Five great reads to help teens become critical thinkers

Whichwood is one of five great reads for teens that highlight authentic experiences, marginalized voices and critical thinking. (Dutton Books)

Five great reads to help teens become critical thinkers

Young adults who are, perhaps, still figuring out their needs don’t need to be overburdened with books they won’t like. The last thing we want is for a young reader to get turned off and lose out on the immeasurable benefits reading provides.

As a researcher looking at diverse representations in young adult literature, I often get asked for book recommendations.

Since I believe all readers are looking for an emotional connection to a story, I start with authenticity as my keystone. In order to form a connection with the experiences of characters, including their travel and journeys to new places, the writing should emerge from a place of authenticity.

Diversity plus critical issues

Author Corinne Duyvis started the hashtag #Ownvoices in 2015 to promote this idea of authenticity and “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.”

Very basically, when an author shares one or more of the marginalities of their diverse protagonists, it is considered to be included in #Ownvoices. In terms of diversity, most publishers use the definition put out by We Need Diverse Books: “…including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”

The hashtag has taken on a life of its own since Duyvis recommended its use. Many published books now market themselves based on #Ownvoices. And Goodreads lists have taken up this call as well. Readers looking for #OwnVoices will find many suggestions – and many more coming in the new year.

I hope this is a turn in publishing and that the well of marginalized stories written by authors most qualified to tell them never runs dry. It’s the surest way to an authentic, empathy-promoting experience for readers.

The current Top Five

Many of the teachers or parents asking for recommendations are hoping to give young adult readers an exercise in critical literacy to provide them with the opportunity to think about something long after the final page is turned. By “something,” I mean an important social issue or nuanced knowledge about a difficult concept or historical time period.

If a book meets both of these criteria — and if I’ve read it myself or have placed it on my “to be read” shelf — it warrants a recommendation.

Here are five books, very recently published (between September and December of 2017), that have made my list. At the end of each book description, I’ve included a question that might serve a critical thinking discussion once the book has been read.

This list is clearly not exhaustive and I present these as suggestions — ones that may warrant further research. Teachers or parents who know the readers they’re offering books to may need to look up any trigger warnings beforehand.

I recommend adults read books along with younger readers: It’s vital to meaningful conversations. I have left questions in my descriptions to prompt some discussion. Furthermore, I think adult readers may be pleasantly surprised with the rich and important storytelling happening in the young adult literary world.

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish. (Simon Pulse)

Starfish (Simon Pulse) features Kiko, who suffers from anxieties. She’s waiting to escape an abusive family situation by getting into the art school of her dreams but when she doesn’t get in, she takes the opportunity presented by a childhood friend to tour other schools.

Kiko, the main character who is half-Japanese, takes a journey that ends up being one of personal growth. The journey allows Kiko to embrace who she is, to learn more about her heritage and to speak up for herself. The writing is lyrical and endearing and we get a lot of Kiko’s internal thoughts and feelings.

There’s a love story here too. I would have liked it if Kiko’s path to self-love was not so knotted up with her childhood friend. But perhaps that’s me being old and young adult readers will like this aspect the best. What will you and your young adult readers think?

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

They Both Die at the End. (Harper Collins)

They Both Die at the End (Harper Collins) is an interesting genre mashup — both speculative and contemporary. With the whole “there’s an app for that” times we live in, it feels very timely.

In an alternate reality, two teen boys spend a day together after learning it will be their last. There’s diverse representation here and definitely a message that seems suitable for young people attached to their phones at the expense of experiencing the world and making real connections.

In my literature classes, we talk a lot about how classic children’s books tend to have “didactic” elements – morals embedded into them and modes of socialization or teaching children how to be in the world. Thinking through themes a writer develops, how do contemporary didactic modes operate here or in young adult literature more generally?

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin. (Crown Books)

Dear Martin (Crown Books) takes up the story of Justyce McAllister, a full-scholarship, Ivy League-bound, Black 17-year-old boy who learns that when it comes to racism, none of these accomplishments matter.

The title takes its name from the letters Justyce writes to Martin Luther King, Jr. while he grapples with racial tensions and police oppression. It’s a story that seems ripped straight from the headlines and has been compared to The Hate U Give, this year’s very successful YA book by Angie Thomas. Both of these books are important and necessary, and sadly, deal with inequalities that plague young adults of colour. How can literature combat systematic oppression and social ills?

Warcross by Marie Lu

Warcross. G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

Warcross (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers) has already wracked up a record number of positive reviews from readers. It’s a new series by the author of other YA favourites, including The Young Elites series.

In it, teenage hacker Emika Chen finds herself embroiled in a virtual reality game that’s taken over the globe. It’s an international spy adventure with a diverse cast in a near-future sci-fi world and it’s pretty awesome!

I think this one will organically prompt a discussion about “global virtual crazes” – and while its clear these virtual crazes might be ‘bad’ I wonder if there are positives to be found also?

Whichwood by Tahera Mafi

Whichwood. (Dutton Books)

Whichwood (Dutton Books for Young Readers) is the second book set in the Furthermore world. The first was a middle grade book but this one has been aged up to Young Adult. Inspired by Mafi’s Persian culture, it tells the story of Laylee, a 15-year-old with so much tragedy in her life, tasked with washing bodies of the dead to prepare them for the afterlife.

I’ve long been a fan of Mafi’s — her writing is lush and her worlds are so imaginative. Moreover, it always feels like everything she writes is a metaphor for something larger. But because her plots are so gripping, it’s not always apparent what exactly. Notwithstanding that themes in literature vary depending on individual reader’s responses to content, what do your readers find are the takeaways in this one?

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