Books Outside The Box: Realistic Fiction With A Bite

The wealth of paranormal YA books keeps growing. Angels, mermaids, werewolves, dragons and vampires are all great for escapism. But readers live in the real world, where it’s not Twilight and there are no Mortal Instruments.   Contemporary realistic YA fiction is girding its loins and tackling issues important to today’s teens head-on, from self-esteem to sexting, predators, eating disorders, and feeling like an outsider.


paintSasquatch in the Paint, published 2013 by Disney-Hyperion, may be loosely based on author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s experiences growing up, but it is definitely not just another basketball book. This story for both middle grade and young adult readers is about Theo, an 8th grader who grew six inches over the summer and is now taller than all his friends and many of his teachers. He has been recruited by the basketball coach even though he has never played before. The coach expects him to help the team win its first game in years.

Theo is also a member of the school’s Science Club and preparing to help them win the “Aca-lympics,” a science trivia contest. He can’t split himself and do both. That leaves him forced to make a choice, one hampered by an unspoken fear: that he’s just not good enough for either role.

Here he was. Panicky. Gawky. His throat so dry it scratched when he swallowed.

If that’s not enough, his cousin, a musical genius with his own self-esteem issues, accuses him of stealing one of his songs. He needs to convince more than the mysterious girl called Rain that he is not a “Sasquatch.” He needs to prove it to himself.

trickA Trick Of The Light, by Lois Metzger, published 2013 by Belzer + Bray, is a first person story, narrated by the voice inside Mike’s head. Anorexia Nervosa is not just a female issue. Ten percent of the people in the United States with eating disorders are male, “overlooked, understudied and underreported.” The voice observes Mike and his family dynamics, and persuades him to act, to gain control of his life–of his body, at least. He recently lost his grandmother, his father is so busy he is seldom around and finally leaves for good on the arms of a new young girlfriend and his mother is emotionally distant. The voice is not evil, not his enemy. It claims to be the best friend Mike ever had. It only wants to help Mike, because:

I think parents generally do their children more harm than good, and Mike’s parents are no exception.

Mike joins that ten percent when he finds a mirror, listens to the voice, and begins his attempt to find control through starvation and over-exercise. He doesn’t see it as not eating but as making himself better, even as he drops his old friends and the baseball team (it’s too sedentary) and takes up running and bulky sweatshirts to hide the caved in chest that is one of his “signs of success.” Only the people around him see his success as a problem. And only Mike can make the decision to stick with his voice, or try to find a way to leave the voice in the pit and be free.


panicThe deceptively beautiful cover of Panic by Sharon Draper published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2013, hides a dark reality. Layla is dealing with a demanding boyfriend who wants her to prove she loves him. Her lack of self-esteem leads her to agree to letting him take a few topless pictures of her. They are supposed to be just for him.

Until he gets mad at her.

Layla’s mistake is nothing compared to the one her friend Diamond makes. Fifteen year old girls are supposed to understand stranger danger. But the pedophile who lures Diamond into his car has spent time stalking her, and knows exactly what to say to to get her to drop her guard. He claims to be a filmmaker and the father of a child actress. He offers her the too good to be true chance to meet two of her favorite stars. When he sweetens the deal with a chance for her to audition for a role in a film with them, but only if she comes along now, she doesn’t take time to reason things through. Her last text message to her friends:

this was 2 good 2 pass up

Friends and family hold vigils and cooperate with the police, while Diamond deals with the horrors of captivity and the kind of starring role she never wanted. In the end, only Layla has any chance of understanding what Diamond went through.


trafickedTrafficked by Kim Purcell, published in 2012 by Penguin Group, tells the story of Hannah, a seventeen year old girl tricked into traveling from Moldova in Eastern Europe, to a suburban house in Los Angeles. She thinks she is going to be a nanny and send money home to her relatives. Instead she is physically and sexually abused, then forced to chose between working sixteen-hour days with no pay or becoming a prostitute.  Her lack of English skills makes it easy to keep her too afraid to talk to police or complain to strangers.  All she has is the boy next door. He begins to suspect that something is off, but he doesn’t know what it is or what he should do. The idea of a girl being held captive in his middle class neighborhood is unthinkable. Yet the author points out that thousands of people are trafficked into the United States every year, and at least half are children, hidden in warehouses, brothels, and in regular neighborhoods.


revengeIn  Revenge Of A Not So Pretty Girl by Carolita Blythe, published 2013 by Delacorte Press, fourteen-year-old Faye is still praying for breasts (any kind of bump or curve would do). At first you think this will be just another story about a girl giving the school’s hot cliche a much-needed lesson. Pretty girls spurn Faye, boys don’t notice her, and her own mother – well, the less said about that woman who gets abusive when life gets hard, the better.  Faye’s two best friends (only friends) suggest they get revenge on beautiful people by robbing a former movie star. Faye agrees. The woman may be old, but she was once a beauty and that makes her mean and deserving of whatever happens to her. Only things quickly go wrong, and the old lady is left unconscious or dead while the girls run off. Faye’s Catholic conscience sends her back to the scene.   She finds the woman still alive.


