Youth Fiction Without the Mopey Whining

I’ve become quite the connoisseur of adolescent fiction over the last several years.  One of our sons has trouble with reading comprehension, so he reads aloud with my wife or me so that we can discuss the book and make sure he is following the story.  We’ve read a whole lot of books that fall into the predictable pattern of youth fiction — they tend to be mopey, whiny stories about the death or injury of a loved one, family dysfunction, or psychological trauma.  Even if they are well-written, which some are, the repetitive, dreary themes are enough to make me want to jump off a Bridge to Teribithia. 

I’m not the only one to notice this.  Joanne Jacobs had an excellent post a while back about Anita Silvey’s artile in the School Library Journal about how depressing award-winning youth fiction tends to be:

Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005 [for the prestigious Newbery Medal], four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.

Adults tend to prefer this type of literature much more than kids do.  This is especially true for boys, who’ve discovered that their adventure stories involving pirates have been replaced by touching family dramas.  It’s true that adolescents may desire books with a fair amount of whining and moping because it appeals to their over-wrought emotional tendencies, but I think most of the dreariness of youth fiction is driven by the depressing preferences of the adults who assign the awards, purchase the books for libraries, and write the books in the first place.  It’s as if they are trying to train future generations of therapy-seeking, mopey book-worms.

All of this matters because the award-winning books are the ones the school libraries are more likely to buy and teachers and parents are more likely to push kids to read.  If we want to get kids to read, especially boys, we have to offer them something less morose.  The solution is not to push the likes of Captain Underpants, Harry Potter, or Twilight.  Yes, they are less depressing, but they are also remarkably poorly written, weak excuses for literature.  Nor is the solution to push only classic works.  Kids also need contemporary works with modern themes and language.

I’m happy to report that there are still a number of quality works of youth fiction being produced.  They may not win the top awards, but you and your kids can find them and enjoy reading without having to take anti-depressants.  Most recently, we finished reading two really good books:  Peak, by Roland Smith, and Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

They may not be great art, but they are decent youth fiction.  There’s enough mopey whining to appeal to those feelings among adolescents, but there’s also action, politics, self-sacrifice, and triumph.  That is, they’re good stories.

In Peakthe protagonist is a 14 year-old child of famous mountain-climbers who gets into trouble for climbing sky-scrappers.  He’s rescued from juvenile detention by being sent-abroad with his absentee dad who plans to get the 14 year-old to be the youngest person to summit Everest.  But the plan is complicated by an intrusive reporter, Tibetan politics, and oppressive Chinese army officials — not to mention the harsh conditions of climbing the world’s highest peak.  Along with the adventurous story of mountain-climbing, the book contains a fair dose of Tibetan-Chinese politics, and a strained father-son relationship.

Among the Hiddenis the first of a 7 book series about a future dystopia in which the government has forbidden anyone from having more than two children to prevent famine and other overuse of resources.  The protagonist is a third-child who was secretly born and raised on a remote farm.  When housing subdivisions are built near the farm, he is confined to hiding in the attic of his house so that the Population Police don’t discover him.  His family strains under excessive taxation, intrusive regulation, and the ever-present fear of being caught with a third child.  For a second you may forget that this is a future dystopia.  Eventually our hero discovers that he may not be the only “shadow child” out there and that it may be possible to do something to change the government’s oppressive policies.

These are books you can actually enjoy!

9 Responses to Youth Fiction Without the Mopey Whining

  1. allen says:

    You might want to give some Golden Age science fiction a try like Heinlein’s, and especially Asimov’s adolescent stuff.

    It’s a bit dated now what with the vast difference in the view of future technology and its reality but the stories move fast and, as science fiction, require a suspension of belief anyway so why not a future in which computers aren’t trending toward pocket-change prices?

    Heinlein – “Rocket Ship Galileo”, “Have Spacesuit – Will Travel”, “Farmer in the Sky”, “Starman Jones” and to end with a bang “Starship Troopers” which is a much better book then a movie which is damning by faint praise. After “Starship Troopers” there’s a distinctly political angle to his writing that might get in the way although the stories are still eminently readable and fast-paced.

    Asimov – the whole “Lucky Starr” series. “I, Robot”. The “Foundation” trilogy’s kind of heavy going for an adolescent but worth the effort just because of the vast sweep of its perspective.

    The other big names of Sci Fi – Clark, Anderson, Niven, Sturgeon, Paul, Knight, van Vogt – have their adolescent novels but it’s been long enough that I can’t remember specific titles. For text-based comic books there’s E.E. “Doc” Smith.

  2. Patrick says:

    But what makes the difference between well written and poorly written literature?

  3. Patrick says:

    Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a good libertarian sci-fi read, btw.

  4. These are all great suggestions. Thanks!

    And on the difference between well-written and poorly-written literature — the only quick response I can give is that the quality within art presents itself to the consumer. Not everyone may agree, but then again not everyone can recognize great food, great music, or great paintings. Our imperfect ability to preceive it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    Try these books and tell me if you don’t agree that they are solid works of youth fiction.

  5. Aussie T says:

    Recently published in New York, an Australian novel, Dangerous Days: The Autobiography of a Photjournalist by J. William Turner may suit your needs. It also contains action, politics, self-sacrifice and triumph, plus official corruption and a look at indigenous culture.

  6. […] Mopey whining youth fiction got you down? Searching for books that don’t require young readers to stock up on anti-depressants, Jay Greene found Peak by Roland Smith and Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. There’s enough mopey whining to appeal to those feelings among adolescents, but there’s also action, politics, self-sacrifice, and triumph. That is, they’re good stories. […]

  7. […] 0Youth fiction without the whining Posted in Uncategorized at July 12th, 2009 / // Mopey whining youth fiction got you down? Searching for books that don’t require young readers to stock up on […]

  8. Middle School Mom says:

    Thank you! I thought I was the only one who couldn’t find anything my 13-year-old son would actually want to read on his summer reading list. These are great suggestions.

  9. linda seebach says:

    Young adult science fiction is a rich (and varied) mine of great reading.

    The 2009 Locus finalists for Young Adult Novel are:

    Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (Tor);
    The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, Bloomsbury);
    Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan (Knopf);
    Nation, Terry Pratchett (Doubleday UK, HarperCollins);
    Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor)

    The only one I’ve read is Little Brother, but I’m also a fan of Gaiman and Scalzi (and all three of those books are Hugo finalists as well).

    Nebula finalists for 2008 were:
    Graceling, by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt)

    Lamplighter, by D.M. Cornish (Putnam)

    Savvy, by Ingrid Law (Dial)

    The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt)

    Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), by Ysabeau S. Wilce (Harcourt)

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