The Dayton Metro Library created this flag of the 100 most-challenged books from 1990-2000. Photo via Flickr.
On Monday of this week, the American Library Association released the list of 2013’s top ten most frequently challenged books. You’d expect it to be packed with racy titles, yes? In fact, seven out of the ten top titles would be shelved in a bookstore’s young adult or children’s section.
Teenage wastelands are a hot topic these days. It’s hard to miss the bevy of post-apocalyptic stories populating bookshelves, movie theaters, and pop-culture discourse; most notably, both the wildly popular dystopian Hunger Gamesand Divergent series have been massive commercial successes. They’re fast-paced and well-plotted and, at their best, authors Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth create dynamic and vivid characters whose lives crackle with high-stakes tension. But there are larger—and troubling—issues in the worlds these two series establish.
Kari Luna's debut young adult novel, The Theory of Everything, is a bright, shiny antidote to the dystopias and vampire love stories that dominate today's YA shelves. The story follows 14-year old protagonist Sophie Sophia on a soul-reckoning journey from the suburbs of Chicago to New York City to find her missing father – an eccentric physicist who left Sophie nothing but a box full of '80s-music mix tapes and a propensity for bizarre visions.
Let me start by saying that I'm a Hunger Games gal. I thought that series was the end for me; the top of the bold, brave mountain of perfect Young Adult (YA) literature. I would keep reading YA, I figured, but I would be standing at the top of Everest looking down to do it. How would it get better than Suzanne Collins' frenetic pacing, allusion to contemporary politics, consice, brutal descriptions, gasp-inducing action, and the name Katniss Everdeen? Let me tell you, friends. It could be about a war that has ALREADY HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE, equally terrible to Panem's child slaughter. It could have a female protaginist infinitely more invested in directing her own fate than Katniss was, Collins forgive me. It could still be as tightly wound as a top, as intricately plotted as any good twist-ending requires, and equally stupefying in violence and intrigue. It could contain the names of monarchs and spies, Nazis and codes. It could be Code Name Verity, the best book I've read this year, and the new YA Everest.
Young adult literature features a number of depictions of mentally ill characters, from authors who both bother to do their homework and take the time to present their work well and authors who don't seem to feel that research and sensitivity are necessary. In YA especially, depictions of mental illness are critical because some readers may be struggling with emotions and experiences they do not understand, or don't have words for; some mental illnesses start to manifest during young adulthood, and can be overwhelming and alarming as people start to realize that something about their adolescence is different from that of their peers. Reading about people like them can be a reminder that no, they are not abnormal or freakish, and their experiences are not unusual.