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Contemporary Books for Teens

by Karlan Sick

Editorial Note
Eteach is a public forum designed for the sharing of new ideas and methods in teaching. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or philosophy of Pearson Prentice Hall.

Advice For Teachers
A Recent Trend In Teen Novels: Grittier Subject Matter
The Michael L. Printz Award
Adult Authors Writing For Teens
Renewed Interest In Fantasy
The Continuing Appeal Of Romance
Diversity In Teen Literature
Nonfiction For Teens
Poetry For Teens
Summary: New Trends, But Enduring Dilemmas
Bibliography of Books Discussed


The idea of writing especially for teens is fairly new. In the past, teens went from children's books to adult books. Many still do so for much of their reading, but they also find characters and situations with strong appeal in young adult books. Readers between ages fifteen and eighteen often seek the same best sellers their parents are reading and must be guided to try a teen novel.

Most people consider S.E. Hinton's novel, THE OUTSIDERS, published in 1967 the beginning of a new trend. She was the first recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award twenty years later to honor her fine novels, which treat the subject of boys and violence realistically.

Many excellent authors have been recognized since then for contributing to a new type of literature. For a complete list of winners to guide a study of the best young adult literature, check YALSA's Booklists & Book Awards. When the award is given, books cited must be at least 5 years old. Many of the winners continue to create wonderful books for teens today. Each year more good books are published, and schools have begun to recognize the quality of the writing and to use these books in English classes. Reluctant readers appreciate stories with young characters, strong plots, and good dialogue.

This essay will discuss some of the new trends in literature for teens and provide brief descriptions of outstanding titles.


Teen novels have changed in recent years and treat subjects that would not have been considered in the past. For this reason and as a matter of good educational practice, teachers should follow this procedure:

Before selecting a young adult title for use as a classroom set or to read aloud, read the book first. Some books are fine for students to read alone but may cause embarrassment if read aloud. Teens are curious about love and sex but may dissolve into giggles if such topics are discussed in an English class. The frankness and realistic language may make some books inappropriate to read aloud in some classrooms.


Because the use of rough language and the depiction of sex have increased on television shows, in film, and in popular music, it is not surprising that teen fiction would deal with grittier subject matter. Dialogue reflects the language one hears in the hallways of American high schools. Terrible events such as rape are part of some excellent books for teens. Following are some examples of this trend.

EVERY TIME A RAINBOW DIES (HarperCollins, 2001), by Rita Williams Garcia begins with a teenage boy, Thulani, on his rooftop witnessing a rape taking place in the alley below. When he tries to help the victim, Ysa, she rebuffs him at first, but he becomes fascinated by her and a love story starts. The gritty urban realism of the novel contrasts with the emotional story of a boy and a girl. Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999) concerns a young rape victim's reaction to the event. Melinda loses her ability to speak after being raped and slowly recovers enough to be able to deal with her attacker at school. These are outstanding examples of new novels that portray sexual violence.

Realistic language including four letter words is used by A.M. Jenkins in OUT OF ORDER (HarperCollins, 2003) to portray a high school baseball star who has trouble with his academic work. He loses his adored girl friend because of locker room bravado and becomes distraught and depressed by his problems. The reader sympathizes with a boy who seems tough but is really afraid. At the conclusion, he is seen to be dyslexic.

Alex Flinn also writes realistically about troubled boys. BREATHING UNDERWATER (HarperCollins, 2001) tells about handsome Nick who is sent to an anger management class because he hit his girlfriend. E.R. Frank is a new star whose books are troubling and thought provoking. Her career as a social worker gives her sensitive insight into difficult lives. AMERICA (Atheneum, 2002) is a painful book to read. It is awful to imagine a small child abandoned in New York City with two slightly older half brothers. He survives somehow and is eventually rescued to become a suicidal, withdrawn teen who is helped to overcome his past. Ms Frank's writing is direct and honest.


Because of the increasing number of fine books written for teens, a new award was needed. The Young Adult Library Services Association created the award and named it for an outstanding high school librarian. The Michael L. Printz Award recognizes the wealth of good books written for teens by selecting one award book and up to four honor books annually. Books must be designated by the publisher as being for teenagers.

