Teens turning to books to tackle tough topics
Sarah Sansbury, Media & Educational Technology Instructor | October 2019
“I want to read this book!” Quickly, seventh-grader Nikki swiped a book out from a pile of YA novels. Within seconds, she was met with bursts of excitement from students all around her.
“Ooh, I want to read that too!”
Nikki found herself surrounded by a swarm of classmates, each begging to be the next one to read the book.
Which book were they fighting over? This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp.
This is Where It Ends’ cover depicts a bold image of a line of colored chalk that has been obliterated by a flying bullet. The tagline above reads: “Everyone has a reason to fear the boy with the gun.” Undoubtedly, the issue of school shootings is quite relevant for today, especially for our students. However, it is not one typically discussed around the dinner table. The fear surrounding the subject makes it a somewhat taboo topic.
That morning, Stephanie Hosley, Nikki’s language arts teacher at River Trail Middle School outside of Atlanta, displayed several books on tables and asked students to explore the novels and pick out something they would enjoy reading. She picked several classics and go-to novels from her past years teaching. As an afterthought, she added This is Where It Ends, a recent addition to her classroom library. She had no idea how popular it would be with her students.
For the past two-and-half years as a middle school librarian at River Trail, I have noticed a reading trend with my young adult students. My teen readers can’t get enough of what I call tough topic books. I categorize these as tough topic reads because they are books about overcoming adversity and exploring topics that can be controversial. These books feature heavy subjects including police brutality, white privilege, racism, suicide, abuse, school shootings, life-threatening diseases and LGBTQ+ rights.
I also began to see a similar trend with the New York Times YA bestseller list. For almost two-and-half years, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has spent the majority of the time ruling the #1 spot on that list. In The Hate U Give, the protagonist witnesses an unarmed friend get shot point-blank by a police officer. It is one of several books recently published with a strong social justice theme, specifically in support of the Black Lives Matter movement (Alter, 2017). Other popular books that have consistently stayed on the list for the past 6-8 months are On the Come Up and Five Feet Apart. On the Come Up, also by Thomas, explores the subject of racial stereotyping, while Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott deals with the issue of teens battling life-threatening diseases.
Over and over again, students come into the media center hungry for these books. Why are our teens wanting to read about these tough topics? River Trail eighth-grade reading teacher Zach Taylor believes it is because of the internet, specifically social media, that teens are “exposed” to so much more than what earlier generations experienced. He is not the first adult that has shared this concern with me.
However, when I ask one of my teen library patrons why she and other students seek out these tough topic books, she shares a more positive view. She considers today’s teen generation more “educated” about what’s happening in the world around them. With every tough topic book read, she believes that she gains “other perspectives” on the issue.
She’s not the only one who feels this way. Nikki, the lucky student who got to read This is Where It Ends first, also has strong opinions on the matter. She says that adults think teens cannot handle these issues, that teens are not mature enough. She believes that previous generations were more sheltered.
“We want more information. We want relevant books about things that are happening now.” Punctuating her point, she says, “Happy, perfect stories are cliché.”
When I question Nikki on why teens want these tough topic books, she says that today’s teens are more open-minded and more willing to change things: “We see what is wrong with the system. Books and free speech bring the community together. We believe there are more pros than cons with free speech – even when there’s hate speech.”
Watching Nikki speaking with such deep-set conviction, I see why teens are wanting to read tough topic books. Young adults want a safe space to explore and better understand these issues. Tough topic books provide that safe place for them.
This phenomenon extends beyond my school library. Sue Corbitt, author of Publishers Weekly’s “Teen Lit Reflects Wider World,” also recognizes this trend: “Most agents agree that fantasy will take a backseat to realistic fiction in the immediate future, and that the fantasy that does get published is likely to address the social issues teens are grappling with today: sexism, feminism, racism and violence” (2018). A great example of this is a fantasy that has been on the New York Times YA bestseller list for over a year-and-a-half. Addressing tough social issues, The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is “a big heavy book that tackles big, heavy themes” (Yu, 2018). It puts a sharp spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically addressing police killings of unarmed black men. Sharing why tough topic books like hers are needed, Adeyemi gives this eloquent explanation: “Children of color need a mirror to see themselves in. And then people who don’t have that experience, they need a window. They need a really personalized way to see what people who are different from them are going through” (Yu, 2018). These tough topic books can be empowering and inspiring, providing mirrors and windows that foster inclusion, empathy and enlightenment.
In addition, YA books that have characters representing the LGBTQ+ community are seeing a huge spike in popularity. To gain perspective, check out these statistics provided by Christine A. Jenkins, co-author of Representing the Rainbow in Young Adult Literature: LGBTQ+ Content since 1969: In the 1970s, approximately one book with LGBTQ+ characters was published per year; in the 1980s, four books were published per year; in the 1990s, seven books were published per year. Over 10 years during the 1990s, 76 books were published. Fast forward to today, and more than 100 LGBTQ+ books were published each of the past two years. Echoing the sentiment of Adeyemi, authors of YA LGBTQ+ novels explain how their tough topic books are also necessary: “Each new crop of books has the opportunity to push the boundaries of what’s familiar and accepted” (Aviles, 2018).
As seventh-grade Nikki said before, teens today are more open-minded, and they want change. She and many YA authors would agree that teens not only want to read about tough topics, they need to read topic topics books. It is up to authors, publishers, teachers and librarians to continue to provide a safe place for teens to navigate, explore and learn about relevant – albeit sometimes tough – issues today.
- Alter, A. (2017, March 20). New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/19/books/review/black-lives-matter-teenage-books.html
- Aviles, G. (2019, March 10). The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters – and what’s next. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/rise-young-adult-books-lgbtq-characters-what-s-next-n981176
- Corbett, S. (2018, October 19). Fall 2018 YA Spotlight: Teen Lit Reflects Wider World. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/78391-fall-2018-ya-spotlight-teen-lit-reflects-wider-world.html
- Jenkins, C., & Cart, M. (2018, September 25). Representing the Rainbow in Young Adult Literature: LGBTQ+ Content since 1969 [Webinar]. Retrieved from https://alapublishing.webex.com/ec3300/eventcenter/enroll/register.do?siteurl=alapublishing&formId=17787577&confId=17787577&formType=1&loadFlag=1&eventType=1&accessType=viewRecording&internalPBRecordTicket=4832534b00000004796e273aeddd98800927605b66a97bcd7247b99d871cbdfc248297cf0bee0cc7
- Yu, M. (2018, March 9). ‘Children Of Blood And Bone’ Tackles Heavy Themes In A Magical World. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/03/09/592423944/children-of-blood-and-bone-tackles-heavy-themes-in-a-magical-world