Young Adult Literature: Why it matters

By Sarah Van Name, Guest Blogger

Sarah Van Name is the author of The Goodbye Summer, a young adult novel about close friendships and a transformative summer. Her second book, Any Place But Here, will be released in May. She lives in Durham.

As a teenager, I loved to read. I could find something to like in almost any book, including my required reading at school, but all of my favorites were young adult novels. I could see myself in them in a way that I couldn’t in Dickens or Dostoyevsky: my fears and my hopes, my loneliness and joy. Fantasy YA helped me escape when the real world felt either too confusing or too boring; realistic YA helped me make sense of it when I was ready to come back. When I started writing my first book in my twenties, I didn’t set out to write YA—but it became a YA novel before I was even three chapters in, because those are the stories that mattered most to me and still do.

Great literature for people of all ages helps us hold up a mirror to ourselves. But YA books do this for kids at a critical point, when they’re figuring out who they are and what they want to do in the world.

That’s why it’s so important that YA literature comes from diverse voices and features diverse characters. The young adult genre still has a long way to go to achieve broad and meaningful diversity in both the authors it publishes and the characters it highlights. For example, per the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 5.3 percent of primary characters in U.S. kids’ and YA books in 2019 were Latinx, despite the fact that Latinx people make up 18 percent of the total U.S. population. And just 5.8 percent of kids’ and YA books were written by authors who were Black or of African descent, though 13 percent of Americans are Black.

As a white, able-bodied teenager reading YA, it was simple for me to see myself in the stories I loved. I could easily close my eyes and slip myself into their shoes. Not all my peers had the same experience.

Book Harvest knows how necessary it is for kids and teens to see their own stories in the books they read for fun. So a letter of recommendation: Pick up a YA novel that came out in the last few years, something by an author of color. Don’t worry about it feeling “too young” for you, or moan about the amount of “teen angst” before you’ve cracked the spine. (Both objections I’ve heard from adults about YA, but don’t tell me you read adult literary fiction and then complain about angst!) Maybe try Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown, about a queer Black band kid who runs for prom queen. Or Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High, which will make you laugh and cry and want to become a better cook. Read it carefully, lovingly. And then donate it to Book Harvest, so that all teenagers in Durham have the opportunity to draw on books for escape, for guidance, and for joy.

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