Being a teenager can be pretty awful most of the time. I remember clearly the sense of loneliness, isolation, weirdness, and anxiety that came with learning to be me.
Being an adult isn’t much different. New cliques to try and acclimate to masquerading as office politics, mommy-and-me classes, or cocktail parties. Too much small talk. Too much competition. Not enough real.
I know that as an adult who teaches teenagers, this is something we can all relate to, and it’s something we should acknowledge more often. We all feel WEIRD sometimes. We all feel ALONE sometimes. And we are all just trying to figure it out.
This is why I read. Sounds ironic, but though characters are fiction, the humanness of their struggles, thoughts, and emotions are alive and well. Reading gives us a peek into others’ lives, a treasure so rare in a world of artifice, Photoshop, and filtered selfies, which can make us feel like everyone else has it all together while we screw it all up.
But guess what? We’re all screwing it up! All the time. In new and different and creative ways! We’re all just doing the best we can to figure out who we are and where we belong in the great big ol’ grand scheme of terrifyingly-lovely-bizarre-difficult-confusing-wonderful-beautiful-and-true things. As a teacher, I love that I get to help my students on this journey.
“I remember Guillermo saying the cracks and breaks were the best and most interesting parts of the work in my portfolio, perhaps it’s the same with people and their cracks and breaks.”
-Jandy Nelson I’ll Give You the Sun
This summer I spent an abundance of time drinking cups of coffee, lounging on my deck, reading young adult fiction. No, I didn’t die and go to English-teacher-heaven. I simply made the conscious decision to take an actual break this summer. I am saying “no” more often to say “yes” to the thing that makes me feel most alive: Reading. For. Pleasure. And I wanted to really delve into the YA lit that my students have read, loved, and recommended to me, so that I might be able to recommend books to students in a way that makes them come alive too. Believe me, students can cut through your book talks to know if you really have your heart in the recommendation.
This is not only one of the perks of my job, it’s a requirement. The CCSS in reading asks that students “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”
This means I assign one independent reading book of choice per month, and that I need to actually read texts that might engage my students enough to choose to spend time reading. My hope is they might become people who choose to read for pleasure after my class is over and they go off into the world to live their one wild and precious life.
The top three books in my summer romance with reading were all YA lit that dealt with the struggle of coming-of-age through relationships with others. All 3 became my top choices because of the wonderfully complex nature of the relationships between the characters.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Aristotle & Dante: Two teenage boys who are opposites in so many ways, but connect over their curiosity about life, their search for truth, and their belief in each other. One rainy afternoon, one saves the other from being killed by a car, and it deepens the bond before a move consequently weakens it. Through the ebb and flow of life, these two are pushed together and pulled apart in many ways. They help each other become the people they are meant to be, and finally realize that one of the most important secrets of the universe is that we all hold our own secret universe inside.
“I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante…I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words.”
All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Finch & Violet: One winter morning these two meet on the bell tower at school and instead of jumping off the ledge, jump into each other’s lives. Each has their own reason for climbing up to the bell tower that day: Finch’s battle with the darkness/nothingness that comes from an undiagnosed mental illness. Violet’s grief over the death of her sister last year. But a school project sends these two searching for the wonders of Indiana, and through the physical journey, they also embark on an emotional journey that helps one heal, and sends the other spiraling out of control with heartbreaking consequences.
And, it’s becoming a movie, complete with an Instagram loving author chronicling the path from book to movie!
“I don’t need to worry that Finch and I never filmed our wanderings. It’s okay that we didn’t collect souvenirs or that we never had time to pull it all together in a way that made sense to anyone else but us. The thing I realize it that it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave.”
I’ll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson
Noah and Jude are twins. Brother and sister struggling to find themselves in the wake of their mother’s death. Before her death, Noah was an artist obsessed with getting in to art school and was falling in love with the boy next door. After her death, he was a straight-laced track runner at the local public high school with a girlfriend named Heather. Jude was a partier, a surfer, and one of the popular kids, who, according to her mother, was in danger of becoming That Girl. Now, she’s a superstitious failed ceramics artist who hides behind baggy clothes and a strict boy boycott. She communes with the ghost of her dead mother and grandmother, and realizes the only way out of the pain is though. A new mentor, a forgotten brother, and a witty photographer who makes it hard to stick to the boycott all help Jude finally embrace the mystery, “Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? … So we grapple with mysteries, each in our own way.”
Now that school is back in session, I have hosted book speed dating rounds and loaned out these three texts (and many more!) to students who will have the chance to fall in love with them as I have.
What are some other YA lit books that your students love?