As the holiday season enters into full-swing and all my friends are discussing vacation plans with their families far and wide, I got to thinking about the ways in which families are depicted in YA literature. In particular, the surprising lack of diversity in how family units are portrayed as a general rule. More often that not, YA main characters come from “traditional” heterosexual nuclear families with birth parents who are not divorced. That said, as families across the nation become increasingly more diverse on all sorts of levels, so too are fictional families in YA and adult literature. In honor, then, of diverse families, both the ones we are born into and the ones we find, I’ve rounded up a wide array of titles celebrating the love we give and receive from the most important people in our lives.
Holly Goldberg Sloan’s book Counting by 7s is a favorite at my school with both students and teachers alike. It centers on the life of the endearingly quirky 12-year-old genius Willow Chance, the adopted multiracial daughter of loving white parents. When her adoptive parents tragically die in a car crash, Willow finds herself taken in by her Vietnamese friends and their single mom. What I really appreciated about this book is that it emphasizes that family, although always imperfect, is something that can be created and that is ultimately transformative. Featuring a truly unusual and unique set of misfit characters, this is an uplifting book that reads something like a fable or fairy tale come true.
Kate Milford is one of YA’s most underappreciated writers despite a proven track record of extraordinarily deft and delightful novels. Her most recent book, Greenglass House, continues her winning streak and tells the tale of 12-year-old Milo, the adopted son of loving parents who own the smugglers’ inn, the Greenglass House. The story is essentially a mystery that involves a number of odd and unlikely guests, a possible ghost story, and the house itself. At heart though, it is also a story about family and identity. Milo is Chinese with Caucasian parents and he grapples with what that means for him and his sense of self and belonging. Milford addresses these issues with compassion and sensitivity while never losing sense of the larger plot and her intended audience.
Mirka, the heroine of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deustch (2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens), is a feisty 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who ardently wants to fight dragons. In her quest to find a dragon, she encounters instead a talking pig, a curmudgeonly witch, and a tricky troll. The story itself is delightful and incorporates Orthodox Jewish culture seamlessly within its narrative. What’s more, it features a remarkably intelligent, caring, and strict stepmother who provides both needed boundaries and loving support. The inclusion of scenes depicting Mirka’s deceased mother makes the stepparent relationship all the more poignant and heartwarming.
Another hugely popular book amongst my students, Stephanie Perkins’ charming Lola and the Boy Next Door (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) provides us with another utterly endearing romance as a follow-up to Anna and the French Kiss. Like the latter, the book is a tribute to missed chances, smoldering crushes, and love at long last. Lola is an aspiring costume designer with a hot boyfriend who finds herself emotionally torn by the reappearance of her former best friend and love interest, Cricket, the titular boy next door. Perkins is adept at crafting quirky, yet believable, characters who manage to capture your heart; including two protective, supportive, and equally engaging gay dads who provide more depth and nuance to the larger plot. Although primarily a romance, the book is also a study in the complexity of relationships of all kinds, from friendship to family to first loves.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) is the unusual story of two teenage girls, Jill and Mandy, who find themselves living under the same roof when Jill’s mother decides to openly adopt Mandy’s unborn child after her husband dies. Told in alternating points of view, Zarr captures both characters and their often conflicting, raw, and unfiltered emotions beautifully. The unique premise for the novel and the ensuing complications are handled expertly by the always masterful Zarr who approaches her characters, neither one entirely likable, with a keen empathy. In the end, the novel is about finding one’s way through grief and hardship to a place where love, acceptance, and, yes, family can be found.
Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults) is that rare gem of a novel where craft combines with content to create an immersive reading experience. A retelling of Peter Pan, the story is narrated by Tinkerbell (called Tink in the book) as she observes the falling in and out of love of Tiger Lily and Peter Pan. Heart-breaking and unique in its tone and presentation, this is a must read for anyone interested in exploring diversity from a very different perspective. The novel delves into racism, colonialism, religion, and gender variance with surprising grace and insight. The relationship between Tiger Lily and the shaman, Tik Tok, who found and raised her is particularly moving in its portrayal of two outsiders who find family within each other.
As I think about my own non-traditional family, I am heartened by the increasing prevalence of YA novels that understand that loving families are necessarily all unique in their construct and composition but similar in their shared sense of responsibility, belonging, and care. Let me know of other favorite diverse families books to celebrate and share!
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading A Thousand Pieces of You
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