Booklist: Schooled Unexpectedly, or Talking with Teens about Tough Issues

Just like food, variety seems to be the spice of life in reading. Yes, there are genres that you will always be current on because they’re dependable, but there’s something to be said for trying new formats or genres- sneaking them into to be read piles like a form of exposure therapy. Because of this, I’ve discovered so much and learned so much. I’m the first to share it with others too, especially the teens I work with in the high school library. Here are a few of my recent favorites and why they became other’s favorites too.

talking with teens about tough issues

All American BoysAll American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Hashtags are powerful tools and the conversation around social justice is far from over. Teens need to be sharing and talking about both, making up their minds about how they feel and what they can do to contribute to society.

In Reynolds’ recent visit to our high school, he asked the teen audience how many had seen posts on social media about police brutality and racial violence. They all raised their hands. He then asked how many of them reposted, re-tweeted, and shared those posts. Many raised their hands, but when he asked how many of them actually had a conversation with their friends face-to-face about it, sharing their thoughts and feelings about these incidents, to their peers, almost no one raised their hand. The take-away is that we need to encourage conversation and action– it’s not enough to know, you must act to make a difference.

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson

This is an adult title with YA appeal. So many teens are exploring their food preferences, likes and dislikes, or when eating disorders may develop, so Wilson’s position is that how we learn to eat can be unlearned. Retraining is possible and thinking about your eating can have a positive impact on your health and well-being.

As I was sharing this title with a teen who shares my love of quirky books, but also appreciates learning something from one too (we share a love for Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses), she replied that she could use the book as evidence that “going vegetarian” can be a conscious choice. Sometimes it’s a moral issue and other times it’s about learning how food affects your body and adapting for it. A tenet of Wilson’s book is about training yourself, even though there are caveats like scientific proof that some will just always dislike the taste of Brussels sprouts.

Frank - Dime

Dime by E.R. Frank (2016 Best Fiction for Young Adults)

We want to think that sex trafficking is a taboo topic in the United States, but the truth is that we need to have more open and frank conversations with teens about facts such as an estimated 1 in 6 runaways were likely victims of sex trafficking. Frank shares intimate details of how young girls are groomed for this trade through the eyes of a fictional character that could partner well with so many documentaries about the subject like Playground produced in 2009 and Chosen produced by Shared Hope International. Teens of any background, whether privileged or disadvantaged, can sympathize with Dime, the main character while providing opportunities for empathy or action.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (2016 Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist)

This memoir covers a time period about which we that doesn’t have a lot of first-hand accounts, so Engle’s story is a breath of fresh air, especially when it discusses cultural divides, traditions, and family dynamics. I learned about the terrain of Cuba and the hopes and dreams of a girl in the 1950s and 60s.

This time period,  as with anything that is not contemporary, provides an avenue for comparison and contrast to personal experiences. Many readers will relate because Engle never feels like she belongs in the United States, always being referred to as Cuban, and when in Cuba, is always referred to as American by family and friends. Identity is Engle’s constant struggle.

These influential books are highly capable of sparking conversations by introducing teens to relevant topics worth investigating more deeply.

Alicia Abdul, currently reading The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock