Parents of young teen readers stepping up from children’s books often ask,
“Why are so many teen novels dark and messy”?
Young Adult (YA) books may be ominous or uncomfortable to read at times, but they are necessary. Stories convey reality for adolescents as they figure out who they are, where they fit in (or don’t), and plan for the future. Adolescents grapple with fear, hurt feelings, deciding right from wrong, solving problems in messy circumstances, and more. Life can feel gritty and sharp-edged.
YA stories show teens they are not alone. Novels provide comfort where teens can meet characters like themselves, that mirror feelings, struggle with the same dilemmas, and learn to accept and live with differences. Teens want books that celebrate uniqueness and inspire a “can do” antidote for bad days when angst, distress, or loneliness seem to be camping out in changing bodies and developing brains.
Teen novels prompt reflection. As the importance of mental health garners public attention, YA novels are equally important for adolescents who don’t see themselves in dispirited characters, so they may generate appreciation and compassion for other people. YA stories help to convey society’s stigma around adolescent issues and the dismissive attitudes received from others who do not understand why a teen can’t just “toughen up”.
“Putting books in the hands of young adults should mean feeding them the truth.” ~ Amber McMath
Teens need words that expose their own mental health as well as society’s ills. They need stories that examine big as well as small struggles experienced by others and within themselves, to give perspective and provide hope. Teens also need stories that prompt a willingness to express thoughts and feelings.
Not all YA novels are bleak and fatalistic, of course. Nor are they all dystopian. While most of the titles below can be classified as “realistic” fiction, there are examples from other genres such as historical fiction and fantasy/science fiction that feature damaged characters, tragedies to overcome, and troubled nations. Take a look at these novels that can help launch conversations with young adults:
“Today’s generations of readers are smart. They are tech savvy. They are exposed to the realities of the outside world, both the good and the bad. To ignore this reality, to deny this existence as parents, teachers, librarians, public servants, and adults writing for children disservices this generation.” ~ Kim Briggs
Read the books. Open your eyes, ears, and heart. Even if you do not personally experience these challenges, understanding adolescent issues can be vital to support a family member, best friend, or peer in their time of need. Start conversations and don’t let them stop!
McMath, Amber. (2017, November 4). Top Ten Quotes that Scrape the Soul: The best from young adult novels in 2016 and 2017 by Amber McMath [Nerdy Book Club blog post]
Briggs, Kim. (2017, December 23). It’s Not You, It’s Me: Talking About the Things We Don’t Talk About Mental Health in YA Fiction by Kim Briggs [Nerdy Book Club blog post]
Williams, Imogen Russell. (2015, June 26). Why YA Fiction Needs to Tell Stories of Mental Illness [The Guardian blog post]
Catlett, Tess. (2017, October 10). 10 Influential Characters Who Helped Shape Our Mental Health Journey [Healthline.com newsletter]
Borges, Anna. (2016, November 20). 29 Books about Mental Health That Actually Nail It [BuzzFeed Health News]