Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Some Books Coming Soon for Your TBR List, By Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

Here’s a look at some YA releases coming your way. One later this year and four early 2021. All book descriptions are provided by the publisher.

This is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey

Like many teens, sometimes it feels as though everything in Jess Flynn’s life has been engineered for maximum drama–from her performance at the school talent show, to the reappearance of her childhood best friend and perennial crush Jeremy, to her friends trying to set her up with one of the hottest guys in school. It’s almost as if everything might finally be going her way…until one day a tiny black phone with an apple logo on its screen falls out of her best friend’s backpack and lands at Jess’s feet.

The problem is, it’s 1998, and the first iPhone isn’t due out for another nine years.

Jess’s friends refuse to acknowledge the strange device. Her sister Sara, on hospice care with a terminal blood disease, for once can’t tell Jess what she should do. It’s almost as if everyone is hiding something from her. Even her beloved dog Fuller seems different…like, literally different, because he definitely didn’t have that same pattern of spots on his stomach last week…

Nothing in Jess Flynn’s world is as it seems, and as the cracks begin to show, Jess will discover her entire life is nothing more than someone else’s entertainment. Except in this reality, the outside world is no place anyone would want to escape to. (November 2020, Quirk Books)

Sing Me Forgotten by Jessica S. Olson

Isda does not exist. At least not beyond the opulent walls of the opera house.

Cast into a well at birth for being one of the magical few who can manipulate memories when people sing, she was saved by Cyril, the opera house’s owner. Since that day, he has given her sanctuary from the murderous world outside. All he asks in return is that she use her power to keep ticket sales high—and that she stay out of sight. For if anyone discovers she survived, Isda and Cyril would pay with their lives.

But Isda breaks Cyril’s cardinal rule when she meets Emeric Rodin, a charming boy who throws her quiet, solitary life out of balance. His voice is unlike any she’s ever heard, but the real shock comes when she finds in his memories hints of a way to finally break free of her gilded prison.

Haunted by this possibility, Isda spends more and more time with Emeric, searching for answers in his music and his past. But the price of freedom is steeper than Isda could ever know. For even as she struggles with her growing feelings for Emeric, she learns that in order to take charge of her own destiny, she must become the monster the world tried to drown in the first place. (March 2021, Inkyard Press)

Riley’s Thoughts: A gender bent Phantom of the Opera? Yes!

Five Ways to Fall Out of Love by Emily Martin

Aubrey Cash learned the hard way not to rely on love. After all, Webster Casey, the new boy next door she’d been falling for all summer, stood her up at homecoming in front of everyone with no explanation. Proving her theory that love never lasts seems easy when she’s faced with parents whose marriage is falling apart and a best friend who thinks every boy she dates is “the one.” But when sparks fly with a boy who turns out to be Webster’s cousin, and then Webster himself becomes her lab partner for the rest of senior year, Aubrey finds her theory—and her commitment to stay single—put to the test.

As she navigates the breakdown of her family, the consequences her cynicism has on her relationship with her best friend, and her own confusing but undeniable feelings for Webster, Aubrey has to ask herself: What really happened the night Webster stood her up? And if there are five ways to fall out of love…could there perhaps be even more ways to fall back in? (March 2021, Inkyard Press)

The Flipside of Perfect by Liz Reinhardt

AJ is a buttoned-up, responsible student attending a high-achieving high school in Michigan. She lives with her mother, stepfather and two younger half sisters.

Della spends every summer with her father in Florida. A free-spirited wild child, she spends as much time as possible on the beach with her friends and older siblings.

But there’s a catch: AJ and Della are the same person. Adelaide Beloise Jepsen to be exact, and she does everything she can to keep her school and summer lives separate.

When her middle sister crashes her carefree summer getaway, Adelaide’s plans fall apart. In order to help her sister, save her unexpected friendship with a guy who might just be perfect for her, and discover the truth about her own past, Adelaide will have to reconcile the two sides of herself and face the fact that it’s perfectly okay not to be perfect all the time. (April 2021, Inkyard Press)

These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy

When twin heirs are born in Tourin, their fates are decided at a young age. While Izaveta remained at court to learn the skills she’d need as the future queen, Asya was taken away to train with her aunt, the mysterious Firebird, who ensured magic remained balanced in the realm.

But before Asya’s training is completed, the ancient power blooms inside her, which can mean only one thing: the queen is dead, and a new ruler must be crowned.

As the princesses come to understand everything their roles entail, they’ll discover who they can trust, who they can love—and who killed their mother. (April 2021, Inkyard Press)

How to Get Out of Handcuffs and Other Things You Need to Know to Write a Mystery Thriller: The Murder Teen Interviews YA Author April Henry

As you may know, teen contributor Riley Jensen is interested in becoming a forensic scientist. Last Thursday, she interviewed prolific YA author April Henry over Zoom. Ms. Henry was very gracious to talk with The Murder Teen and answer her questions about writing a mystery/thriller novel for teens. It’s a fascinating conversation that talks about research and devolves into a very in depth conversation about how one can get out of handcuffs. Now Riley wants practice handcuffs and a lock picking set for her upcoming birthday, so there’s that.

April Henry’s 25th novel The Girl in the White Van releases tomorrow, July 28th. The interview is posted for you below. I tried to close caption the video for the first time to make it accessible and I hope that works correctly.

About The Girl in the White Van

A teen is snatched after her kung fu class and must figure out how to escape—and rescue another kidnapped prisoner—in this chilling YA mystery.

When Savannah disappears soon after arguing with her mom’s boyfriend, everyone assumes she’s run away. The truth is much worse. She’s been kidnapped by a man in a white van who locks her in an old trailer home, far from prying eyes. And worse yet, Savannah’s not alone: Ten months earlier, Jenny met the same fate and nearly died trying to escape. Now as the two girls wonder if he will hold them captive forever or kill them, they must join forces to break out—even if it means they die trying.

Master mystery-writer April Henry weaves another heart-stopping young adult thriller in this story ripped straight from the headlines.

Coming July 28th, 2020 from Henry Holt & Company

About April Henry

New York Times-bestselling author April Henry knows how to kill you in a two-dozen different ways. She makes up for a peaceful childhood in an intact home by killing off fictional characters. There was one detour on April’s path to destruction:  when she was 12 she sent a short story about a six-foot tall frog who loved peanut butter to noted children’s author Roald Dahl. He liked it so much he showed it to his editor, who asked if she could publish it in Puffin Post, an international children’s magazine. By the time April was in her 30s, she had started writing about hit men, kidnappers, and drug dealers. She has published 25 mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults, with more to come. She is known for meticulously researching her novels to get the details right. 

Find out more about April Henry and her books at her webpage.

Everything’s Coming Up YA: A Day at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, part 2

On Monday, I shared the experiences of Thing 2’s day at the North Texas Teen Book Festival. Today, The Teen is sharing her own experiences and recapping the various YA panels that she attended. This was the first time she went off totally on her own and it was interesting to me to see what panels she chose to attend and what she thought of them. We had great conversations on the car ride home. This is her first time writing a post for TLT from start to finish on her own.

Mary Hinson, Thing 2 and The Teen at the North Texas Teen Book Festival

At the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I attended four panels. Each of them was good in their own way.

Read the Rainbow

First, I attended Reading the Rainbow. On this panel there was George M. Jonson, David Levithan, Gabby Rivera, Marie Rutkoski, Aminah Mae Safi and Nic Stone. There was very little time in this panel since so many people wanted to attend it, so right after introductions they jumped into audience questions. Most of the questions did not pertain to books. One teen asked for advice for coming out and another asked how to deal with not feeling accepted. There was a disclaimer made at the beginning of the panel by David Levitan that the authors were not professionals when it came to this stuff, but they would answer the questions to the best of their ability. And that’s what they did. They gave advice for coming out and they told the teens how they deal with not feeling accepted. There were questions about books, like what is a trope that you wish people would move away from and what would you tell young aspiring queer writers. But, mostly the panel just felt like a place full of people seeking advice from the people they look up to. It was really amazing seeing all of these teens so excited to listen to these authors who are making it possible for them to see people who are like them in books. And with some final recommendations of books, the panel was over.

All Bodies are Beautiful

So, I moved to All Bodies Are Beautiful with Becky Albertalli, Julie Murphy, Karen Schneeman, Renee Watson and Lily Williams. The panel opened again with more introductions and a description of their newest books. These introductions were quickly followed by a question from the moderator about terminology and about what terminology that the moderator should us for them. I feel like this is something that this way a brilliant way to begin this panel, and I actually learned something from this question that I would have never known. Julie Murphy was the first to answer this question and she said that body positivity actually comes from a smaller group called fat positivity. She also said that she uses the word fat for herself because it’s not a negative word, but people have just been using it in a way that makes it seem negative. The moderator asked more questions, but there was one question that gave me some answers that made me really sad. The question was about how hard did the authors have to push for their cover art. Thankfully, the authors said that their illustrators were quick to make changes to their first attempts of the cover art, but the covers did not begin as the authors wanted. For Watch Us Rise, Renee Watson said that she had to push for her cover art because when a character is fat the illustrators make her look sad and if she’s black they make her look angry. But, thankfully, on her next book she was able to make changes to her character design very quickly. Julie Murphy followed Watson in answering the question. She said that for Dumplin’ the illustrators were ready to make her a “curvacious bombshell” and for her newest book, Faith Takes Flight, she actually gave her illustrator pictures to base the design off of. This panel really opened my eyes to how hard it has been to get fat people the proper representation they deserve. The panel closed with an audience question about if loving your body is a straight line. Renee Watson gave a quick no to that question, saying that loving your body is not a straight line. And Julie Murphy followed by saying, “the things I say and think about myself, you’re thinking those things about the people around you.” This panel really left me thinking about my body differently. It left me feeling a little teary. It was really amazing to hear these people whose books I have read essentially say that all bodies are beautiful.

Black Girl Magic

After that panel I went to Black Girl Magic with Tonya Bolden, Camryn Garrett, Tiffany D. Jackson, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon. The panel once again opened with more introductions and a description of their latest book. These introductions were followed by some questions from their moderator, my favorite was about finding your passion which Angie Thomas gave a beautiful reply that there is no time limit on finding your passion and when you find it then you find it. After the questions were asked by the moderator, the floor was opened to the audience. There were many good questions about how to combat stereotypes in writing and how to make writing more diverse, but there was one question that made the room go silent. The question was can white people write people of color. Angie Thomas had my favorite response. Her response was to ask yourself, “am I the person to tell this story?” Which was a excellent way to end this panel with a reminder that everyone must be conscious of what they write.

Killer Vibes

With that panel over, I moved to Killer Vibes with Libba Bray, Traci Chee, Mintie Das, Maureen Johnson and Karen M. McManus. More introductions and more descriptions of their latest projects. This panel was probably the most fun for me. {Editor’s note: regular readers may recall that The Teen is hoping to become a forensic scientist so murder is one of her favorite subjects.} A lot of fun questions were asked like what was the weirdest thing that they had to google for research and which character they would want to trade lives with. These questions led to a lot of funny stories and I honestly didn’t take a lot of notes over this panel because I was laughing too much at the authors quick responses and humor. This panel was a great way to close the day.

A Love Letter to Muslim Authors, a guest post by Lisa Krok

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many Muslims in the United States and elsewhere have been the victims of prejudice and stereotypes. Recently in the young adult book world, a novel written by a non-Muslim writer received backlash in some reviews regarding the portrayal of Muslims and the Kosovan Genocide in 1996. The author has since apologized and pulled the book from publication. Additionally, Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has faced death threats and Islamaphobic hate, linking her to the September 11 attacks. The horrific Mosque shootings in Christchurch this past week demonstrated white supremacy in action, bringing tragic consequences for many families.

My heart is so heavy for the hurt Muslims repeatedly endure. My heart is also so very full with peace and love for them. With so much negativity directed towards the Muslim population, they truly deserve a love letter for all they bring to the world of young adult literature. Muslim teens have historically not had much representation in books, and thankfully, this is changing. I have personally read eight books in the past few months by Muslim authors and/or featuring Muslim characters. At first, I was choosing books that had summaries that sounded interesting. As I read more, I found that the #ownvoices books by Muslim authors had stories that captivated me, so I began seeking out more of them. The selections below are primarily published in 2018 and 2019, with some forthcoming very soon.

The realistic fictional accounts depict Muslim teens having many of the same issues all teens have, albeit sometimes at a much more intense level: concerns about fitting in, bullying, first love, sexuality, parental expectations, mental illness, etc. Hijabi teens are included, with explanations of the hijab and why they choose to wear it. A terrific example of this is illustrated in Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea (Harper Collins, 2018). When hijab wearing teen Shirin couples with school basketball star Ocean James, many of their classmates are critical. Shirin faces unfair intimidation and threats. Fortunately, her relationship with her brother is strong, and together they work on a breakdancing routine for the school talent show. Mafi has stated that the book is not autobiographical, but is inspired by situations that happened in her life. Teens will be interested to learn that Mafi is a breakdancer herself, as demonstrated in the book trailer below.

alkafThe Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) propels readers into Melati’s world during the race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Melati is a Beatles loving, movie going teen with OCD. When tensions rise, a riot leader storms the movie theater. Melati and her best friend are forced to separate, and their lives are forever changed. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2019) portrays a lesbian teenaged girl wanting to make her own decisions about who she will date and marry, with some roadblocks from her controlling parents. Kick the Moon by Muhammed Khan (Pan Macmillan UK, 2019) features Ilyas, who is battling on many different fronts, including toxic masculinity, misogyny, test pressures, and accountability.

What I adore most about these realistic fiction novels by Muslim authors is that even with the differences in culture, religion, geographical location, and time periods, the characters are so very relatable to a broad spectrum of teens. This is a harmonious merging of what some perceive as “other”, to help them see that our commonalities are far greater than our differences. The more Muslim teens view themselves reflected in books, the more they will feel validated and seen. These accounts can also help non-Muslim teens progress from possible stereotypical thoughts and promote conversations on the path to real life acceptance and celebration of each other. These are ideal and highly encouraged for classroom book discussions or book club picks. Some of the themes represented include racism, resisting, self-acceptance, family issues, homophobia, mental illness, and dating. All of the realistic fiction books below are available now, with the exception of Internment by Samira Ahmed (Little, Brown BFYR, March 19, 2019), Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads, April 30, 2019) and Symptoms of a Heartbreak by Sona Charaipotra (Macmillan, July 2, 2019).

YA Realistic Fiction


For teens interested in books with a sci-fi/fantasy element, Muslim writers have you covered there, too! Digging deep to find your inner strength, even in the most dire of circumstances is a common thread in many of these SFF novels. Three incredible debut books by new Muslim authors are shown below. Mirage by Somaiya Daud (Flatiron, 2018) is available now in stores and libraries. The Candle and the Flame, by Nafiza Azad (Scholastic Press) and We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR) share a book birthday on May 14, 2019.

YA Fantasy yafantasy

Teens who enjoy dark, edgy reads will inhale these two gripping series. The “Queen of Cruel” (but we love her dearly), Sabaa Tahir, will rip your heart out, dance on it, and leave you begging for more. Book four of the An Ember in the Ashes series is slated to come out in 2020, giving those who have read the first three time to recover and crave vengeance. Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series is also intense, with novellas provided in between the books to satiate readers clamoring for the next installment. Defy Me releases April 2, 2019.

YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy Series


 Middle grade readers can find some commendable options from Muslim authors, also. Karuna Raizi’s The Battle (Salaam Reads, 2019) is the sequel to her previous book, The Gauntlet (Salaam Reads, 2018) and has special appeal for gamers. Raizi’s book is forthcoming, August 27, 2019. Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018) has already grabbed the hearts of many librarians, teachers, and students, who have become immediately engaged with the very likable protagonist, Amal, and her struggle to be free.  Also, forthcoming by Aisha Saeed is Aladdin: Far from Agrabah (Disney Press, April 2, 2019).

Middle Grade Readers


To the many incredible Muslim authors who have worked tirelessly to bring their stories to teens, thank you. Thank you for giving Muslim teens their chance to be SEEN. Thank you for addressing issues affecting teens, such as mental illness, sexuality, racism, bullying, and more. Thank you for the strength of your characters and for their resilience. Thank you for opening the door to discussions for non-Muslim teens to see that we are all more alike than they may think.  Inshallah, this is just the beginning of a journey spreading peace and understanding to many.

With love,

Lisa Krok,   M.L.I.S., M.Ed

If you would like to help families affected by the New Zealand shootings, please visit the official Victim Support donation page:  https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/christchurch-shooting-victims-fund?fbclid=IwAR0xUiUdpGsfqVgBgQ1eUqAFqIFLMejM47pZDYfh90uiDI5i-GvoDyDyu_Q

lisakrok2019 -Lisa Krok is a librarian, die-hard YA reader, social justice warrior, and a Ravenclaw. She has a passion for reaching reluctant readers, and was appointed to the 2019 and 2018 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers teams. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Hip Hop is Happening in YA Lit, a guest post by Lisa Krok

The Grammys have often failed to recognize hip-hop artists in the most notable award categories. Based upon the lack of representation of Black performers in the Motown tribute, the Grammys clearly still have work to do. However, the steps toward progress are in motion, with huge wins for Childish Gambino and Cardi B. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” won Grammys for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Music Video. The Song of the Year honors writers of songs, while the Record of the Year honors the recording artist. “This is America” was the first rap song to win these two distinguished accolades. Additionally, Cardi B was the first female solo artist to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album for “Invasion of Privacy”, alongside several other award nominations. This year Childish Gambino and Cardi B made history, and Young Adult Lit is here for it!

Three strong and exceptionally talented Black YA authors have hit the trifecta with books that are new releases or coming soon and reflect hip-hop culture. As rapper and social theorist KRS-One stated, “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live”.

hiphop1Many teens will already be familiar with author Angie Thomas from (NYT Bestseller for 100+ weeks) The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray, 2017) book and movie. The Hate U Give has received multiple awards and honors, including YALSA’s William C. Morris Award, a Coretta Scott King honor, a Printz honor, and the National Book Award long list, just to name a few. Thomas, a former teen rapper herself, recently released On the Come Up featuring Bri, a female teen rapper trying to make it big. Living up to a dead father who was a rap legend is tough. Combine that with racist actions from school security, a recovering addict mom desperately trying to make ends meet, and competition in the ring, finding your voice is difficult and is sometimes misconstrued by those who want to knock you down. Thomas passionately and realistically portrays the harsh realities of being Black and poor, while pushing forward and going for your dream. On the Come Up released February 5, 2019 from Balzer + Bray.

See Epic Reads track-by-track breakdown of Spotify’s On the Come Up playlist, along with a rap name generator. Playlist features tracks from Biggie, Common, Cardi B, Tupac, Nicki Minaj, Queen Latifah, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, and many more legends. Selections for the playlist were chosen by Angie Thomas.


hiphop2Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, and was an Edgar award finalist  for both Fake ID (Harper Collins, 2014) and Endangered (Harper Collins, 2015). Additionally, Overturned (Scholastic, 2017) was a 2018 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers and a Kirkus Best Book of 2017. Giles also edited the WNDB anthology Fresh Ink (Random House, 2018) and contributed to anthologies Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America (Balzer + Bray, 2019) and Three Sides of a Heart (Harper Collins, 2017). He is best known for his crime fiction, and in his newest release, Spin (Scholastic Press, 2019), takes on a murder mystery involving DJ Paris Secord, aka DJParSec. This fast-paced mystery starts off with DJParSec’s two estranged friends, Kya and Fuse, under suspicion for her murder. When some of the ParSecNation fandom spins off into an ill-intended Dark Nation side, Fuse and Kya band together to uncover the true killer. Tough female protagonists + hip-hop + murder mystery = a winner for Lamar Giles. Spin was released January 29, 2019 from Scholastic Press. Giles also has a middle grade fantasy forthcoming, The Last Lastay-of-Summer from Versify/HMH on April 2, 2019.

Spin has a Spotify playlist, too!

Check out these tracks inspired by DJParSec, featuring Cardi B, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Missy Elliott,

Lil’ Kim, Drake, J. Cole, Beyonce, Jay Z, and more.


hiphop3Tiffany D. Jackson is a master of twist endings, as evidenced by the shocking revelations in Allegedly (Katherine Tegen Books, 2017) and Monday’s Not Coming (Katherine Tegen Books, 2018). Jackson’s awards and honors include 2018 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers for Allegedly, and most recently the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for Monday’s Not Coming. Additionally, Monday’s Not Coming received a Walter Dean Myers honor and was named a SLJ Best Book of 2018. She adds her own contribution to this hip-hop book fest with Let Me Hear a Rhyme (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019). Jackson collaborated with Malik “Malik-16” Sharif, who provided the lyrics within the novel. Set in the 1990’s in Brooklyn, friends Steph, Quadir, and Jarrell are mourning the loss of Biggie Smalls, who they felt represented their neighborhood via his music. When Steph is shot and killed, his two friends conspire with his sister, Jasmine, to commemorate him. When they unearth shoeboxes full of recordings of Steph’s songs, they promote him as “The Architect”, while the producer has no idea that he is promoting a dead client. This amusing situation adds levity to the mystery, as the team of three begin to uncover what really happened to Steph. Let Me Hear a Rhyme is forthcoming from Katherine Tegen Books on May 21, 2019. 

“I think about the lyrics in so many hip-hop songs and understand why Steph made me listen to them. Life has never been easy for black folks, and survival means doing things you wouldn’t do normally. Can I really judge someone trying to live?”

 – Jasmine, Let Me Hear a Rhyme

Great songs tend to have a “hook”, and so do great books. The three aforementioned novels each have a KILLER first line:

  • “I might have to kill somebody tonight.” – On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
  • “I did not kill Paris Secord.” – Spin by Lamar Giles
  • “You’ve probably seen this scene before: Ladies in black church dresses, old men in gray suits, and hood kids in white tees with some blurry picture printed on the front and the spray-painted letters RIP.” – Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson

The hot, striking covers, cool beats, and captivating hooks make all three of these selections great for many types of readers, including the most reluctant of readers. Books like these, and rap music itself, lend themselves to many creative opportunities for teens to break down lyrics and even write some of their own.

So, if rap = poetry + rhythm, then poetry as lyrics can work in many different ways.

“A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level.     – Jay Z

Teens may also be interested in trying their hand at Poetry Slams, a la The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Tips about poetry slams can be found here:


Angie Thomas stated at an event in 2018 that hip-hop has given a voice to urban America. See Angie’s comments here:

Lastly, give the amazing Bahni Turpin’s audiobooks a listen. Turpin narrated Allegedly, The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, and DJParSec’s portion of Spin, among many others. Her voice is a perfect fit for the characters in these stories. Please see the links below for more information about Bahni Turpin, We Need Diverse Books, and these three fantastic authors.







lisakrok– Lisa Krok is a longtime fan of hip-hop, especially Queens Latifah and Nicki, along with the legendary Biggie. Her rap generator name is “Bad Swerve”. Lisa is a die-hard YA reader and a Ravenclaw, with a passion for reaching reluctant readers. She served on the 2019 and 2018 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers teams. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That’s Okay

The Teen spending time in the Teen MakerSpace

The Teen spending time in the Teen MakerSpace

The other day a parent came up to me and we engaged in some good old fashioned Reader’s Advisory. Her daughter was 11, a young 11. And she wanted some recommendations for some YA titles, but she was very worried about content. In the end I told her that after talking with her, I thought she would be comfortable with her daughter reading a variety of really excellent middle grade titles. What I heard her saying was that she wasn’t really comfortable with her daughter reading YA, and that’s okay.

At the same time, there has been a variety of conversations online about adults reading – and reviewing – YA. It’s especially an issue when adults continue to criticize main characters in YA literature for acting like, well, teenagers. The truth is, the best YA are those titles that feature authentic teen main characters. That means they have to feature teens that are reckless, impulsive, inconsistent, and changing. Because that’s who teens are.

Don’t get me wrong. I read YA literature. I don’t just read it because I’m a Teen Librarian or for TLT, I read it because I enjoy reading it. I have favorite authors. I have favorite titles, series, and genres. I am an avid YA reader. But I also recongize that ultimately, YA is not written FOR me. I enjoy it, but part of what I enjoy about it is that it is written for and about teens – and that’s very important.

We live in a culture that has strong negative feelings about teens. Local malls put up signs dis-inviting groups of teens from their properties. We enact curfews. We scoff, side eye and demean normal teenage behavior. We joke about how we would never want to go back to middle or high school (and to be honest, I wouldn’t). Every day in so many ways we communicate to teenagers that we loathe and judge them for who they are. Which is part of the reason why authentic, well written YA literature is so important. It communicates a very different and positive message to teens: we see you, we value you, we respect you, we hear you. That’s an important message that teens need to hear.

So what makes YA literature good? rireading2

A YA book has to respect the teen reader

Trust that teens can and do have the ability to read and understand a book. They don’t need to be talked down to. They don’t need your message telegraphed to them. If you assume your readers are unintelligent and write in ways that make that clear, you’ve already lost your audience. Teens know when we are talking down to them, and they resent it. If you don’t respect teens, don’t write or work for/with them.

A YA book has to reference things teens know

I grew up watching Doogie Howser, MD. I’m 44 years old. Your book should probably not have a teen character that references Doogie Howser without some really good reason for doing so. For example, in The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez one of the supporting characters is obsessed with the Rat Pack. This character explains to you why they are invested in the Rat Pack, who the Rat Pack are, and what they know about them. It’s an obscure reference that teens won’t know, but it is given in a context. Without that context, teens don’t understand what is being said or why. If you name drop obscure references from your own teenage life, you are no longer writing for teens but are writing for yourself or author adults your same age.

See also: Slang. Pay attention to the terms you use and slang you reference.

A YA book has to have teens that act in authentically teen ways

Teens are not mini-adults. Brain science tells us that the teen brain is functionally different than that of an adult. They are often bad at decision making, impulsive, and emotional. Yes, they absolutely are submerged into a world of incredible hormonal influx and wrestling with what those hormones mean. Like adults, many teens are unlikable. That’s just human nature. They should be complex, richly developed, and well-rounded. If you are an adult who complained because Harry Potter acted like a moody, entitled, emotional teen in the later HP books, then you probably don’t remember or don’t respect teenagers. I was a moody, entitled teenager who slammed down the phone, slammed doors, rolled my eyes and both raged and bawled my eyes out. It’s all normal teenage behavior. PS, many adults still do all of these same things. I mean, even I am prone to rolling my eyes.

There are always outliers, and they deserve to be reflected in YA literature too. But old soul teens who speak like college professors or act like mini-adults should also be outliers in YA literature, not the norm.

A YA book has to reflect the diverse world of teens

My teenage daughter is a cis-white female who has just finished the 8th grade. She knows and is friends with 4 trans people, many other GLBTQ people, people with disabilities, and a wide variety of people of color. Her white best friend is dating a black boy. She goes to church every Sunday and then goes to school on Monday and talks about her weekend with her Muslim friends. She does not live in an all white, all straight, all Christian world. Even in the community that I work, which is 96% white, my teens live with and want diversity. They are aware that they are a small part of the world. In fact, I find daily that teens are much more open and kind and craving of authentic diversity then previous generations have been.

A YA book has to reflect the diverse interests of teens

The Bestie is a cheerleader who plays volleyball and goes to book festivals. The Teen is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do who also loves musical theater and science; she is also an avid reader. The teens I know are interested in comics and anime and sports and art and movies and . . . . well, a little bit of everything. And not a single teen I know is defined by any one thing, just as adults are not. I am a wife and a mother and a librarian and a friend that loves science fiction and sharks and dinosaurs and robots and the water and cake. We are all multitudes, as are teens. Stop writing about jocks and cheerleaders and nerds and band geeks and loners and stoners in stereotypical ways. And stop writing one-dimensional characters. Again, respect the teen reader and respect their complexity.


YA is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Younger readers can read YA, but there is also lots of glorious middle grade out there for them to read. I love and read MG, too. Adults can read YA, but there are also lots of glorious adult fiction out there for adults to read. And in the middle there is YA, which can and should be ultimately for teens. Teens need good, quality YA written for and about them by authors who understand, respect and value them.

If you are an adult who reads YA and finds yourself complaining about the teens in YA literature, YA literature may not be for you. And that’s okay.

YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That's Okay//

YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That's Okay

  1. Walk into any bk store or library. See all the adult fiction? Read YA if you like, but it should be for & about teens. Adults don't lack rep

  2. And yes, teens often read adult fic. But man, when teens connect with a YA book that represents them in some way or they connect with it.

  3. That's priceless.
    And important and profound.
    And life changing.

  4. We tell teens in so many ways that we loathe them or find them a burden or a nuisance. To have sections of YA in bk stores & libraries

  5. sends a much needed affirming message. It lets them know that we do value them. That we do respect them. That was do want them here.

  6. I am an adult who reads YA. But I do so as someone who works with teens so I get how good YA has characters who act like teens.

  7. If the MC in YA annoy you because they act like teenagers, please remember what being a teen is really like. Spend time with teens.

  8. Or, you could always read adult fiction. That's okay too. There is a lot of great adult fiction out there.

  9. And if you can't handle teen characters in Ya lit acting like teens, please don't be a teen librarian. They need us on their side.

  10. And for the love of pete, please let YA continue to be authentically about and for teens. They deserve that respect.


Take 5: YA Lit with Great Female Friendships

friendshipYesterday I shared with you a little bit about my feelings about people telling The Teen that she is “too sensitive”. It’s something that we obviously talk about a lot because I want to remind her that she can and should be able to express her feelings and stand up for herself. The other part of the equation is that I also share YA books that have strong female friendships in them with her. It’s important to keep in mind that these are not romanticized ideals of friendship; in fact, I love books that are just the opposite, that model friendships going through turbulent times and how the girls in the stories figure out ways to work out their issues. Sometimes the friends will spend a large part of the story apart as they figure out how they feel and why. Here are a few of the recent ones that she has read and loved. Please share your recommendations in the comments, we’re always looking for more to read.

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

friendship6About the Book: In the two years since her father died, sixteen-year-old Eva has found comfort in reading romance novels—118 of them, to be exact—to dull the pain of her loss that’s still so present. Her romantic fantasies become a reality when she meets Will, who seems to truly understand Eva’s grief. Unfortunately, after Eva falls head-over-heels for him, he picks up and moves to California without any warning. Not wanting to lose the only person who has been able to pull her out of sadness—and, perhaps, her shot at real love—Eva and her best friend, Annie, concoct a plan to travel to the west coast to see Will again. As they road trip across America, Eva and Annie confront the complex truth about love.

In this honest and emotional journey that National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr calls “gorgeous, funny, and joyous,” readers will experience the highs of infatuation and the lows of heartache as Eva contends with love in all of its forms.

Karen’s Thoughts: This is not just a great book about the friendship between two girls – and it is in fact that – but it is a great book about female relationships in a lot of different directions, including mothers and daughters. The trip brings Eva and Annie together and tears them apart, but it’s what they learn along the way that really matters.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

friendship4About the Book: Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs, and a wildly unforgettable heroine—Dumplin’ is guaranteed to steal your heart.

Karen’s Thoughts: Look, this book is glorious and if you haven’t read it you should rectify that right away. Like Kissing in America, this is a great book about a variety of different types of relationships, including mothers and daughters and girls and their favorite aunts. It’s a book about grief and healing. It’s a book about self acceptance. It’s a book about falling in love. But it is a book about old friendships and new, about loving friends, about hurting friends, about forgiving friends – and that is one of the most amazing parts of Dumplin’s story.

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

friendship1About the Book: Peyton, Sydney’s charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion’s share of their parents’ attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton’s increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?

Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

The uber-popular Sarah Dessen explores her signature themes of family, self-discovery, and change in her twelfth novel, sure to delight her legions of fans.

Karen’s Thoughts: This is a book we both read this year in preparation of meeting author Sarah Dessen, one of my long time favorites. Sydney finds herself adrift after her older brother is sent to jail and her family dynamics are totally changed. She is taken in by a new family, where she meets Mac and Layla. Although there is some good romance stuff happening with Mac, it is the friendship with Layla that I found to be the most compelling part of this book.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

friendship3About the Book: I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine – and I will do anything, anything to avoid SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France – an Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team

Karen’s Thoughts: This is one of the most profound and glorious examples of female friendships I have every read. It’s historical fiction and shows our two main characters engaged in activities that were very unusual for girls at that time – flying a plane! So that’s an additional bonus element to Verity. But man, this friendship is just amazing.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares

friendship5About the Book: Carmen got the jeans at a thrift shop. They didn’t look all that great: they were worn, dirty, and speckled with bleach. On the night before she and her friends part for the summer, Carmen decides to toss them. But Tibby says they’re great. She’d love to have them. Lena and Bridget also think they’re fabulous. Lena decides that they should all try them on. Whoever they fit best will get them. Nobody knows why, but the pants fit everyone perfectly. Even Carmen (who never thinks she looks good in anything) thinks she looks good in the pants. Over a few bags of cheese puffs, they decide to form a sisterhood and take the vow of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants . . . the next morning, they say good-bye. And then the journey of the pants — and the most memorable summer of their lives — begins

Karen’s Thoughts: It pains me to note that at this point, this is a classic. And of all the titles this one is perhaps the most romanticized, in part because the magical pants bring that element into the story. And, of course, in this story the girls actually spend a great amount of time apart going on their own separate journeys. But it is the coming back together again that reminds us all that friends can spend time apart, learn and grow and change, and still be friends in the end.

And a Bonus TV Show: Girl Meets World

friendship8I am not ashamed to say that I love this show. Yes, it’s very preachy and heavy handed, but it also features two very fleshed out and strong female leads that I just enjoy. Maya is my favorite, in part because she has more dimensionality to her. But they have also done a really good job in recent episodes of giving more depth and conflict to Riley. I’ve been a little worried with the Texas series about the plot device of having a boy come between them, though this is a very real world scenario for this age group. I just worry over making this strong story of two girls now become about a boy, at least about a boy’s role in their lives and their friendship. But I’m trying to keep an open mind and hope that they don’t screw things up.

As we go into this new year, I have been thinking a lot about friendship. The Teen likes to read romance, which I understand because I remember being in middle school. But I hate the way girls reach a certain age and all the sudden everything becomes about boys. It’s not a thing that just happens, it is in fact a message that we send to girls culturally over and over again. So I love a good book that reminds us all that friendships are not only as important but sometimes even more important than the boyfriends that can highlight the middle and high school years. I am personally not in contact with any of the boys I dated during these years, but I still talk to some of my best friends and I am grateful to have those relationships all these years later. So here’s to female friendships in YA literature!

Karen’s Top 15 Reads of 2015

Earlier this month Amanda shared her Favorite 15 reads of 2015. Today it is my turn. Since we try to cover as many books as possible here, we often don’t read the same books, though that is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes I will read a book and want to talk to Amanda or some of the other TLTers about it. Sometimes Amanda will rave so much about a book that I have to read it too. Sometimes we just love the same authors. For example, Robin and I are currently fighting over an ARC of the 2016 release from Sarah Rees Brennan because we love her (for the record, I think Robin won). So my list is purposely much different than Amanda’s list.

This is how I went about making my list: I didn’t go back and read reviews. In fact, I didn’t even look up book titles. What I did was sit down and write down a list of the books that I could think about off of the top of my head first. These are the books that were so memorable to me that I still think about them, talk about them, etc. A couple of the titles I didn’t actually even write a review for. Only one of the titles appears on both mine and Amanda’s list, though I love Amanda’s list and all the books on it and could just as easily have written that list. And if I wrote this list a month from now, some of the titles would change.

So, now that you know a little bit more about how this list came to be, here are some of my favorite reads of 2015 . . .

My Favorite 15 Reads of 2015


Because Girls Matter, Too, and So Do Their Stories

top1Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

This book is amazing in every way. I love how the characters are all so well developed; not just the main characters, but all of the characters. I love the various ways it looks at female relationships, including various levels of friendships and the mother/daughter relationship. But what I love most about this book is the profound impact it had on my daughter who also read it and the conversations it helped us to have. Dumplin’ is well written, inspiring, and it also has a lot of sass and fun. Dumplin’ may or may not win the local beauty pageant, but she is sure to win your heart.



top12All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Everyone should read this book which takes a hard look at what life is like for girls. It’s like Summers set out to write a book that highlighted everything that’s wrong with rape culture and asked us to look deeply into the dark ways in which we discount and blame victims for their rapes. PS, that is in fact exactly what she has done. In a year in which the topic of sexual violence has taken over a large portion of our national headlines, this is a must read that helps put some of what we hear into perspective. It’s a very difficult read, but it is so well done and so very important.



top6The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

Because of the Faith and Spirituality in the Lives of Teens series, I read a lot of books this year that dealt with the topic of faith. Minnow Bly was shocking from page one and never really stopped shocking me. But it also spoke to the very core of me about the female experience; even though this story is not my story, I recognized so many of the universal truths presented here. And at the end of the day, after being told time and time again who to be, how to dress, and what to believe, Minnow Bly is finally put in a position where she can begin to answer those questions about herself, for herself. Every part of this journey is challenging and yet moving.


top4Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu

This is another title that spoke to the heart of me about what it means to be a girl in our world. I was so moved by this book that I wrote the author, Corey Ann Haydu, a very personal letter explaining my upbringing and how much I related to this book. This is a very realistic look at the pressure we put on young girls to look a certain way and the impact it has on their sense of self and worth. I would love for all high school students to have to do a study on the female experience which would include reading this book, All the Rage, Dumplin‘, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and the Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, to name just a few.


top8Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

In the early days of my YA librarian career, there were far less YA titles and authors to choose from. They consisted primarily of Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Robert Cormier, R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike. Horror, in fact, made up the largest part of my collection. And then there was Sarah Dessen. Dessen has consistently written YA books that are insightful, engaging, and yes, heartwarming. Saint Anything is a moving story about friendships of many kinds, falling in and out of love, family, and self.


Because Politics are Interesting

top13The Fixer by Jennifer Lynne Barnes

As a nation, the United States is in a polarizing and important election. One of the things that I liked most about the Fixer is the behind the scenes looks it gave readers into the world of politics and power plays. As someone who has been saying for a long time that money buys elections, it was interesting to read about it in the pages of a YA thriller. I also love that this book features a strong and confident yet flawed female in a role that would traditionally be occupied by a male protagonist. It’s also a fun thriller; sometimes it’s nice just to read something fun.

top14The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

The Scorpion Rules is a thought provoking dystopian that also gives us an interesting glimpse into the world of politics. Here, major political heads are asked to send their children to a remote colony where they will be sacrificed in the event of war. The theory is that this will prevent world leaders from initiating acts of war; after all, what parent wants to sacrifice their child for power? There are lots of twists and turns and power plays and sacrifices here. And you are reading the story of isolated children and teens who have no one but each other to befriend or even date, knowing that at any moment they could be mortal enemies where one life is pitted against the other. It’s intense, unique, and compelling.


Because a Good Twist is a Good Twist

top15Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

This book is mesmerizing. I hate to compare and author to another author, but in this case I think the comparison is both warranted and one of the biggest compliments I can give to another author: This book always makes me think of Ray Bradbury. I think it is the haunting way that the small town with the gaps is described and the things that happen in those gaps, which are chilling. The descriptions, the tone, the atmosphere, the melancholy of it all brings to mind Dandelion Wine and the haunting tale itself always makes me thing Something Wicked This Way Comes. But make no mistake, it is by no means derivative, it is unique in the story it tells and the ways that it haunts.


top16The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

What if the characters of Love and Death played a game? What if that game involved characters falling in and out of love? And what if that game took place in the 1930s where one of the characters was white and the other was black? And what if we added in the background amazing jazz music, gender stereotype breaking women, and just continued to raise the stakes and defy convention? The Game of Love and Death is this amazingly crafted story of true love against all odds. This book isn’t just on my list, it’s on The Teen’s list of her top 5 books of 2015.


top9More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

I love this profoundly trippy and moving book for some many reasons. First, it kept me guessing every step of the way and kept surprising. Second, it was one of the few books I read this year that realistically portrayed the life of a profoundly poor teen. Third, it is a spot on depiction of the roller coaster ride that grief and guilt are. And fourth, it is a humanizing look at the life of a young man who is wrestling in very real and immediate ways with identity.


Because Relevant and Timely Still Matter

top10I Crawl Through It by A. S. King

This is probably the book I have wrestled with most as a reader. Not just with what it has to say, but how it has to say it. This is the book I have most asked other people to read and discuss with me. To be completely honest, there are still parts of the story that I am trying to figure out. But there is no denying that A. S. King hands down captures that very real anxiety that today’s teens are living with and the various reasons why. Characters that walk around inside out, characters that are growing up in a culture (a home) obsessed with mass shootings, characters that attend a school that keeps being cancelled because yet another bomb threat has been called in . . . this is the reality of the world our teens are living in and King captures the stress and uncertainty of it with pitch perfect brilliance.

top5All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds are both amazing writers who approach a timely story with sensitivity and compassion yet brutal honesty. Told in two points of view, Reynolds and Kiely ask us to consider what it is like for a black boy to be approached by the police and what it’s like to stand up for justice in a world that is very much divided on what justice may look like.


Because Not Every Teen Lives in a Gated Community or Goes to a Boarding School

top7The Truth About Us by Janet Gurtler

The Truth About Us is a very accessible romance that also highlights socio-economic disparity and the conflict it can cause. I love, however, that this book flips the genders – growing up it always seemed like it was a rich boy/poor girls story like Pretty in Pink. There is a lot of good stuff happening here as we get an inside look at the life of a teenaged boy who works and eats at a local homeless shelter. He is not, technically, homeless like the teens in No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss (another good read), but he is very much worried about where his next meal is going to come from.

top2The Hit by Delilah S. Dawson

This book combines a lot of my favorite elements into one awesome story: dystopian, politics, and socioeconomic inequality. The premise of this first book is unique and fascinating. In this future, you may be conscripted by a firm to perform a certain number of assassinations for them in order to get your freedom. That’s right, they make people kill for them in order to pay off your debt. It’s an interesting premise and a thrilling read. In a world where the income gap grows larger every day, it’s interesting to take an absurd look at where we might be headed to force ourselves to ask the very relevant questions we need to be asking about where we might be headed if we continue to let our fellow citizens slide further and further into poverty.

Because Sometimes a Book Just Makes Your Spirit Soar

top11Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

This book is glorious. But it is also gut-wrenching. Madeline lives her life inside a bubble, quite literally: she is allergic to everything. But when she takes a chance on the new boy across the street, everything changes. This book makes my soul sing. And it made my eyes leak a little bit here and there. And this is another title that is not only on my top of list for 2015, it’s on The Teen’s.

 How about you? What’s on your list and why?

#MHYALit Update and January 2016 Launch Schedule

It’s almost 2016. Wait – what? IT’S ALMOST 2016! How did that happen? This month we have been busily plugging away at putting together a January launch schedule for the #MHYALit Discussion. So here’s a little look at what we have coming in 2016.


So far, we have about 40 authors, librarians, parents of teens, former teens and teens themselves joining us to discuss mental health in YA lit and the life of teens. We will be sharing posts all year long, though to kick off our discussion we are aiming for a post every day we post in January. Here’s what the current schedule looks like (though it is subject to change because life happens).

4th – Annie Cardi, author of The Chance You Won’t Return, shares her first of 3 posts

5th – Tom Leveen, author of Shackled, shares his first of 2 posts

6th – Tom Leveen shares his second post

7th – Librarian Erinn Salge discusses how librarians can help struggling teens

8th – Kimberly Bradly, author of The War That Saved My Life, discusses PTSD

11th – Robison Wells, author of the Variant series

12th – Christa Desir, author of Other Broken Things, discusses addiction

13th – The first of many book lists appears. Today’s topic is Schizophrenia. RA list compiled by Natalie Korsavidis (who is doing multiple RA lists for the discussion).

14th – Carrie Mesrobian, author of Cuts Both Ways, discusses the books of Melina Marchetta

15th – In the works, TBA

18th – Librarian Danielle Masterson

19th – Jackie Lea Sommers, author of Truest

20th – Aspiring author and amazing former teen who is now technically an adult Bryson McCrone

21st – Ann Jacobus, author of Romancing the Dark in the City of Light

22nd – Jessica Sankiewizc, author of the New Adult novella This Night

25th – Librarian Dawn Abron on working with teens in the library

26th – The Green Bean Teen Queen Sarah

27th – Tamara Ireland Stone, author of Every Last Word, shares a first of two posts on OCD, depression and anxiety

28th – Tamara Ireland Stone shares post two

29th – Stephanie Khuen, author of Complicit

As I mentioned, there are lots of others posts coming throughout the year. We will be joined by authors like Lois Metzger, Emery Lord, J. J. Johnson, Clare LeGrand, Mia Siegert, Jessica Spotswood, Nita Tyndall, Jolene Siana, Kathleen Glasgow, Evan Roskos, Myra McEntire, and Corey Ann Haydu, to name just a few. There are also more librarians, former teens and actual teens lined up to share their thoughts, experiences and insight.

You can find an index of the project and all posts here.

The Faith of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a #FSYALit guest post with author interview

Today as part of our ongoing discussion on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) guest Catherine Posey is discussing The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. She even reached out to author Rae Carson who was kind enough to answer some questions for this post. You can find all the #FSYALit posts here.

girloffireandthornsWhen I first encountered Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, it’s needless to say I was intrigued. A heroine with a “Godstone” embedded in her body? A girl destined to become a leader in the land who doesn’t necessarily fit the bill of the perfect looking, size 0 young woman? A high fantasy with a unique magical system and feminist dimension? Yes, please! Then, to make things even better, once I dove into the books, I discovered that the novels featured a rich faith dimension that didn’t feel preachy. This, more than anything else, solidified my love of the novels, considering my own interest in the realm of faith and spirituality in both literature and readers.

Of course, there’s a lot to say about the topic of faith in Carson’s trilogy, and I obviously can’t cover it all here. But I can highlight several aspects I think are worth mentioning.

The Will of God

The religious culture of the books reflects multiple faith aspects, but one overarching theme is the notion of the “will of God” or the “plans of God.” For example, Elisa’s struggle with the fact that she is the bearer of the Godstone is apparent throughout the trilogy. Since she was born with the Godstone, obviously it is God’s will for her to play a unique role in her country’s history. Right? In the second book, The Crown of Embers, Elisa’s Godstone reminds her that “God has plans” for her, and that she hasn’t fulfilled them all. The way she comes to term with this part of her identity invites discussion about how sometimes we feel a desire to do something significant, but actually doing it feels impossible. We can sense a “calling” to do something, but we don’t feel adequate. Both of these sentiments are explored in the trilogy, making it something that some religious readers may be able to relate to. It isn’t necessarily easy for Elisa to come to terms with what she is “destined” to do—nor does she understand exactly what she is supposed to do.

God’s will. How many times have I heard someone declare their understanding of this thing I find so indefinable?” [Girl of Fire and Thorns]

Her grappling with questions while still holding on to her faith is apparent in all three books. The bumps along the way in Elisa’s journey reinforce this idea that the road ahead for all of us will not always be clear or make sense, but as the saying goes, it’s often not about the destination, but about the journey.

“It’s nice to consider that God many not count imperfection as an obstacle to working out his will in the world.” [Crown of Embers]

Appealing to a Higher Power

It is clear that for Elisa, her “Godstone” is a source of power for her, and symbolizes her connection to a higher power. She often taps into the Godstone and begins “praying” when she needs peace or is in danger. This is another example of how her spirituality plays a role in her life. But, it might be helpful to note that it is usually when Elisa is in trouble or in need of power that she appeals to God. Some of the phrases Elisa says to herself in the midst of stressful situations resemble Biblical scripture, but this in no way turns the story into anything stuffy or too religious. It does, however, create parallels with readers whose religion is focused, in some way, on a holy book.

“Aloud I say, ‘The gate that leads to life is narrow and small so that few find it.’ My Godstone lurches, and the force inside me begins a slow spin.” [Crown of Embers]

A Destructive Spirituality

Though the trilogy includes references to “God’s plans” and the notion of “destiny” through Elisa’s journey to become a powerful and important leader in the land of Joya d’Arena, the books don’t shy away from illuminating how the idea of “God’s will” can manifest negatively. For example, the animagus in the beginning of The Crown of Embers at first threatens to send fire into the crowd unless Elisa gives in to his demands and turns herself in. However, he burns himself up instead, becoming “a living torch,” and screaming, “It is God’s will!” This is a clear example in the series of how people’s faith and religious beliefs can have a negative effect on themselves and/or others. This is something else I appreciated about how Carson wove faith elements throughout her trilogy—she doesn’t shy away from depicting the way faith and religious beliefs can be destructive, in some cases. At the same time, the faith aspects of the trilogy were overall more positive to me than they were negative.

A Spirituality of Connectedness

Many of the relationships in the story communicate ideas that appearances can be deceiving, and that compassion and kindness should be offered, even if undeserved. If someone betrays a friend, can that relationship ever be redeemed? These are some of the issues and questions the books bring up, reinforcing yet another spiritual dimension of the story. Elisa grows in love and compassion for those she encounters; her ability to help those close to her heal from life threatening wounds illuminates the notion of making sacrifices for people.

“I will do anything. I’d give my own life and heath if I could. He’s a good man, the best man…I imagine pouring my life force out of my body, through our clasped hands, filling Hector, knitting his wound. The Godstone becomes a fire.” [Crown of Embers]


It’s clear that The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy illuminates important aspects of faith and spirituality, whether it’s through Elisa’s raw honesty about her struggle to understand her purpose or her willingness to forgive those who have wronged her. I would also argue that Rae Carson’s fantasy series effectively portrays faith dimensions that have the potential to appeal to readers of various faiths.

Rae was kind enough to answer some of my questions around this topic of faith and spirituality in teen literature, and I’m extremely excited to share with you those questions and answers!

The religious/spiritual aspect of The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy is such a rich dimension of the narrative—what led you to include this aspect of the story? Or did it just emerge organically?

Thank you. I was a deeply religious teen who never saw myself represented in books. This was baffling to me. In the U.S., the vast majority affiliate with some kind of religious faith, which makes religion a huge part of the coming-of-age experience. So where was my story? Why didn’t anyone write about my experience?

Growing up religious comes with a lot of confusion: Why do all these churches teach things that are so vastly different? What happens when you realize that your beliefs are diverging from those of your parents and peers? Why do people do such horrible things in the name of religion, while others derive such comfort and peace from their faith?

I wanted to explore all of those hard questions, and I wanted to write stories that reflected the reality of so many teens who grow up in a faith environment.

Do you think your own spirituality affects your writing? Any thoughts on how that happens or any thoughts about this with other books?

Not even a little. I gave up religion a long time ago.

However, being nonreligious does not prevent me from empathizing with people who hold different beliefs than I do. In fact, as an author, it’s my job. I worked very hard to make my treatment of faith respectful, empathetic, and even affectionate. Many people assume that I’m religious because of my books, and I’m delighted that readers found the faith elements in the trilogy so convincing.

Are there any books you read as a young reader (teen or younger) that really affected you in a profound or meaningful way?

I loved Judy Blume’s brilliant Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I probably read that book five times at the age of ten. I was also profoundly impacted by the original Star Wars trilogy, which is as unsubtle and fond a commentary on spirituality as I’ve ever seen in fiction, particularly in regards to the power of belief and the dichotomy of good and evil.

Any books for teens (fantasy or other genres) that you would recommend for readers looking for an engaging and creative plot, but maybe are also interested in faith aspects as well?

I strongly recommend Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice and John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back. Both explore religious themes with humor, affection, and honesty. Teens who, for one reason or another, must deal with stringent “content” restrictions can safely enjoy anything by Ted Dekker or Lisa T. Bergren.

Thank you, Rae, for taking the time to answer these questions! It’s a pleasure to have you participate in this post!

About The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do. (Publisher’s Book Description)

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Catherine Posey has a Ph.D in Curriculum & Instruction (Emphasis: Children’s Literature). She is a blogger at Bookish Illuminations. You can find Catherine on Twitter: @KatePoseyPhD