Tough Topics in YA: Turning Points

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Tough Topics in YA: Turning Points

As the genre of YA continues to push new boundaries, there are a variety of tough topics explored in young adult literature. But what usually interests me as a reader is not so much the subject itself, but what happens in those moments when the problem a protagonist encounters can allow them to move forward in multiple ways. It’s an instant that I like to think of as a turning point - not only because the choices encountered in the novel are so relatable but also, because as any reader knows, a good story fascinates us by allowing us to imagine what will happen next.  If you’re looking for such subject matter, these are some choices that might just grab your attention.

You can’t get more classic than The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton; i.e.; if you haven’t read it yet, you should. Otherwise how will you know what someone is referring to when they say, “Stay gold pony boy, stay gold…?” As part of a teen gang, Ponyboy is drawn into a vicious brawl one night with his friend Johnny. Ponyboy is already in precarious circumstances, as he is being raised by his two older brothers; based on this act he could be taken into protective custody or be sent to juvenile hall.  Consequently, the two boys decide to flee. Those who have seen the movie know that this piece has a tragic ending, but one should not be discouraged from reading the book! Hinton wonderfully balances the pathos of the narrative with humor and some of the best descriptions of friendship that I have ever encountered.

Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan is a provocative work; when Frances boards a cruise ship with her parents, it promises to be a fun and exciting family vacation. But the luxury liner goes down in a tragic and senseless act of violence, killing almost everyone on board. When Frances learns that the ship’s destruction may have been the result of foul play, she takes on a new identity and spends four years carefully crafting her revenge. I won’t spoil the details, as it’s part of what makes this text so exciting; aside from the obvious narrative tension, this powerful novel raises questions about the nature of vengeance. Is it justice to bring these acts to light even if others get hurt in the process? You may not agree with Frances’ ultimate choice, but many will find her strength of will a potent testimonial to human nature.

In The Girls of No Return by Erin Saladin, the text follows the young protagonist Lida as she arrives at the Alice Marshall School for Girls. Set in the Idaho wilderness, the school is a last stop for many of its occupants; if the girls do not comply by reforming they will face stronger punitive actions. Saladin’s work is as compelling as it is dark, as she does not shy away from probing the rich psychology of her characters. Lida becomes drawn into the powerful struggle between the two “queen bees” of the camp – Jules and Gia, for whom Lida develops an increasing infatuation. As personal secrets become uncovered in camp, the strife that develops between these three becomes ever more dangerous, culminating in a dire fight with a deadly outcome. Raw and unafraid of conflicting emotion, this work is compelling because it forces the reader to think about who they trust and why.

In recent years, many thoughtful books have depicted the subject of sexual trauma, such as What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler or The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith. All the Rage by Courtney Summers, however, is an important text and one that I would recommend highly because of its unflinching treatment on the subject of rape. Gritty and real, this novel depicts the aftermath of what happens to a rape victim (the protagonist Romy Grey) as well her family. Questions arise when Romy accuses a prominent figure in town and as a consequence is repeatedly threatened and harassed. Without protection, Romy herself must decide how to move forward, an act that demands courage and fortitude in light of Summer’s graphic depiction of this character’s trauma. As much about victim blaming as it is about rape itself, All the Rage is not a comfortable book but one that still necessitates recognition.

Like All the Rage, Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr dwells on themes of sex, public awareness, and the idea of shame - but while both novels feature similarities, Story of a Girl focuses on promiscuity in adolescence.  When Deanna’s father catches her in a compromising position, her life quickly changes: labeled as a “slut,” Deanna is ostracized by both her parents as well as her school peers. While Deanna may yearn to escape the boundaries of her small town in order to start over, she painfully learns that the past cannot be ignored. As a character driven piece, readers will identify with the protagonist as she struggles to develop a sense of self-worth. Deeply empathetic, this is a moving text that sensitive readers will appreciate.

While these fictive works present challenging and difficult themes, they also offer relevant points for meditation or discussion. By portraying this subject matter, it offers readers a chance to reflect on their own turning points and ultimately the factors that contributed to who they are as both readers and as individuals.