pair are airing their grievances about different experiences, they each use an art form to put power to their words. In a lot of ways, hip-hop is just like poetry with music behind it.
Whatever musical genre you’re into, I hope you’re able to find something on this list that suits your fancy and enhances the way you view your favorite young adult novels. Though young adult novels are targeted at adolescents, these pairings show that their themes often transcend age and time.
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