When I first got the syllabus for my Young Adult Literature (YAL) class I have to admit I was disappointed. Not only was I expected to read a new book every week, but none of the books on the list were the books I grew up with. I fully believed I was gonna find comfort in the pages of stories I was well acquainted with since I was 15, but instead, I had to face a whole new world in front of me. I mean I’m only 20 years old, has literature really changed that much since I was in middle school?
The new world of young adult literature
It took me a few weeks to realize that yes, literature is constantly changing with the times. What was once a genre filled with young, white, straight boys and girls struggling to fit in throughout their high school years is now a genre that represents people from various backgrounds and sexualities. I got to read about young girls struggling to deal with their parent’s divorce; a Black, gay, Jewish boy running away from a society that wants to kill him; and two Hispanic boys coming to terms with their sexualities. These books acknowledge that young readers may be struggling with hardships in their lives, and in return provide them with characters that they can relate to.
I believe that this genre is opening up more doors for young readers to see the world that awaits them. A world filled with people just like them. Many contemporary YAL authors take on the challenge of writing serious topics that many young adults face, going beyond the typical high school struggles. They incorporate themes of sexual assault, abuse, death, and mental health problems, showing readers that there are people out there who understand what they are going through.
Here are the young adult authors that should be on your must read list:
Amy Sarig King
Amy King, author of The Year We Fell From Space, emphasizes how important it is for young adult literature authors to respect their reader’s intelligence through her work. King has created characters that suffer from mental illnesses, alcoholism, and potential sexual abuse. Through this, she is able to create room for difficult conversations that need to happen. Moreover, she allows children to make connections between character traits and their real life, helping them to come to terms with what is going on in their own lives. Authors need to understand that children can comprehend more things than we give them credit for, and therefore shouldn’t shy away from difficult topics.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Benjamin Alire Sáenz is probably the most notable name on this list with his book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe, but how could I not mention it? It’s one of the first books to bring up sexuality and gender roles in Latinx culture. It also won the Lambda Literary Award; an award that celebrates literature that paints LGBTQ+ characters in a true to life way.
Overall, this book is beautiful and without getting too personal, I can say that Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s writing has profoundly impacted me. At points, his writing was like looking in a mirror, which made his books probably one of the most difficult reads for me. But I also think this is one of the most important reads for young queer kids. I cannot recommend this book enough. Plus, it helps that I got to meet him for my class, and I can honestly say he is one of the best people I’ve ever met.
Jason Reynolds knows how to work with emotion to create an amazing novel. I remember the first time I read The Boy in the Black Suit I couldn’t help but feel for every character and their struggles. The book takes the reader through the grieving process of a young Black boy and his father as they cope in different ways. Reynolds constantly works with hard topics in his writing as his most popular work, Long Way Down, talks about teenage gun violence. The reason Reynolds works through these topics in his books is because he wants to write about what he desired to read as a kid. He wanted his books to speak to young Black boys dealing with the same things that he dealt with.
Many people believe that young adult literature is a genre that only teenage girls should talk about, but this genre should not be the bearer of shame. This genre allows young adults to find themselves and see characters just like them. There is a lot of important work going on in these books, and they should be celebrated for helping their readers through difficult times in their lives. So next time you stop by your local bookstore, don’t be afraid to skim the young adult section. Because when it comes down to it, these books are undoubtedly good reads.