Some books miss consideration for the award because the publisher did not call them young adult. If THE CATCHER IN THE RYE were published today, it would probably be a YA title. The first winner, MONSTER (HarperCollins, 1999) by Walter Dean Myers, tells the story of a teen accused of participating in a holdup. Events are revealed through the boy's journal and through a screenplay he was writing. Readers must decide just what happened in Mr. Myers's skillful, original work. This novel is now part of the New York City ninth grade English curriculum.

Because the Newbery award is for books for readers up to age 14 and the Printz award is for books for readers age 12 and older, the same books could win both awards, but the Printz committees have looked for more mature works so far. Books originally published abroad may also win the Printz award. The 2003 committee selected POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN'S LAND (Penguin Putnam, 2002) by Aidan Chambers which was first published in Great Britain. It is a many-layered novel featuring a British boy who visits Holland to learn about his grandfather's World War II experiences. The grandfather's story is told in moving flashbacks while the boy gradually finds that he can be independent. The grandfather's wartime romance is a sad one which the boy learns about while finding a romance of his own.


A few highly regarded adult authors have recently begun to write for teens. Perhaps the increased publicity about books for teens inspired them. Joyce Carol Oates's novel BIG MOUTH AND UGLY GIRL (HarperCollins, 2002) is a realistic work about an unusual friendship that develops when one high school student stands up for another who is in trouble. FREAKY GREEN EYES (HarperCollins, 2003) is a disturbing novel about a 15-year-old girl who cannot see that her father is abusing her mother until her mother disappears. The girl's voice is believable as she tries to hide the truth from herself.

Alice Hoffman has a flair for short, engaging works which please teens. GREEN ANGEL (Scholastic, 2003) tells of a girl called Green because of her ability in her family's garden. When her parents and younger sister go to the city across the river to sell produce at a farmer's market, she stays home for lack of space in their truck. She witnesses a blast and struggles to survive on her own when her family never returns.

Carl Hiassen reached back to an event from his own Florida youth to tell the amusing and involving story of young people trying to save owls in HOOT (Random House, 2002). Authors accustomed to writing for adults seem to cross over to the YA market more easily than to the children's market.


The extraordinary success of the Harry Potter fantasy series by J. K. Rowling has led to a demand for more fantasy. Not long ago, fantasy readers were considered rather special, but now teens who enjoyed HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (Arthur A. Levine, 1997) and its sequels ask for other recommendations.

Philip Pullman's trilogy, HIS DARK MATERIALS (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), appeals to many young adults. The sophisticated excellence of his writing has captivated many readers. The final volume is the first book by a writer for young people to win the overall Whitbread Award in Great Britain.

Old fantasy favorites are being reprinted and new authors are writing exciting stories. New fantasy authors of note include Christopher Paolini, a teen himself. His novel ERAGON (Random House, 2003) was first self published and has gone on to be a popular saga. Jonathan Stroud began a new trilogy with THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND (Hyperion, 2003), which is a most exciting and original novel. Magicians in London rule and one young student causes great problems when he meddles.

Shannon Hale is another new fantasy author who has published her first book, THE GOOSE GIRL (Bloomsbury, 2003). She writes the sort of fantasy that could almost be historical fiction if it were set in a real kingdom. Magic enters when the girl learns to speak to the wind, but most of the plot involves realistic characters and situations. This is a marvelous period for imaginative fiction.


Romance is often requested by teens. David Levithan's amusing first novel, BOY MEETS BOY (Knopf, 2003), is a sort of fairy tale about a school in a town where gay relationships are normal. The homecoming queen, Infinite Darlene, is also the football team quarterback in this most unusual school.

Martha Brooks, a Canadian author, has created a poignant story, TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A HEARTLESS GIRL (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003). Noreen, 17, pregnant and confused, runs away from her boy friend and ends up in a small Manitoba town where everything she tries seems to go wrong yet the people forgive her. Her boy friend finally finds her in a much better state after her time helping in a diner.


