I love reading contemporary young adult fiction. Even well into adulthood, it’s my happy place. It’s what I love to read and, more importantly, it’s what I love to write.
There are some people — mostly non-readers — who have voiced the opinion that now that I’m an adult, I should be reading adult books. Which, of course, is bullshit. That’s the joy of reading: you can read (and re-read) whatever the hell you want.
I don’t enjoy adult fiction all that much, truth be told. I have a few must-reads (Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley books, for example), but there’s still a part of my brain that generalizes “adult fiction” as boring.
In my head, “adult” books are all Ulysses, the collected works and knock-offs of Jodi Picoult, and the worst, most pretentious fever-dreams of that guy, the most pretentious asshole in your MFA program — stuffy, 1000 page novels, full of SAT words, about a bored college professor who cheats on his wife, seduces an undergrad, and buys a Corvette.
No, thank you. I’ll stick with my coming-of-age stories. There’s something special about those years, the hell and the ecstasy of going through high school, of thinking you know everything and (hopefully) learning that you don’t. The joys and the dangers, the vulnerability and the hurt, the hard lessons that you learn, like putting your hand on the stove when you’re an infant.
There’s so much potential there. There’s so much possibility. There are so many stories to tell. And each of those stories does double-duty, if it can remind teens who are struggling that they aren’t alone in their problems; if it can help them find a light in the darkness. These books double as life-preservers.
Writing in the genre is almost like being a high-school teacher, except pants are optional, there are no faculty meetings, and the salary is (usually) slightly worse. (Not really, teachers do so much more — they go above and beyond. But we at least get to be a positive, hopeful voice in these teens’s world.)
Writing CYA also forces you to stay up-to-date. I graduated from high school 10 years ago. (Jesus Christ, people are still trying to convince me that I’m young). The amount of change in technology, in social media that students use, in the way that they communicate and that their classes are run, it’s staggering. The changes in slang? The use of memes? There’s so much to stay afoot of. And you’ve got to find a way to capture their voice authentically, without making it a parody.
And, reading CYA? They’re a bit of nostalgia, maybe. A little bit of seeing the things that I missed out on. Most importantly, though, it’s a reminder: these kids are human, and are dealing with a lot of the same issues that adults have to, usually without all of the tools and resources that adults have. It’s a reminder to trust the kids, to believe the kids, to listen, to pay attention, to care.
If us Millennials end up fighting with future generations the way we did with the Baby Boomers, I hope I’m foresighted enough to side with the kids. They’re probably right about the things we screwed up.
Interested in reading some contemporary YA? Here’s where you should start:
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson — the fairy godmother of contemporary YA. This is probably one of the most banned books from high-school libraries, but I can’t think of a book that belongs there more.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — chances are, you’ve at least heard about this book, or maybe you’ve seen the movie. Either way, it’s a heartbreaking look at racial discrimination and violence here in the US. It’s technically fiction, but this story is real life for far too many people in this country.
- Just Listen by Sarah Dessen — the reigning queen of Contemporary YA, one of the genre’s most prolific and beloved authors. Just Listen is my favorite book of hers; it’s a compelling story that beautifully takes on so many difficult topics: rape culture, beauty standards, eating disorders, recovery, the power of family, and, most importantly, the idea that music is a balm for our souls.
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven — heartbreaking, literary, gorgeous prose, and a story that will break your heart. And hopefully remind you of the importance of mental health education and attentive parenting.
- The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner — A powerful, sobering look at how friendship changes us and ultimately saves us; how our families can hold us back, destroy us, or be a functional part of my lives. I connected so much with Dill in this story that it nearly destroyed me.