I read a lot of realistic teen fiction. That may sound pretty benign, but when it comes to teen fiction “realistic” can seem like code for “issues.” So many of the teen books I read are about abuse, poverty, trauma, risky behavior, and bad decisions that lead to terrible consequences. Tough Topics, I used to call them when I worked in a library. I had a huge bibliography of these books divided by subject. It was, frankly, depressing. My reading list can really get a person down.
This summer, I took a break from serious stories. I spent my summer reading the fluffiest YA romance novels I could find. One after another. I couldn’t get enough happily ever afters. Even when the path to that HEA was completely cheesy, I would keep reading and select another silly book when I was through. Sometimes that’s what you need. Or, at least, sometimes that’s what I need.
For those of you looking for similar books, I offer you the three standout teen romances I read this past summer:
- The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson – An overachiever has her summer plans disrupted and finds herself finding happiness where she least expected it. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I really enjoyed this story that explored family and friendships in addition to having a sweet romantic story line.
- Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein – Reluctant friends with divergent taste in music find romance in this cute story. I have a particular weakness for books that feature indie music, so this was a fun read for me. There’s even a playlist to go along with the book.
- The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Yes, technically this book doesn’t even publish until November, but I read an advance reader’s copy this summer so I’m counting it. It is easily one of my favorite YA novels of 2016, and it’s a National Book Award finalist. In addition to the romantic adventure that takes place in one day, this book also takes on some serious topics like race and immigration.
An one more bonus recommendation for those of you who prefer actually-published-for-grown-ups books: Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag is a sweet, magical story about second chances. Worth reading for a bit of HEA fluff that isn’t about teenagers, if that’s your thing.
I am a pretty predictable person. Especially when it comes to books. I’ve read enough to know what I like, and I rarely finish a book that I’m not enjoying. There are too many books in my To Read pile to waste on something that isn’t resonating with my soul at the moment. My To Read pile is populated by realistic teen fiction with some historical novels thrown in for variety. I’ll read the books about tough teen issues and vary it up with a cute, fluffy romance. Other than a serious science fiction phase over ten years ago, I stick as close to realism in my fiction as I can get. That said, I have really enjoyed a few fantasy novels recently. This is so unusual that I can’t not share.
- An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, but I hadn’t planned on reading it until a copy fell into my hands. It’s a big book with a map of a fantasy world on the end pages. It’s probably the last book in the world I would expect to like, but I was there, it was there. So I started reading. To my surprise, I devoured the book. In a weird way, it reminded me of Ender’s Game, which I read during my science fiction phases all those years ago and still love, because of the militaristic setting and moral questions. In any case, one the short list of fantasy novels that I highly recommend, An Ember in the Ashes is probably at the top.
- The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead. I received a copy of the book after meeting the author, and I was intrigued by the idea that this would be the first book in a trilogy in which each book would tell the story of the same time period from different characters’ perspectives. Even more rare for me than reading a fantasy novel is me reading all the books in a trilogy. But I will probably not be able to resist the future installments of this one with its unusual concept. Lucky for me, it’s like fantasy-lite. The fantasy world is more like an alt-historical world (no magic or magical creatures), so it fits closer to my usual than I expected.
- A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz. This book drew me in by the way it was told. It is written as a history of a war between fairies and gnomes. It begins with “Once upon a time,” but it is far from a gentle fairy tale. There are photographs, drawings, and excerpts from other books, and it all served to immerse the reader (or me, at least) in the world, brutal as it was. The unusual narration and the depictions of sex and violence probably make this book one read with caution, but I found myself absolutely unable to put it down.
Here’s to being more open minded about genre. You never know what stories you’ll connect with if you give them a chance.
“Girl Groups: Because no one can do it alone.”
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have particular affection for YA novels that reference music that I like. So when the BFF character in We Were Never Here by Jennifer Gilmore gives the main character an “old-school” mix CD of girl bands with the words above stenciled on the case, I cheered. She’s right. We can’t do it alone, and while music can’t fix our problems, it can save us. As the protagonist notes in the book: “There are different ways to be saved.”