Books by authors from different ethnic backgrounds are more common now. Immigrants' stories are reaching the main population and enriching the knowledge of teens about others. A STEP FROM HEAVEN by An Na (Front Street, 2001), which won the 2002 Michael L. Printz Award, tells of a Korean girl's adjustment to tremendous changes for her family when they settle in the United States. BORN CONFUSED by Tanuja Desai Hidier (Scholastic, 2002) introduces Dimple Lala who at 17 is not sure whether she wants to be a New Jersey girl or an exotic Indian. The publication of new authors who can share their worlds with teens is a fine new development.

African-American authors continue to write books which are important not only to black teens. Jacqueline Woodson's novel HUSH (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002) explores the problems of a family in the witness protection program. Every reader can relate to the loss of friends, work, and a happy home. THE FIRST PART LAST (Simon & Schuster, 2003) by Angela Johnson, a 2003 MacArthur fellow, tells the story of a 16-year-old New York City teen who accepts responsibility for his infant daughter when the mother lapses into a coma in childbirth. The baby reminds him of Nia, his love, and he cannot give her up for adoption.

First novelist K.L. Going has created two memorable characters in FAT KID RULES THE WORLD (G.P. Putham's, 2003). Troy weighs almost 300 pounds and considers jumping in front of the subway one evening when the legendary Curt, a skinny, homeless high school rock star, talks to him. The next thing Troy knows he has been drafted to play drums with Curt. Both boys have serious problems but manage to help each other with good humor. Canadian author Susan Juby writes about a home schooled 15-year-old girl who wants to attend high school in ALICE, I THINK (HarperCollins, 2003). Alice, the narrator, is very funny in this witty book. She has a flare for unusual outfits, finding disappointing boy friends, and attracting the local bully as she returns to public school.

A NORTHERN LIGHT (Harcourt, 2003) by Jennifer Donnelly is a historical novel that tells the story of Mattie, a poor teen who works in a turn-of-the-century lodge to save money for further education. A murder took place that summer and provided the basis of Theodore Dreiser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Ms Donnelly explores the impact the murder might have had on a young girl working at the site. She must decide what direction to go when a suitor becomes serious.

MILKWEED (Knopf, 2003) is a moving Holocaust story by Jerry Spinelli. He imagines what it would have been like to be an orphan lost in the streets as the Nazis destroy Warsaw. The voices of lost boys who survive together are surprising and upsetting.

Ann Cameron has set COLIBRI (Frances Foster Books, 2003) in contemporary Guatemala where she has lived for many years. A four-year-old Mayan girl is kidnapped and told that she was abandoned, but as she grows older, she starts to question her kidnappers' begging life. When her kidnapper and a friend plot to steal a valuable item from a church, she bravely goes to the priest and eventually locates her parents Although the book is simply written, the ending when the girl must face her kidnapper is violent. Teens will not find the book childish at all.

Susanna Vance's second novel, DEEP (Delacorte, 2003), skillfully tells two separate stories about teenage girls on their own in the Caribbean then brings them together in an exciting and terrifying finish. This story of cruelty, kidnapping, and bravery is gripping.

Laura and Tom McNeal have written their second novel for teens, ZIPPED (Knopf, 2003), about Mick, who suspects his beautiful young stepmother of an affair because of an email he reads. He is distracted because of a crush on a girl and the welcome attentions of an older girl who is a famous beauty. Mick manages to make his family rather miserable until the truth is learned in this realistic and amusing book.


Nonfiction continues to be popular with teens. Many boys, for example, prefer nonfiction to fiction. Fortunately, there is a special new award to recognize outstanding books: The Robert F. Sibert Award Informational Book Award. Although it is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children, the books recognized are also enjoyed by young adults. Individual titles are read for pleasure rather than for homework. The series books tend to be heavily used for assignments, although the widespread availability of electronic resources has led readers away from the utilitarian books.

A new trend is for authors of adult nonfiction works to edit and rewrite for a younger audience. For example, Nathaniel Philbrick shortened the National Book Award winning work IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Viking Penguin, 2000) for younger readers who might be daunted by its original length. The shortened version is entitled REVENGE OF THE WHALE (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002). Gail Buckley made an edited version of AMERICAN PATRIOTS (Random House, 2001) for teen readers interested in the history of Blacks in the military.


