Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Getting by with Books: Young Adult Books that Changed and Saved Our Lives

Written by Jesse Sposato
 Active ImageWhat would we do without books to help us explain away our demons, and talk us down from moments of cloudiness, sadness, and fear? And of course to help us celebrate the most exciting moments of growing up. The books we read as teens do more than put our firsts—first kiss, first sip of beer, first love—into perspective. They help make sense of issues and subjects that are otherwise too much to bare on one's own. They offer friendship and understanding when these things may be hard to find elsewhere. And they provide escapes from all the confusion that comes hand in hand with adolescence and pre-adulthood.
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What would we do without books to help us explain away our demons, and talk us down from moments of cloudiness, sadness, and fear? And of course to help us celebrate the most exciting moments of growing up. The books we read as teens do more than put our firsts—first kiss, first sip of beer, first love—into perspective. They help make sense of issues and subjects that are otherwise too much to bare on one's own. They offer friendship and understanding when these things may be hard to find elsewhere. And they provide escapes from all the confusion that comes hand in hand with adolescence and pre-adulthood. And, who am I kidding, most of us, even as adults, could still learn a ton from YA books, and continue to do so whenever we have the chance. Here are a few favorites that really hold up.

Sexual Abuse     
I Was a Teenage Fairy: Francesca Lia Block
If I had to envision a heaven, it would pretty much look like Francesca Lia Block waiting for me on a fluffy cloud of glitter. Basically, everything Ms. Block writes is out of this world amazing, and this book is no exception. Here, an imaginary friend in the form of a tiny fairy named Mab helps Barbie face what she is most afraid of.

Speak: Laurie Halse Anderson
This classic high school read deals with hard to swallow subject matter, and what happens when you speak up about something nobody wants to admit to or talk about out loud.

Body Image & Eating Disorders

She’s Come Undone: Wally Lamb
This heartbreaking tale is well-known and loved and there is a reason why. If you have never been fat, this novel feeds you all you need to know about what it’s like to feel alienated and helpless because of your weight, and then eventually do something about it. If you have struggled with weight, you will undoubtedly relate to the ups and downs of the Dolores Price experience. Even if weight has never been your issue, there is still a good chance you’ll relate. “Eating addiction” has the key word “addiction” in it, which many struggle with in different ways.

Looks: Madeleine George
Overweight sophomore Meghan and overly thin freshman Aimee form an unlikely alliance in order to get revenge on the bullies that taunt them. In the process, they wind up confronting their own issues and possibly forming a true and lasting friendship.

Incest

The Cement Garden: Ian McEwan
As far as I’m concerned, this is where Ian McEwan’s work hit its peak. This book invites you into a magical world of brotherly sisterly love…but not the kind you’re used to. I think the best thing about it—which is obviously the point—is that this story takes everything you think you know is right and challenges it. You may have been taught that incest is bad and wrong and weird, but I dare you to read this book and not fall in love with brother and sister Jack and Julie.

Laurie Tells: Linda Lowery & Illustrated by John Eric Karpinski
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of eleven-year-old Laurie’s struggle as she is abused by her father, and ignored when she tries to tell her mother. Luckily, there is an aunt in the picture who brings a silver lining to her dark, dark cloud.

Coming-of-Age
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret: Judy Blume
This quintessential teen book, perfect for sleepover parties and girls only story time, is like Preteen 101 told through the eyes of Margaret Simon. Learn about periods, boys, and Margaret’s quest for one single religion in a multi-religion family.

Tender as Hellfire: Joe Meno
You may know Joe Meno as the author of Hairstyles of the Damned, his popular third novel, but this novel came first, with its magical and fairy-tale like view of the world from the POV of a ten-year-old boy growing up in a trailer park.

The Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger
What can we say about this classic bildungsroman that hasn’t already been said? Not much. If you haven’t read this book, get to it. The glimpse Salinger gives us into the psyche of Holden Caulfield will help you with all your dating woes. Of course, this book isn't a dating manual, but it does have the archetypal mystery boy who teaches us to find solace in a shared loneliness.

Let’s Talk About Sex
Annie on my Mind: Nancy Garden
Two girls meet, fall in love, and then bear the consequences of the unforgiving world around them. The relationship between Annie and Liza is a sweet and tender one that arrives naturally despite their reservations about its meaning.

Forever: Judy Blume
No young adult list would be complete without mentioning Judy Blume at least twice. In her book Forever, Blume addresses all the awkward fumbling that comes with losing one’s virginity, with such precise detail and honesty that it can’t be overlooked. Since its publication in 1975, Forever has been criticized by abstinence-only groups for its candid dealings with sexuality and birth control. For these same reasons, it has been praised by liberals for years, and remains an educational wonderment.

Fancy White Trash:
Marjetta Geerling
Killing two birds with one stone, Marjetta Geerling addresses fifteen-year-old Abby Savage’s quest to be different than her majorly fertile mother and sisters; and her best friend Cody’s own struggle with learning that he’s gay.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

How to Build a House: Dana Reinhardt
Harper is not taking her parents divorce lightly, and her friends aren’t exactly helping her ease her pain. She searches for an escape and finds one in the Homes for the Heart Summer Program for Teens where she goes to Tennessee to help rebuild one family’s house after a major tornado destroyed it…and in the process, but of course, she rebuilds herself too.

Jellicoe Road: Melina Marchetta

Taylor deals with having been abandoned by her mom at age eleven, and then ditched again by the one person she actually thought she could trust. Read kind of like a murder mystery, Jellicoe Road sends shivers with its potent subject matter. Marchetta is known for her beautiful writing style (Looking For Alibrandi, Saving Francesca), and she does not disappoint here. Will Taylor find her mother who once left her behind on Jellicoe Road…and then what?

Lullabies for Little Criminals: Heather O’Neill
This book hits all the major pressure points: sex, drugs, prostitution and broken homes, but at the center of the book is an amazing bond between a father who can’t pull it together and the love of his life, his daughter, Baby.

Down, Out, & Hurting
The Last Exit to Normal: Michael Harmon
This book touches on more than one—in fact, several—after school special issues, and it blends them together in such a perfect way. Ben learns his father is gay, which causes him to act out in response. This awards him a trip out of the city to a hick town in Montana where he learns a dangerous secret about his neighbor…along with a whole lot about himself and the world.

Suckerpunch: David Hernandez
Two brothers: Enrique was abused by their father, and Marcus wasn’t. This makes Marcus shy and overprotective and leaves Enrique to spiral out of control and struggle with bouts of depression and violence. When the boys learn their father might make his way back into their lives, they decide to take matters into their own hands.

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