Fantasy has certainly experienced a resurgence lately, but most YA novels are known — and challenged — for their realism, their stark depictions of the darker side of life, their raw representations of drugs, sexuality, abuse, pain, depression, strong language, and violence. The two sides most often pitted against each other are those who want to protect teenagers and those who think that teens ‘know’ all about these things anyway so what’s the point in trying to hide it from them. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. Books can be powerful, but they aren’t all-powerful. They are one aspect of a teen’s overall experience. And while books can offer a safe space for exploration, I sometimes wonder if books (along with movies and tv and music, etc) can start to normalize an experience that may or may not be common. Fortunately YA novels are so vastly different that they can’t possibly be considered a collective and in my experience teens are pretty good at finding the books they want to read, with or without the permission of the adults around them. What I most appreciate is how many YA authors clearly respect teens; they offer questions and complicated concepts rather than trying to preach, or teach.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, $9.99) has been out for a while, but it’s one of those books that I recommend over and over because it so clearly captures the high school experience in a way that is both hilarious and poignant. Melinda, who has stopped speaking due to a traumatic event that happened at a party over the summer, carefully observes her peers, teachers, parents, and community. Her wry commentary on the hypocrisy and chaos around her aptly expresses her own internal chaos and struggles with identity.