In Julie Mushkin’s recent episode of What Should I Read Next?, we reference this essay she wrote earlier this year. With Julie’s permission, we’re sharing it with you today.

If you haven’t heard this episode yet you can give it a listen right here.

And now, a few words from Julie:

Infiltrating the (Not So) Secret World of Teens: What I Learned from Reading 30+ YA Novels in 40 Days

I have a confession to make: I am not a reader.

Actually, if you will permit me to retract my prior statement, I would like to amend it to read as follows: I was not a reader.

Now, allow me to clarify.

As a busy parent and 7th grade LA/SS teacher, at this point in my life, reading is generally a means to an end. Books are, more often than not, a tool for acquiring information, not a vehicle for pleasure. I believed that there just weren’t enough hours in the day to devote to what reading guru, Nancie Atwell, calls the “reading zone,” or that magical space where you are so engrossed in a story that all else falls away. That is, until I decided to immerse myself in the world of YA fiction for a 40-day personal reading challenge.

From our February Winter Break until the start of Spring Break, I read virtually every YA novel I could get my hands on. In addition to devouring the 2018 award winners – including most of the Newbery and Printz selections – I read every book placed in my hands by a student. My only selection criteria was that the book must have received rave reviews. I knew that my stamina was low and my commitment to this endeavor tenuous because of the time it would require, so I only wanted “9s and 10s.” This way, I figured I might not only complete the challenge, but would also find solid books choices for my class.

What I didn’t account for, however, was the profound difference reading YA novels made in my life. YA fiction not only turned me into a reader, it gave me incredible access into the secret world of teens. As a fellow parent of teens, I know that infiltrating their inner worlds isn’t always (ever) an easy feat. Giving hours a day to reading YA books, coupled with the 8 hours a day I spent interacting with MS students, basically meant I spent 6 weeks swimming in (maybe at times, drowning in) teen drama.

What did I learn from this experience? A lot, actually, which is why I want to share my personal insights with you, my fellow travelers on the road to raising healthy, well-adjusted teens. I humbly, and without any authority, offer 5 reflections about teens and parenting teens based on the 32 YA books I read during the challenge:

  1.     Parents play a critical, but peripheral, role in teenagers’ lives. I know that leading with this statement is dangerous, so before you riot, please let me explain why standing on the periphery isn’t the same as being relegated to the back row. The teen is the hero. The young protagonist generally experiences a life-changing epiphany after enduring social and mental anguish. Early in the novel, the parents serve as threshold guardians, of sorts, and try to prevent the hero from entering a world they feel is dangerous. Of course, the hero finds a way past these evil gatekeepers because they must descend into the pits of hell to complete their journey. More often than not, however, the hero realizes these threshold guardians are not barriers to their success, but allies on their quest. In most books I read, the parents are there when things fall apart. This tells us that teens want to read about strong parent-child relationships. They want and need their parents to be both fierce threshold guardians and mentors.
  2.     Teenagers want to read about “adult” issues. Why? Because they are also teen issues. These novels deal with sex, sexual identity, gender identity, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal ideology, suicide, divorce, abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-harm. Teens are confronted with these issues daily, in some regard. YA books reflect, not inform, their reality.  
  3.     As technologically savvy as parents are, it is hard for adults to appreciate the power social media and texting have in teens’ lives. Are you on Facebook? If you answered “Yes,” then my point has been made. Whole relationships are built and destroyed via Snapchat and texts. Both are instantaneous, can be deleted and screenshotted when needed, and allow “private” pictures and messages with virtually any content to be sent. Some of the content of the fictional conversations I read was shocking, even for me. The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality fails parents and teens when it comes to phones and social media. Stay vigilant!
  4.     Teenagers have a romanticized view of relationships and need parents and other trustworthy adults to teach them about healthy boundaries. While it is more common for teens to talk about sex than have sex in YA books, sex is an ever-present reality. Sex is overly simplistic, and the emotional impact of having sex is, in general, absent. Authors are writing for teens, so they don’t want to sound too “parental.” The fictional threshold guardian parents are portrayed as either overbearing or naïve. While YA books often have strong moral messages, we, as real parents, must not rely on them to teach our kids about healthy boundaries.
  5.     While the problems in YA fiction are fairly realistic, the solutions are overly simplistic. Like teens, YA authors like quick resolution and happy (or at least satisfying) endings. As parents all know, life is messy, and solutions to problems generally aren’t neatly packaged or immediate. That said, teens’ ability to move forward rather quickly can be a gift. I have made the mistake of overcomplicating and intensifying my own kids’ heartaches, figuring they felt as I would. My daughter, specifically, desires to move on quickly and seems to have the ability to do so in a healthy way most of the time. Maybe, sometimes, we should emulate our teens in this way.

As best-selling YA novelist, John Green, said, “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.” This quote perfectly articulates the greatest lesson I learned from this challenge:

When parents and teachers read YA novels, we understand more about the teens in our lives; when teens see their parents and teachers reading YA novels, they feel more understood.

I have had the most extraordinary dialogues with students about these books, and these conversations never would have occurred at such an honest level had I not invested myself in their world through reading.

While I admit that my reading pace has slowed in the last couple of weeks, I have continued to read YA books daily, not only for the reasons listed above, but because they are wildly entertaining. The books I read are listed below along with my rating in case you are interested in picking some up at the public library for summer reading.

Before I conclude, I want to give a shout out to Lindsy Serrano, SFS librarian extraordinaire, for being both an advocate for reading and a fierce ally of the 7th grade, specifically. She has not only mentored me all year in my reading development, but places amazing novels in the kids’ hands because she reads YA books voraciously. She is awesomeness personified.  

These musings certainly don’t provide any secrets to the universe or parenting answers – I would not be so arrogant as to assume that YA fiction is the holy grail to surviving the teen years or that I am a teen whisperer – but I hope my ramblings have at least made for good reading.

With admiration for you all!