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Teens as Caregivers in YA Novels

November is National Caregiver Month, a time to celebrate the caregivers in our lives. Who do you think of? I’m from a pretty traditional background, so I think of my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. But I also was cared for by friends and mentors along the way. Just as each of us knows the importance of these people in our lives, so do many authors, and the theme of caregiving resounds from the pages of YA literature.

In many cases the teen characters of YA books are caregivers to each other. A group of friends (or enemies in some cases) will band together to survive against long odds or battle a tyrannical government. This is especially the case with many dystopian novels and is one of the reasons we love YA so. We see this in books like the Ashfall (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) series by Mike Mullin, the Chaos Walking (2009 Best Books for Young Adults) series by Patrick Ness, the Ship Breaker (2011 Printz Award) series by Paolo Bacigalupi, the Lost (2011 Teens’ Top Ten Nominee) novels by Michael Grant, and the Unwind trilogy (2011 Top Ten Popular Paperbacks) by Neal Shusterman.

However, there some other ways in which teen characters are presented as caregivers. Some YA novels depict teens as caregivers to their siblings or parents. Probably the best known of these is Katniss caring for Prim (and then Rue) in The Hunger Games (2009 Best Books for Young Adults) series. Because of their mother’s depression after their father’s death, Katniss is forced into being the caregiver for the entire family, and specifically for her younger sister. The Scorpio Races (2012 Printz Honor Book) by Maggie Stiefvater introduces the reader to Puck Connolly, whose desire to save her younger brother from extreme poverty inspires her to be the first-ever female rider in the mortally dangerous island races. In The Things a Brother Knows (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults) by Dana Reinhardt, Levi refuses to be pushed away his older brother, Boaz, who has just returned from war. In this beautifully written piece, both young men wrestle with ideas of heroism and war as they struggle to regain Boaz’s humanity.

C.J. Omololu’s Dirty Little Secrets (2011 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers) is a wonderful example of a YA novel that shows teens are caregivers for families or parents. In this novel, Lucy desperately attempts to help her mother, who is an out-of-control hoarder. On a little lighter note, football-playing tomboy D.J. Schwenk is called on to run the family farm when her father is injured in Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen (2007 Best Books for Young Adults). One of the most disturbing books among those that show teens as caregivers is Split (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults) by Swati Avasthi. In this powerful novel, 16-year-old Jace Witherspoon flees his home after years of abuse from his father. He sets out to find his older brother and attempt to convince their mother that she is strong enough to leave the horrible life she is living.

There are even YA novels that show teen caregivers helping those who happen into their lives. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (2009 Morris Award Honor Book), the reader struggles along with Katsa and the child, Bitterblue, to survive the mountain trek that may save their lives. Pop by Gordon Korman centers on Marcus Jordan, a high school football player who moves to a new town where he encounters an ex-NFLer, Charlie Popovich. As their friendship grows, Marcus discovers Charlie has early-onset Alzheimer’s caused from his years on the gridiron and works to help his new friend and mentor enjoy the life he has.

These books serve as great reminders that teens are resilient, caring, strong, and amazing!

— Michelle Blank, currently reading The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

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Michelle Blank

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