I was one of those eager reader teens, picking up books from the adult section of the library back before there was a thing called YA. But even I rolled my eyes at some of the tomes put on school reading lists. Most were written by people dead long before I was even born, and I will not tell you how long ago that was. Recently, I watched an 8th grader wading through one of the books that was old when I was his age. I had to think: hasn’t anything that portrays the same message been written in the last century?
Fortunately, many modern YA books do provide complexity in characterization, strong plot structure, ethical dilemmas, and important morals. And many do it with a diverse cast and multi-cultural settings, heightening their appeal to the less-than-eager reader.
These include books like All The Broken Pieces by Ann Burg (2012). The protagonist of this novel-in-verse is Matt Pim, a Vietnamese-American boy adopted by an American family right after the Vietnam war I vividly remember. (The book is classified as historical fiction; guess how old that make me feel.) Matt faces thoughts of the American GI father who abandoned him and memories of the war and the people he was forced to leave behind. He plays baseball, in part because he likes the game, but mostly to keep his adopted father happy. That’s more important than ever because he fears his adopted parents no longer need him since they have a new baby. There are flashbacks to his life in Vietnam, the war, and the dreadful secret that made his mother send him away while she kept his younger brother. And Matt’s beloved baseball coach is dealing with cancer. There is so much in this slim book that readers may wonder how Matt bears everything on his shoulders. There is courage in action, survivor guilt, what it’s like to be different, and the love of family.
Being different and forced to depend on your wits to survive is a theme in Trash by Andy Mulligan (2011). Trash involves four children — Raphael, Gordo, Rat, and Pia — who live a life of almost unimaginable poverty in an unnamed third world country where corruption is king and political prisoners are plentiful. Instead of attending school, they spend their days going through trash heaps, searching for anything salvageable. The kids come across an item that should never have been tossed, involving a secret that an unscrupulous politician will do anything to get back. The contents could make them rich beyond their dreams or cause their deaths. Told in alternating points of view, the story takes readers with the four children as they begin a search for treasure and end up risking their lives taking up a cause against a corrupt government official. They follow a trail that leads from the slums, to a jail holding a long-forgotten prisoner, and finally to a graveyard. Little Pia, the daughter of a martyred hero, plays a small, but pivotal role in the quest for justice — and a lost fortune.
Another girl plays an important role when she tries to join an exclusive, all-boys club in The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper (2004). Jericho is angry to find Dana with him and the other pledges, fearing that having a girl around will ruin the Warriors of Distinction, a high school extracurricular club. What he doesn’t know is that the club has already been ruined. This is a Lord Of The Flies-meets-high school story, but unlike that lost island, caring adults are all around. Unfortunately the adults are clueless; they remember the Warriors of old and don’t know how the years have perverted the service-oriented club they knew. The pledges all take a vow of silence. Jericho considers telling his father about the secret evening meetings and the requirement that pledges engage in dangerous activities, but the man is so pleased that his son was selected that Jericho keeps silent. The club’s faculty advisor is content to let the “responsible” seniors run things. Dana is powerful and strong-willed, yet she puts up with hazing rituals that ranges from disgusting to criminal. The cruelty builds a bond between the pledges who work to protect her from the worst of the torment. But nothing protects any of them from their decision to honor their vow of silence, no matter what. That decision leads to the death of one of the pledges, with adults asking how this could have happened.
The twenty-first century is alive and well and filled with authors creating books that allow a diverse set of tweens and teens to find themselves and their reality on the pages. These books reveal powerful truths, teach lessons, and encourage readers to make the complex value judgments required for success. Better still, the books are fun and may inspire kids to read more.
— Barbara Binns, currently reading Prodigy by Marie Lu