The young adult genre has boomed in the past decade, with more and more readers of all ages connecting with Katniss and Harry.
Young adult (YA) fiction also offers readers the opportunity to think beyond the traditional literary canon and to get to know complex characters that often invite discussion. YA writers create figures who struggle with real problems and issues as they come of age. A genre that used to be dominated by Holden Caulfield and his singular voice has opened up to include voices that reflect the diversity of experiences for all readers.
Here are a few suggestions that represent all kinds of voices that deserve to be heard.
1. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
When my college students talk about growing up reading this author — and this book in particular — they put their hands to their hearts in gratitude for Woodson's voice in this Newbery Award–winning book of verse/memoir. In it, Woodson discusses becoming a teenager in New York and South Carolina in the ’60s and ’70s.
Woodson’s other novels are equally acclaimed; her 2010 book Hush was a finalist for a National Book Award. Once readers begin to read Woodson's works, they won’t be able to stop. She is a great way to get a hesitant reader hooked on books.
2. Kynship: The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice
YA readers often love book series, and Justice's will not fail to please. Using the fantasy genre, this three-book collection works to help readers consider issues of power and land rights by serving as an allegory for the repression and resistance of indigenous people. Justice's creative motto is "Imagine Otherwise," and his books do exactly that, envisioning a different world for marginalized communities.
3. Annie John by Jamaica Kinkaid
Move over Holden, Annie’s here! Sharing the story of 10-year-old Annie growing up in Antigua, this novella is a classic bildungsroman. The reader watches Annie's relationships to those around her change as she gains a sense of her identity as a young woman — and as she comes to understand all of the challenges she will face. For an even shorter introduction to Kinkaid's writing about transitioning from girlhood into womanhood, check out the author reading her short story "Girl".
4. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
This graphic novel shows the engaging story of a young girl growing up in Iran, comparing her concerns to those of girls coming of age across the world. While the backdrop of her childhood and early adolescence contains revolution and strife, Marjane worries about her body image, boys, and fitting in. Readers will care about her and her family from the first pages and will want to read the second half of the series to find out what happens when Marjane becomes a teen and then an adult.
5. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Told in verse, Alexander's novel tells the story of twin brothers who learn about life through basketball. My favorite books that share diverse voices are ones that help readers connect to experiences beyond their own. Middle schoolers and those who typically don't like reading love this book. And speaking of novels about twins...
6. Untwine by Edwidge Danticat
Danticat is one of my favorite writers! I am thrilled she threw her literary chops behind her first YA novel, which tells the story of twins who meet a devastating fate. Their family of Haitian descent, now living in Florida, must come to terms with the horrific untwining of the sisters after one of them suffers a tragic accident.
7. The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis
Using female protagonists to tell the stories in this trilogy, Ellis creates a connection between the reader and girls on the other side of the world in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The solid narrative about the struggles the girls face and what they must do to help their families does not force the audience into pity, but instead leads us to develop sympathy and identification — caring about the characters is much more important than feeling bad for them. These girls have agency and a resourcefulness that will inspire any reader. An animated film of "The Breadwinner" is in the works.
Looking to engage younger readers? Check out: 7 Picture Books That Illustrate the Complexity of Diversity.