On that note, here is some Sleator-Kinney. Because you can’t do it alone.
Also on my girl group playlist: Bruise Violet.
“Inspired by a true story.” These were like magic words to me as a teen reader. I loved reading about real historical figures and events, but nonfiction never kept my interest. So most of my knowledge of history came from historical novels. As a teen I couldn’t get enough of novelized versions of kings’ and queens’ lives, of wars and tragedies, and whatever else I could find.
I still love historical fiction, but I have since learned that you can’t take everything you read in a historical novel as historical fact. Yes, I did learn this the hard way. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time.
Fortunately, these days there is plenty of nonfiction about historical people and events that don’t read like a textbook. I assure you that I have actually managed to occasionally glean some facts from reliable sources on occasion, but I am particularly delighted when historical fiction brings the reliable sources to me by way of back matter that differentiates fact from fiction. Audacity by Melanie Crowder is probably the best example of this that I have found. It’s a novel in verse that fictionalizes the life of Clara Lemlich, a union activist in the early 1900’s. The book is extremely compelling even without knowledge of Clara Lemlich’s life, but the historical notes and interview with Lemlich’s descendants at the end of the book add to the power of the story. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction from this era.
Then there are the books that introduce me to bits of history that I didn’t know about before. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is set around the time of the 1937 New London school explosion, which I hadn’t known about before, but it is primarily the love story of Naomi and Wash. It is perhaps the most powerful teen novel I’ve read in a long time, but note that it has been referenced as a book that is very likely to make you ugly cry. Read it with caution. But definitely read it.
I have yet to read any of Ruta Sepetys’ novels, but they are in my queue. Her new book, Salt to the Sea, is a meticulously researched fictional account of a little known maritime tragedy during World War II. It sounds like a book the teenage me would have loved, and frankly, I’m more than a little intrigued by it now. Learn more about the book and the event is is based on here:
It’s about listening and humility.
At the AWP conference this past Saturday, I made it a point to attend as many discussions about diversity as I could. The conference is aimed at writers not librarians–I only dream of calling myself a writer–but I found the perspective quite valuable. I attended panels that featured writers of color discussing their work and their experiences in the publishing world, and the conversations kept coming back to listening and humility.
Can you write outside of your own experiences, including those of race, culture, and gender? Sure. But be aware of the complexity there. Be aware of the history and the stereotypes that exist. Do your research, but–perhaps most importantly–beware of research. Facts are good, but they only take you so far. Facts read from books or gleaned from acquaintances don’t tell the whole story of a race or culture. Facts don’t get at the intricacies of humor and language. In her panel Navigating the Waters of Authentic Voice in YA Native Fiction Debbie Reese, who writes the fantastic blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, cautioned that even primary sources about American Indians can be problematic. She urged non-Native writers to focus on being allies rather than being voices for Native people.
In the Race in YA Lit panel, writers from various cultural backgrounds shared their experiences with micro-aggressions, self silencing, and burn-out at always having to educate people about privilege and race issues. There was some frustration in the conversation, but there was also optimism. A lot of optimism actually. Just the fact that we were having that conversation about race at a major conference means something. The fact that #weneeddiversebooks wasn’t just a hashtag fad means something.
“Allies are important,” moderator Swati Avasthi (author of Chasing Shadows) said as she noted that the audience was mostly white. But there were cautions in this session too. Avasthi said, “If you’re trying to do your research, do it with humility. Don’t go in and speak first.” Varian Johnson (author of The Great Greene Heist) offered this consideration: “Are you writing to exploit or enrich? Are you writing to expand the conversation or because you heard diversity is trendy?”
I spend a lot of time on this blog asking people to listen to me or explaining what people aren’t getting about my experience. My day at AWP was a really valuable chance to stop talking and listen. I don’t remember who said it, but this sentiment got a lot of nods: We are all on this journey. No one has all the answers. Let’s do what we can to keep this conversation going rather than shutting it down.