Writing poetry is a popular pastime for many teens. Some have been inspired by poetry slams and workshops while others simply work alone. Collections of poems written by teens can be very good. MOVIN' : TEEN POETS TAKE VOICE edited by Dave Johnson (Scholastic, 2000) is a good example of writing from poetry workshops at The New York Public Library. Poetry anthologies such as the beautiful HEART TO HEART by Jan Greenberg (Abrams, 2001) are a delight to many.

Narrative verse is an ancient form made new again. BRONX MASQUERADE (Dial, 2002) by Nikki Grimes is a good recent example. Eighteen students in a Bronx High School tell their stories during open mike Fridays in English class. Ron Koertge has a new story in free verse called SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEANUP (Candlewick, 2003). Fourteen-year-old Kevin is passionate about baseball and does not know what to do when ordered to spend the season in bed because of mono. Kevin has not been interested in writing since that is his father's job, but he starts writing to pass the time The reader learns about his mother's recent death and how father and son are coping. Some of the poems are amusing as Kevin describes junior high life and girls.


The traditional concerns of young adults continue to be the most important themes in work written for them. Leaving childhood and finding out who one is troubles many teens. Young adults who feel alone, outside the mainstream, can find solace reading about other teens. Coming of age is the eternal problem for young people. When is one fully an adult? What is true love? How can one solve problems while being a teen? No matter what the format of the work in any era, the dilemmas of youth endure.


Anderson, Laurie Halse SPEAK. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999

Brooks, Martha TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A HEARTLESS GIRL. Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2003

Buckley, Gail AMERICAN PATRIOTS. Random House, 2001

Cameron, Ann COLIBRI. Frances Foster Books, 2003

Chambers, Aidan POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN'S LAND. PenguinPutnam, 2002

Donnelly, Jennifer A NORTHERN LIGHT. Harcourt, 2003

Flinn, Alex BREATHING UNDERWATER. HarperCollins, 2001

Frank, E.R. AMERICA. Atheneum, 2002

Garcia, Rita Williams EVERY TIME A RAINBOW DIES. HarperCollins, 2001

Going, K.L. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD. G.P. Putnam's, 2003

Greenberg, Jan HEART TO HEART. Abrams, 2001

Grimes, Nikki BRONX MASQUERADE. Dial, 2002

Hale, Shannon THE GOOSE GIRL. Bloomsbury, 2003

Hidier, Tanuja Desai BORN CONFUSED. Scholastic, 2002

Hiassen, Carl HOOT. Random House, 2002

Hoffman, Alice GREEN ANGEL. Scholastic, 2003

Jenkins, A.M. OUT OF ORDER. HarperCollins, 2003

Johnson, Angela THE FIRST PART LAST. Simon & Schuster, 2003

Johnson, Dave, ed. MOVIN': TEEN POETS TAKE VOICE. Scholastic, 2000

Juby, Susan ALICE I THINK. HarperCollins, 2003

Koertge, Ron SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEANUP Candlewick, 2003

Levithan, David BOY MEETS BOY. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

McNeal, Laura and Tom ZIPPED. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Myers, Walter Dean MONSTER. HarperCollins, 1999

Na, An A STEP FROM HEAVEN. Front Street, 2001

Oates, Joyce Carol BIG MOUTH AND UGLY GIRL. HarperCollins, 2002

_____. FREAKY GREEN EYES. HarperCollins, 2002

Paolini, Christopher ERAGON. RandomHouse, 2003

Philbrick, Nathaniel REVENGE OF THE WHALE. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002

Pullman, Philip HIS DARK MATERIALS. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

Rowling, J. K. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE. Arthur A. Levine, 1997

Spinelli, Jerry MILKWEED. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Stroud, Jonathan THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND. Hyperion, 2003

Vance, Susanna DEEP. Delacorte, 2003

Woodson, Jacqueline HUSH. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002