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Books That Make You Fight Back

Right now its a beautiful summer day outside my door. The sun is shinning, a cool breeze is blowing, and it is hard to imagine a day more perfect. What isn’t hard is imagining a worse scene. News reports, documentaries, even Twitter all bring stories and images of a darker world. Sometimes it’s even as easy as opening a book.

For many teens, adolescence is when they start seeing the dark in the world, near and far. Many teens themselves live in dangerous areas where violence and crime are everyday occurrences that affect them. Teens are also used to having little or no voice when it comes to many important choices. They can’t vote yet and are subject to their parents’ and school rules. As a result many are very aware of social injustices, unfairness, or lack of equality in their own society and others. YA literature is full of books that look closer at social injustices that make you want to fight back.

Shine by Lauren Myracle (2012 Teens’ Top Ten Nominee)

Cat doesn’t have many friends anymore, but she’s shaken when one she was close to, Patrick, is severely beaten and left for dead. In her small, rural community, many people are willing to think and say he was asking for it by being gay. Cat doesn’t care why; she wants answers and she wants to know who.

Myracle creates more than just a story of homophobia and intolerance. She looks at deeper layers involved: poverty, abuse, drug use, and bullying. What could be preachy or after-school special is instead a complex and fully realized story. Myracle makes the effort to create a place where terrible things can happen but also shows that the violent cycle can be broken.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Top Ten Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults)

Tragedy has struck in paradise. A plane carrying fifty teen beauty queens to the Miss Teen Dream beauty pageant has crash landed on a deserted island. The survivors band together to find food and shelter, keep up their beauty regimen, and, of course, practice their pageant walk and talent for the competition. Lead by Miss Texas, the girls find more dangers than they expected from stuffed monkey-carrying dictators to deranged pageant officials and reality-show pirates.

Humorous satire of the superficiality of media and advertising? Yep. Sarcastic send-up of beauty pageants? Sure. A nuanced and rare look at young women discovering their true selves and inner strength and beauty? Surprisingly yes. Looking beneath the surface, Bray tackles self-esteem, identity, gay, lesbian and transgender acceptance, broken-hearts, and broken nails with wit, tenderness and honesty. By the end it’s hard to pick your favorite Miss Teen Dream when the characters have gone through tremendous growth and change.–all because of a beauty pageant.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (2010 Top Ten Best Books For Teens, 2010 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults)

Marcelo father wants him to live in the “real world.” He pushed Marcelo to leave the special school he’s attended his whole life. Marcelo is much happier with his therapy ponies than with people in the “real world.” Marcelo’s father gives him a challenge: work at his law firm for the summer, do a good job, and Marcelo can stay at his school. Although reluctant, Marcelo accepts his father’s deal. Marcelo works in the mailroom with Jasmine, who shows him the ropes and how to navigate the complex social hierarchy. As he becomes accustom to working in a busy and chaotic place, Marcelo finds a mystery, a picture of a woman with only half her face.

As Marcelo struggles to find a place in the “real world” he also struggles to understand how such a tragedy could happen to another human and how he can make it right. Stork presents a magical and singular world as seen through Marcelo’s eyes. His unique perspective challenges injustices accepted by others, and his courage proves stronger than any disability. Stork shows that sometimes seeing things black or white, good or bad, is the only way to see the gray in between.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2012 Morris Award Finalist, 2012 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults)

Sepetys tells a harrowing story of an overlooked but important episode during World War II.  While Jews where being sent to concentration camps in Nazi-controlled Europe, Soviets were sending people from their own occupied areas to work camps in Siberia. Fifteen year-old Lina’s life collapses when her father is arrested and taken away while she and her family are sent thousand of miles away to a work camp. Conditions in the camp are harsh and inhuman, with impossible working conditions and improper nutrition, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Lina’s mother struggles to keep the family safe and to find information of her husband. Lina finds comfort in her art but there are times when even it is not enough.

Based an actual events, Sepetys shows the power of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity. The bleak tale is dotted with moments of warmth, comfort and hope. Even when confronted with unspeakable hardships, communities form to support and help, even if it is just a gift of food or a piece of paper. Sometimes it is the smallest gestures that make the most difference.

Some might stay away from books that tackle issues like social injustice. It’s summer, why read heavy, depressing books? Sometimes its important to look at the darker side of our world so we can imagine and fight for a better one. As the famous painter Bob Ross once said, you have to have dark in order to see light.

For more books about social justice, visit the Cooperative Children’s Book Center website.

— Amanda Margis, currently reading Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood and listening to What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

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5 Comments

  1. Jessica M Jessica M

    Great list! I loved Beauty Queens because it made you think…even as you were snorting with laughter. Marcelo in the Real World is on my TBR list and so is Between Shades of Gray. I really need to get to those soon!

    • Amanda Margis Amanda Margis

      The audio of Marcelo is so great! Lincoln Hoppe does a great job at creating Marcelo’s voice which is a critical to the story because it is so unique. Highly recommend.

      • Jessica M Jessica M

        Oooh! I’m definitely going to try it on audio sometime…I’m totally addicted. :)

  2. Edda Rodriguez Edda Rodriguez

    I absolutely LOVED Beauty Queens! It is such a funny and clever take on something that affects all teenage girls (and women in general).

    • Amanda Margis Amanda Margis

      Beauty Queens covered a lot of ground! There were so many ideas and issues that could be strung out into five or six different books. I think it would be amazing to do a lit study with other titles like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and Not That Kind of Girl and compare their takes on what it means to be a young woman in today’s society.

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