Tough Topics in YA: Inclusion

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Tough Topics in YA: Inclusion

This month’s selections feature materials on the subject of inclusion and exclusion. It’s a topic that everyone can relate to regardless of age, race, or gender: feelings of being uncomfortable, that one does not belong, or that one does not simply “fit in” are universal. Perhaps because of this sentiment, this subject matter has been explored by several authors, although the topic has assumed a number of different forms in the YA genre. Below is a selection of books for you to peruse, but it is by no means a definitive list; instead think of it as a sampler of notable reads if you are interested in learning more about this topic.

Try The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore if you are looking for a book that blends magical elements with realistic familial tensions. McLemore depicts the Palomas and the Corbeaus, two rival families who journey across the country as traveling performers. Each year the two groups congregate in a small town to battle over the space, profit and family honor. When Cluck Corbeau saves Lace Paloma from drowning, a love relationship slowly develops between the two characters, but this act also sets off a wave of tension culminating in the release of long buried secrets. McLemore's language is evocative and befitting of the mysterious tone of the book. Readers will especially empathize with Cluck, a tragic figure who is despised by his family for reasons unknown to him, but his strength and integrity shines throughout the narrative. 

Similarly First & Then by Emma Mills is an engrossing drama; while at first glance it may appear to be your typical teen narrative, Mills's portrayal of her characters is infused with wit and heart.  Devon’s life has always been categorized by her love for her best friend, Cas. With the arrival of her cousin Foster, however, Devon’s outlook changes. Foster is a social outlier, but his unexpected talent for football brings new encounters into Devon's life (especially in the form of Ezra Lynley – a Mr. Darcy type for the Janeites.) Readers may enjoy the romance, but the growing relationship between Devon and Foster is what really solidifies this tender narrative. Foster is a strange mixture of curiosity and social apathy, but his independence challenges not only Devon’s beliefs but also our own as well.  

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier also touches upon the theme of family relations, but Hidier’s narrative is far more rich and complex, as it dwells on cultural identity, friendship, and first love. Coming from a traditional family, Dimple Lala has always questioned her future, especially when it comes to things like relationships. When her parents broach the idea of an arranged marriage, Dimple is ready to protest – until she meets her intended fiance one night at a club and everything changes. Suddenly, Dimple is confronted by change and not all of it is positive. But through this process Dimple must confront what it is that she truly wants and thus, who she wants to become. Hidier’s text is compelling because it is so relatable; the insecurity that Dimple exhibits is akin to the thoughts and feelings of many of us which in turn makes us more emotionally invested in Dimple’s journey.  

Simon and the Homo Sapiens by Becky Albertalli is an immensely like-able book, as the main hero is both charming and empathetic. Simon is gay, and while he is happy with his current life, he is also comfortable with the decision that he has made to not come out - at least not yet. However, this choice becomes irrelevant when an innocent email that Simon has exchanged with his mysterious crush falls into the wrong hands. Threatened with blackmail, Simon must navigate the expectations of his friends and family in the hopes of maintaining his privacy while still trying to find Mr. Right. There is a sweet air to this book, as it is naturally funny and it discusses Simon's sexuality in a forthright manner without being pretentious. If readers are looking for additional LGBT fare, they might try If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo or The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. All of these texts have been published recently, thus making the subject matter both relevant as well as fresh for readers. 

Although Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley also underscores LGBT topics, Talley's work is a piercing historical narrative that shines a light on pressing issues that engage readers today: topics such as race, feminism, and social justice are all evocatively portrayed in this text. Tally's work follows two female protagonists, one the privileged white daughter of a local opponent to desegregation (Linda Hairston)  and another, an African American young woman who has been urged by her parents to attend the all white Jefferson High School in order to receive a better education (Sarah Dunbar.)  Elements of the book may make the reader uneasy, as this book is set in Virginia in 1959 and Talley does not spare detail when evoking the challenges of desegregation. But this tension is necessary because it produces a thoughtful narrative that does not allow the reader to dismiss either character's thoughts or feelings easily. This book is intense but heartfelt and as a consequence shouldn't be missed. 
 
Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind is not categorized as a YA novel, although it is appropriate for younger tweens who are moving onward to more complex subject matter. This novel will strike a chord with many readers due to the depth of Draper’s characterization. The text depicts Melody, a young girl who cannot walk or talk but who is profoundly gifted. Melody’s fight to emerge  from outside the confines of her own body is a searing narrative because it demonstrates alongside her growth, both the positive and negative reactions that she encounters. But it is Melody’s voice which remains with the reader, as a poignant but wise narrator who is struggling to create her own place in the world. For fans of Wonder by R.J. Palacio or El Deafo by Cece Bell who are looking for a similar title, this is a selection that you won’t soon forget.

By reading about texts that illustrate inclusion or exclusion within certain groups, certainly our own ideas of what is right or wrong in particular instances is challenged. More important is that the issue of inclusion affects all of us because our thoughts and feelings do matter: they affect how we treat each other and in turn how we are perceived. By reading literature that challenges our assumptions or moves our heart, we are made better for the experience.