Ever since I started working in the Youth Services Department, I have made an effort to include YA (Young Adult) fiction in my reading routine. In high school (when many teens are reading this genre) my time was spent reading the classics for English and catching up on other homework and extracurricular activities. During the last couple of years, I have read many YA novels (many of them dystopian fiction, as that is the craze of the moment) and have enjoyed most of them. Even though the protagonists are high school students, I usually find that I can relate to them in some way. They are a quick read because the plots are usually fast-paced and drama-filled.
Of course, not all YA fiction is the same. Just like adult fiction, there is “fluff” (books you read for pure escapism that offer little in the way of intellectual challenge) and then there are the really good books. The books you can’t put down. You start to fall in love with these books-with their perfect covers, with the authors’ names. You start to think that these characters are so multidimensional, they must be real. You wouldn’t be surprised if you ran into one of them in the grocery store.
I tell everyone I know to read these books. Sometimes it takes some convincing: “Yeah, I know it’s written for teens, but you’ll absolutely love it.” The crossover appeal is key. Teens enjoy them because the characters are realistic and are going through something that they can relate to. Adults read them because stories are well-constructed, funny, and at times, heart-wrenching. Two really good books (RGBs) that I recently fell in love with are The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.
So, what makes a RGB?
1. RGBs tackle real issues
Both books deal with heavy topics (TFIOS focuses on teens with cancer; WTCB is about a teenager’s sudden disappearance). These topics are not chosen for their shock value; the stories unfold so naturally that they seem destined to be told. Yes, it’s true that most teenagers may not have first-hand experience with cancer or the disappearance of a family member, but they will relate to the portrayal of real life situations.
2. RGBs feature complex characters
In both books, the characters are so easy to relate to, you think they must be at least based on real people. The teens in these books are not leading charmed lives by any stretch of the imagination. They are trying their best to cope with the situations they find themselves in. They are insecure, scared, and at times doubtful about the future. To see these feelings so beautifully portrayed in these characters is affirming for readers because we have all felt this way before.
It is refreshing to read these books because the teen characters in RGBs have actual relationships with their parents. Yes, they are annoyed by them sometimes (the generation gap will always be a problem between parents and children) but for the most part they treat their parents like they are actual human beings (and not chauffeurs, personal slaves, or ATMs, like some teen characters in YA fiction are apt to do).
3. RGBs ask the “big questions”
For someone who is not familiar with YA fiction, a quick look on the library or bookstore shelves might suggest that books written for teenagers are superficial. And it’s true that many YA books are simple high school romances or fantasy quests that don’t offer anything beyond a few hours of escape. I think that reading can certainly provide entertainment, and sometimes that is what a reader is looking for. It’s the equivalent of watching a predictable movie-little thought is involved and you can get caught up in the storyline and forget reality for a couple of hours. But for me, books have also been a source of self-discovery and at times, enlightenment. RGBs (YA or adult fiction) are not afraid to bring up philosophic questions.
For example, in Where Things Come Back, the main character asks his therapist “what is the meaning of life?” His therapist gives the existential reply that we each give meaning to our own lives. Teenagers are capable of thinking about these issues and it is important to provide them with books that will challenge the way they see the world.
I would argue that the adage “you are what you eat” could be modified to “you are what you read.” A book serves as a mirror to reflect an image of who we are-as a society and as individuals. Epiphanies can come from reading- when you realize that the author is eloquently describing a feeling or an experience that you thought was specific to your life.
Please tell me about your favorite RGB (YA or adult fiction) in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for my next favorite book.