Characters Building Character: Reading YA as a Teenager

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A moment repeated many times during my teenage years: my flashlight stills over open pages, illuminating their black and white text beneath the canopy of my bed covers. Far enough into the night where time loses its significance, I consume chapters and chapters of my latest bookstore purchase, keeping myself awake on sheer will to see the end of the story. I know that tomorrow exhaustion will bring regret for this little endeavor, but for now I’m blissfully enraptured in a young adult book.

Filling my evenings and an appetite for literature that could not be satisfied by curriculum-assigned classics, reading young adult writing was a habit young adult me could never shake and one she never quite wanted to. It followed me through middle and high school, through countless dances and sports events and final exams. I read on the bleachers during soccer games, before shifts at my first job, on bus rides, and after the final bell of the school day rung. For a teenager living in a small town amidst cornfields and not much else, the books became a way to find role models, to learn who I was and should be, and to experience a world beyond my own.

I recall when I finished Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson at the age of thirteen. Admiration for the protagonist, Max, had molded her into an ideal over the course of the book. After turning the final page, I so intensely wanted to emulate her that I used my allowance to get blond highlights to match hers. Max was everything I aspired to be: strong, funny, intelligent, a capable leader. Although other YA protagonists had exhibited similar characteristics, I latched onto her with passion that I’d never exhibited before, realizing only much later the reason for this attachment: she had brown hair (with blond highlights) and brown eyes. I had rarely, if ever, seen even this minute representation of myself in a character of the YA genre, and despite the fact that we were different in almost everything from race to culture to favorite color, it was enough to allow me to believe that part of me was or could be a hero like Max. For a long time after I read those books, what would Max do? circulated in my head constantly, and in the end I became a more confident and courageous person because of it.

Eventually, other protagonists of other novels came to share Max’s position of role model in my life, and although I cannot remember all of them, I know they helped me through my teenage years and made me who I am today. Furthermore, I am so excited to see the YA genre’s increasing inclusivity, with characters like Xifeng (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns), Taj (Beasts Made of Night), and Starr Carter (The Hate U Give) providing POC representation and allowing young people to see their stories being told, because I know how valuable having that was for me.

YA books also provided me knowledge about the world that I would have never been able to learn in a classroom or my limited life in Minnesota. From Unwind by Neal Shusterman I learned about systematic dehumanization, resistance organization, and how economic industries benefit from oppression. From The List by Siobhan Vivian, I saw the subjective, problematic ranking of beauty as it exists for high school students. From Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson I came to understand the outcome of epidemics and underdeveloped medical technologies on a personal level, as well as the nature of life during this time in history. Furthermore, because these lessons were so heavily imbued in such stories, they stayed with me longer than any abstract theory reading or textbook passage. Indeed I believe that young adult novels, particularly in the modern day, serve to subtly inform and empower teenagers through a relatability denied to them by their surroundings. As I continue on through higher education, I must at the very least appreciate how much they enabled me to engage with difficult concepts and face a variety of conflicts and challenges.

In spite of Young Adult Literature having a reputation for being mindless or superficial, it was an indispensable contributor to my development as a young adult, as I’m certain it was for many others. It gave me hope, knowledge, and virtues whose effects continue to shape my life and perspective. It allowed me to surpass my circumstance, a teenager with little control over her surroundings, and experience what I would otherwise be unable to. Moreover, although I continue to spend nights curled under the covers with a good YA book, I know that it will never be as transformative as it was during that time in my life, back when I had a bed time I was breaking to finish a good book.

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