When I was 16, you couldn’t keep me out of the library. I know … typical teen experience, right? Haha. I was a TOTAL NERD. Happily, I still find myself loving the long walk up and down every aisle of the library, like many of you may relate to taking the scenic route around Target (because we-might-need-that-one-thing).
Books have always been an outlet for peace and adventure in my life. When I was stuck inside my head, fretting over some issue, I turned to a story to help me escape reality long enough to remember what was truly important. When I wanted to adventure to faraway lands, I could simply crack open a book and experience the richness of a different culture that my own pocketbook could not afford.
A good, honest, real story — despite the culture it exists within — is worth our attention. Modern literature strives to connect the world with its audience in a way that makes sense to the reader — in a way that helps us question, understand, and grow. And, I’m happy to say that, despite some really intense changes teen culture is going through, good, honest, and real stories for young adults do exist.
Whether or not the teens in your life love to read, the genres of YA literature are truly a microcosm of the way that teens imagine, and the big questions they ask. In looking at the most popular YA books over the last two years (and really thinking about the trends of the last ten), there are six categories that are worth pointing out.
Popular Examples: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Matched, and The Giver
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: While most of these examples originated eight to ten years ago, the initial spark in this trend of books has not waned. Teens recognize that the world looks different today than it has before — that societies and political structures are all subject to fail — but teens also recognize that their generation is eventually going to be tasked with carrying on what the generation before them failed to accomplish. They desire stories with heroes who look a lot like themselves, and dystopian novels offer characters who inspire change and encourage good to prevail.
Popular Examples: Cinder, A Court of Thorns and Roses, The Cruel Prince, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and City of Bones
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: Fantasy is just straight-up fun. In the same sense that C.S. Lewis inspired the kids of my generation to imagine a world beyond their own, fantasy offers teens an outlet to dream about a life with a little more “Disney-like magic.” Now, not all modern YA fantasy is allegorical like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and some books walk a thin line of treating very real elements of fantasy (e.g., sorcery and voodoo) as innocent and non-harmful, but similar themes of good and evil are consistent.
Popular Examples: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Leah on the Off Beat, None of the Above, Boy Meets Boy, and What if It’s Us
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: No matter the upbringing, no matter the moral compass, the teenage years are for exploration and self-discovery. Today’s culture speaks very loudly in regard to this self-discovery and literature is not devoid of cultural undertones. Needless to say, as topics come to the forefront in society, they will also be encouraged by authors and publishing houses. The topic of sexual identity is one that teens absolutely identify with. Books with LGBTQ+ themes are comforting to teens who struggle to understand their feelings and attractions and these books offer insight on the experiences of peers for those who do not have this same struggle.
Race and Class Division
Popular Examples: The Hate U Give, All American Boys, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Internment, and American Born Chinese
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: In a similar way that issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community are portrayed in YA literature, books containing topics having to do with race and class divides — specifically within American culture — have started to really take root in the regular rotation of YA topics. Teens are not ignorant to the race and class divides that still plague our culture. They desire to understand why these issues exist, but they also in their own way demand change. Books that highlight these topics and provide solutions (despite being fictional) offer hope to teens who feel trapped in cycles of violence or misunderstanding.
Death and Illness
Popular Examples: The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, Dear Evan Hansen, If I Stay, and 13 Reasons Why (see this article for more on the Netflix adaptation)
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: In the past, it was typical that death and illness become more and more prevalent as we grew older. But, with the current upward trend of domestic terrorism, suicide, and easily accessible media (which likes to make a habit of spinning news in a hyperbolic way), teens are now seeking answers to these deep questions of suffering even sooner than before. Books whose main characters encounter terminal illness, mental illness, or death offer teens insight into this universal experience of suffering, especially for teens who encounter the death or illness of someone close to them. Typically, these books include questions and commentary on the existence of an afterlife. Some are done very well and offer hope and consolation, while others (see article about 13 Reasons Why) can potentially trigger deeper issues.
Popular Examples: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Anna and the French Kiss, Just Listen, and Perfect Chemistry
What Sparks Teens’ Interest: This is perhaps the most straight forward of the six popular YA themes. High School is an odd place full of so many lessons, so much drama and heartbreak, yet so much fun for so many. High school is often the place where many teens come to initially understand what they care about and who they want to be. Books with a high school setting often involve some sort of narrative on the social cliques of this academic institution or a love story of some sort. Again, this genre is super relatable to teens and often involves characters who very much remind them of their own circle of friends.
Whatever book the teens in your life decide to pick up, the most important thing you can do is encourage discussion. Books don’t carry with them the same rating system that movies do and it is unlikely you have all the time in the world to read every book they do, but you can offer insight into the greater questions they take away from each narrative they encounter.
Fiction will always be subjective — some pointing more strongly to God than others, some offering answers while others simply offer more questions — but fiction has the power to help the reader understand the world and their role in it a little better. This is why conversation is so important. No matter the age, the lasting impact of a book is never complete without a moment to process the story and lessons they tell.