Faye begins an interaction with the elderly white woman that leaves both of them examining their lives and struggling to change for the better.   Faye begins to gain confidence, and when she begins to see herself in a new light, so do the kids at school, and the boy next door. The setting is 1984 New york, just far enough in the past so that technology (Facebook, YouTube and mobile phones) do not get in the way of the story, yet still fresh enough to appeal to many teens who think of themselves as outsiders.


futureThis Thing Called the Future by J. L. Powers and published in 2011 by Cinco Punto Press is about Khosi, a fourteen-year-old in South Africa who wants an education and has plans for a future. But she is pursued by superstition and an older man who believes sex with a teenaged virgin will cure him from AIDS. She struggles to keep her goals in sight and remain true to her beliefs. She has to deal with the clash between her belief in the modern, scientific world of biology and Christianity, and the old culture that believes in  the spirits of the ancestors, witches and herbal muthi (medicine). People expect her to pick one side, and one side only, but Koshi feels strongly about both halves of her life and culture. She realizes that no matter how much we learn, no matter how much we know or think we know, there are still many things in the world around us left unexplained by science and logic. Should she become a nurse, or a traditional healer?

American teens will be able to relate to many of Khosi’s experiences – a first boyfriend, conflicts with family members, friends who make poor decisions – things that are common to adolescents and teens everywhere. (This Thing Called the Future is a 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection.)


insideI picked up the language inside by Holly Thompson, published 2013 by Delacorte Press, thinking it was one kind of book, and quickly discovered it was something else. Something more. This book told in verse is about people learning to be themselves and to express themselves. Emma has been raised in Japan since infancy, she considers the country and culture hers, even though she sticks out wherever she goes. When her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the family moves to Massachusetts to live with her grandmother while Mom is being treated. And suddenly, Emma is an outsider in a whole new world. She looks like she belongs, but she doesn’t feel a part of anything.

I don’t know when to say what

I don’t know if something’s funny or not

I don’t get sarcasm

layered over sarcasm

and jokes made by

unjoking faces

I know how to read silence in Japan

I can read the air in Japan

but I don’t have a clue

how to read the air here.

She joins the Model UN group at her school only to be ridiculed when mentions being from Japan asks if anyone there speaks the language.  Then she volunteers at a nursing home and meets Zena, a woman paralyzed by a stroke, able only to move her eyes.  Worry and the culture shock have brought on migraines, attacks that come with no warning, leaving Emma blind, nauseous, and helpless. She and Zena learn to communicate, to tell stories and write poetry and express their feelings and will to live. Emma also meets Samnang, a boy whose Cambodian mother survived the killing fields, and whose American father is an alcoholic the family warns him away from. He doesn’t communicate much beyond a shrug or a “Hey,” but his compassion and dancing skills send her messages beyond words.


Reality bites because sometimes readers want a dose of reality. And frequently, even the most reluctant reader can be tempted by the stories “behind the headlines.”

-B. A. Binns, currently reading The Last Boy On Earth by Greg van Eekhout and listening to The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

4 thoughts on “Books Outside The Box: Realistic Fiction With A Bite”

  1. If you want realistic fiction with a bite, try Home Truths By Jill MacLean. It’s about a boy who learns karate to fight off his abusive father. It’s real, gritty and wise.

  2. I just finished “Flawed” by Kate Arelynn that deals with an abusive (ex-boxer) father, and later a brother whose affections are misdirected when he discovers his sister, the only person he feels truly loved him, falls for his best friend. Very good writing but no warm fuzzies. Author reveals something toward the end that unless you were paying close attention, you missed. A crucial piece that catches you off guard. Still processing on how I feel about the book overall. “Riley’s Pond” is another that deals with date rape and how it changes the way the hero and heroine interact after the fact. Lighter, great family dynamics, with a lesson in not letting something bad define you as a person. My all time favorite is Sarah Dessen’s “Dreamland.” Great story on abusive relationships between girlfriends and boyfriends – a definite recommended read for teens.

    Thanks again for another wonderful post. Adding “Panic” and “A Trick of Light” to my TBR list.

  3. Interesting post, B.A. I don’t have a title to add but certainly found the books you’ve highlighted to be amazingly useful in today’s young and new adult worlds.

  4. I tried to include books that include if not warm fuzzies, then at least hopeful endings for readers. I both read and write books that deal with abusive relationships and domestic violence, so I am adding Home Truth and Flawed to my never-ending to be read pile. Thanks for the suggestions.

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