In the spirit of enriching the conversation, I offer these links:
I have been eagerly following the discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit going on at Teen Librarian Toolbox. I haven’t been talking about religion very much anymore on this blog. It is one of those awkward topics after all, like politics, that people tend to avoid. But I am still reading about it a lot, and I am very glad that others are talking about it. After all, I spent most of my life (including all of my teen years) as a person of faith in a non-mainstream religion, and I seem to always be drawn to stories that reflect the feelings that I remember from my religious experience, including the feeling of not wanting to be part of the religious identity I had always known.
Here are just a few of the teen fiction titles that resonated with me, and my admittedly unusual experience, on the subject of faith:
- Hush by Eishes Chayil – This story addresses issues of sex abuse in a minority religious community in which reporting to the outside authorities is discouraged. It affected me deeply since it was an issue for my former religion as well.
- Like No Other by Una LaMarche – While there has been some discussion of the problematic portrayal of Hasidic Judaism in this book, I thought that Devorah’s emotional experience struggling with her faith and strict religious community was beautifully written. I think that is an important story to tell, and I saw this story as a way of sharing parts of my own.
- Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock – Starbird’s situation in this book is even more different from mine than the previous two on this list–she lives in a cult–but, again, it is the emotional experience that resonated with me. When she leaves her home and interacts with the Outside for the first time, she learns that Outsiders are not all bad and that her ideas about the world might not be completely accurate. This is, perhaps, one of my favorite de-conversion stories that I’ve read for its grace in capturing a nuanced experience.
- Eden West by Pete Hautman – While I’m on the subject of cults*, I’ll throw this book into the discussion even though it won’t be published until April. There are already too many cults in teen fiction, but I’ll allow this one. Yes, the cult has some weird beliefs, but Hautman lets his character figure it out slowly and reluctantly. No matter how weird one’s beliefs are, the process of leaving them is slow and reluctant. Too many teen novels don’t get that. This one does. Watch for it.
A few other titles that make the list: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (atheism/agnosticism & Orthodox Judaism), Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (Quiverful Christianity; Publishes in June 2015), A World Away by Nancy Grossman (Amish). On the nonfiction shelves: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. I have a running list going on my book list wiki.
None of these books is an exact match to my experience of religion or of separating from it, but each of them offers some glimpse into the world of making your own way in the world that is different from the way you were raised (or considering the possibility of doing that). That is not an easy thing to do, and it is not easy to capture. I am looking forward to the continued discussion on TLT, and I applaud them for taking up a topic that people often avoid discussing in mixed company.
Curious about my current religious identity? I shared that story here.
* When you are part of a minority group that isn’t often reflected in fiction, you tend to find similarities where you can. There is an emotional resonance for me with these stories about cults because they are also a minority belief group. My discussion of these books should not constitute a commentary on religion in general or in specific.
I’ve had a bit of extra reading time over the past couple of days as I’ve mostly been stuck in a jury waiting room. I didn’t really think about my reading choice for the first day of jury duty; I just grabbed a book from my library stack. How was I to know that I’d grabbed a road trip novel that typifies a wandering spirit on a day when I was confined to an underground room? Despite the circumstances, I did enjoy the story. And I had plenty of time to read it. ;)
Let’s Get Lost had several elements that I tend to like in a book. It was a feel-good story of self discovery with a little bit of romance. Not to mention a connection to the Twin Cities and references to music I like.
To celebrate a cute book and getting through my first two days of jury duty, I thought I’d share a musical connection to the book. Here is Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Oh Comely,” which has a small but significant place in the story:
As a side note, when I got home from my day of jury duty during which I finished this book, my partner had Neutral Milk Hotel playing. Weird, right? I bring this up because I just read a book that focused on coincidences, and I’m seeing them everywhere these days. If feel-good road trip romances aren’t your thing, maybe the thought-provoking suspense of She is Not Invisible is more your style.
Either way, don’t forget your book if you have jury duty.