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We live in interesting times. We see social justice take the proverbial step backward, and must fight tooth and nail to take those next two steps forward. We see our nation on two disconnected planes of existence, as surreal as a science-fiction novel, and we can’t understand how it got that way, or how to repair it. We see leaders who act like children, and children insulted by the comparison. We’ve become addicted to the daily crises, waking up each morning and checking our news apps to see what fresh hell the day will bring.
What we desperately need is perspective. Perspective enough to make sense of all this. But more important, the up-and-coming generation needs perspective, because they have no choice but to inherit the problems we create, and the consequences of both our actions and our inaction.
Young adult literature is not the solution.
But it is a major part of the foundation upon which solutions will be built.
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you walked away from a piece of fiction and felt that it profoundly changed your life? Chances are, it was when you were somewhere between 12 and 20 years old. We talk about childhood as being the formative years, but that’s really an oversimplification. Childhood is where we discover our likes and dislikes, and establish our personalities and the way we interact with the world. But it’s in that long adolescence of the modern world that we make the critical decisions about who we’re going to be.
The frustrating irony is none of us are equipped to make those decisions when we’re that age. It’s like being hurled into the deep end of a very cold pool, and when you reach for help, you’re handed a pencil and a standardized test. No wonder teens are pissed off.
And no wonder they crave experiences.
They want to know what it’s like.
To fall in love, to drive too fast, to get high, to scream at the top of their lungs, to feel euphoric, to know more than their parents, to defy authority, to see the future—even if that future is just tomorrow morning—and to be able to face it. Maybe even fix it.
That’s where YA books come in. They are thoughtfully crafted, safe experiences, allowing readers to vicariously live multiple lives. Everything from facing the causes and consequences of a classmate’s suicide to finding the cleverness and courage it takes to repair an entire world gone wrong. When you’re a teen reading a compelling YA novel, you are those characters. And if the experiences in the story speak to you in just the right way, it will change your life. You’ll never look at the world, or your life, the same way again. And once you’ve found a life-changing book, you’ll want more and more and more, because you realize what an amazing feeling it is to find new perspectives.
And so, when teens find themselves floundering in that deep end, they may find that a book has given them the clarity to realize they know how to swim.
In my conversations with other young-adult authors, there’s something that’s universal. We don’t just want to tell a good story. We want to tell a story that matters. We’re all striving for narratives that make a positive difference—even if it sometimes takes readers through dark, difficult places to get there. It’s one of the reasons why book banning and other forms of censorship of YA books are so maddening. Those misguided people have no idea how much thought goes into the things we write, and how seriously we take the responsibility of providing healthy food for thought for their kids. Or maybe they do. I can’t deny the fact that when action is motivated by fear, thought becomes the enemy.
But teens know better. Challenge teens to think, and they rise to the occasion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parent come to me after his or her child has read one of my books and say that they discussed things they had never discussed before. “I had no idea my kid thought so deeply.” It just proves that there’s a lot more going on in teens’ heads than we give them credit for. YA literature appeals to that crucial part of them that pop culture and the daily grind would otherwise wear down.
“But YA books are just a bunch of stories for kids. They’ll never change the world.”
Maybe not. But the kids who read them will.
Neal Shusterman’s Honor Roll
Here are five books Shusterman credits as influences and inspirations.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (2006)
Feed, by M. T. Anderson (2002)
The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer (2002)
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (2008)
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)
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