As an English student and aspiring writer, I learned that school is for ‘literary’ fiction—and I learned that ‘literary’ is not synonymous with ‘good.’ The definition appeared to be based more upon what a book isn’t than what a book is. Literary fiction was rarely ever genre fiction. Literary fiction was rarely ever queer. Literary fiction was rarely about modern teenagers. When you replace the word ‘literary’ with the word ‘meaningful,’ none of these statements remain true. It’s time to reconsider which books will be most meaningful to high school students today—and why that emotional impact has academic value.
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YA has always been a groundbreaking genre. When S.E. Hinton‘s The Outsiders earned its publication in 1967, it was published as an adult book. It wasn’t one. Written by a teenager, the novel told a story far darker than any other featuring high-school-aged characters. Hinton’s protagonists were vandals, smokers, poor, and angry. These characters were not what parents and educators wanted teenagers to be—but they were who teenagers were.
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Today, YA books are increasingly diverse. Years of fun, superficial dystopias have given way to biting political novels, with Samira Ahmed‘s upcoming Internment and Victoria Lee‘s upcoming The Fever King using YA genre fiction to capture the realities of racism, bigotry, and immigration. As topics of LGBTQ+ rights, socioeconomic inequality, rape culture, discrimination, and violence permeate classrooms like never before, it’s more important than ever to consider the impact of a curriculum that reflects a students’ reality. Some YA novels have gained traction as literary classics: The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and The Book Thief. Yet rarely does anyone refer to these as YA books, as children’s books. ‘Literary’ is not synonymous with good—and YA is not synonymous with inconsequential.
While there’s no reason to remove books from high school curriculums, it’s time to make some room. These ten books serve as examples for what a school curriculum with more YA novels might look like:
1. Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky‘s debut, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is the classic YA bildungsroman, addressing topics of drugs, homosexuality, and sexual abuse before most YA books dared to venture into such territory. This year marks the book’s twenty-year anniversary, and, through its heartbreaking honesty, the novel continues to resonate with the next generation of teenagers.
The critically acclaimed debut novel from Stephen Chbosky, Perks follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
2. The Hate U Give
High school reading lists are notoriously male… and notoriously white. Few books on high school reading lists take place in this century, which is a pretty big deal, given that it’s no longer the turn of the millennium. The twenty-first century has been around for nearly twenty years—and those twenty years have been violent. Angie Thomas‘ The Hate U Give, a timely contribution to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, addresses modern social issues in a way that outdated books (let’s say Heart of Darkness) can’t and don’t.
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night?
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
3. Looking for Alaska
John Green‘s Looking for Alaska treats its audience as mature enough for existential questions. The novel depicts both the freedom and destruction inherent in coming of age—when you get the chance to grab the steering wheel of your own life, it comes with the chance to crash. Looking for Alaska is a complex portrait of youth: a time of discovery, love, and recklessness.
Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.
4. The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Emily M. Danforth‘s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is especially relevant in a world in which gender and sexuality are increasingly part of the conversation. For many high schoolers, growing up means realizing your feelings are not the ones you might have expected—and discovering what it means to live when your existence is so politicized.
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.
5. The Poet X
Elizabeth Acevedo‘s National Book Award winning novel, The Poet X, is a diverse story of body acceptance, rape culture, gender roles, religion, abuse, and homophobia. The story describes the sort of personal development any school would be lucky to cultivate, as Acevedo’s protagonist becomes herself through the art of language. The Poet Xis a novel of creativity, passion, and the power that comes from both.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
6. It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Ned Vizzini‘s It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a candid yet earnest depiction of mental illness, going beyond more superficial depictions of depression to actually show its protagonist on a psychiatric ward. Though the novel explores the full weight of mental illness, it also shares the less visible parts of depression: the hope and desire for happiness that comes just after hitting bottom. In a time of increased depression and overworked students, this novel addresses a reality that many older classics may not.
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.
7. Beneath a Meth Moon
Though schools and parents continue to censor drug-related content, addiction is a reality for many students—regardless of whether the addiction is a parent’s, a friend’s, or their own. Especially over the past decade, natural disasters have also increased in frequency; often, these communities struggle to recover both physically and psychologically. So do the people in them. Jacqueline Woodson‘s novel, Beneath a Meth Moon, addresses these issues.
Laurel Daneau has moved on to a new life, in a new town, but inside she’s still reeling from the loss of her beloved mother and grandmother after Hurricane Katrina washed away their home. Laurel’s new life is going well, with a new best friend, a place on the cheerleading squad and T-Boom, co-captain of the basketball team, for a boyfriend. Yet Laurel is haunted by voices and memories from her past.
When T-Boom introduces Laurel to meth, she immediately falls under its spell, loving the way it erases, even if only briefly, her past. But as she becomes alienated from her friends and family, she becomes a shell of her former self, and longs to be whole again. With help from an artist named Moses and her friend Kaylee, she’s able to begin to rewrite her story and start to move on from her addiction.
8. Eleanor & Park
Rainbow Rowell‘s stunning Eleanor & Park depicts an interracial relationship, a troubled home life, and a town too small to hide the secrets and prejudices that live inside it. This sounds like a love story, and it is one. But romantic love for someone else isn’t the only kind of love there is.
Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.
Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.
Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.
Laurie Halse Anderson‘s classic Speak addresses a topic that we as a society have waited years to address openly: rape. Anderson wrote on this issue in 1999, well before the #MeToo movement that, even in a time period of increased awareness, has proven divisive and controversial.
The first ten lies they tell you in high school.
“Speak up for yourself–we want to know what you have to say.”
From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.
10. Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
There isn’t enough LGBTQ+ literature on high school reading lists. There aren’t enough authors of color on high school reading lists—and, unlike in life, there are almost no queer PoC in the high school curriculum. (Unless their school is phenomenal enough not to have banned Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple, students who share these characters’ experience have almost no material in the English curriculum representing their experiences.) Benjamin Alire Sáenz tells such a story in his novel Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—and he tells it devastatingly well.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
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