I’ve been a fan of children’s literature for most of my life – though, truth be told, more as an adult. As a kid, I spend my kid-lit years on a mission to read as many “grownup” titles as possible. During my years teaching at martial arts studios, I figured reading some middle-grade and young adult titles would help me build rapport with my students.
Good young adult and middle grade fiction manages to speak at that maturity level without speaking down. The characters and plots aren’t as complex as those in adult titles, but they are fully realized and free of holes. Young adult books don’t pull punches in terms of language, sexual situations or “hot” topics like drugs and alcohol.
The Newberry Medal recognizes the “best” young peoples’ book of the year, and their choices are often excellent. However, I haven’t read one yet that dealt with the raw-nerved, pants-wetting social terror of being a teenager. Don’t get me wrong: I love me a Newberry book, but most of them read like something your English teacher wants you to read.
The best titles read like something your English teacher would be uncomfortable letting you read without first checking with your parents. Some examples I’ve read recently, in no particular order.
One Good Punch (Richard Wallace) A successful student and track star with scholarship prospects gets a wrench thrown into his future when a random sweep finds his friend’s drugs in his locker. He has to choose between sending his friend to jail or being expelled.
Fat Kid Rules the World (KL Goings) Local rock legend, drug addict and dropout stops the narrator from committing suicide because he’s fat and unpopular. The two start on a path of saving one another in a narrative that doesn’t blink about drug use, self image and family dynamics. As a bonus, the relationship between our narrator and his father is complex, angsty and loving. Just like the real thing for many teens.
Twisted (Laurie Halse Anderson) What happens when the kid who everybody used to pick on spends the summer working landscaping and comes back muscular, tanned and confident? His world-upside-down trip through social pressures, bullying, drinking, violence and sex turns what some teens fantasize about into its own set of problems.
The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex) A lighthearted romp through two alien apocalypses, Smekday follows a teenage girl and alien companion on a roadtrip through occupied America. It’s mostly funny, but often extremely violent – and sometimes both.
Burn (Suzanne Phillips) Probably the most depressing book I liked – and I made it all the way through HMS Ulysses. A special needs student’s reaction to systematic bullying pushes him nearer and nearer to violence. The end is surprising, timely and….just right.
Feel free to comment and bring more gems to my attention, or to tell me if you think I’m full it.
Thanks for listening.