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Homeschool Moms, Beware the YA Book Shelves {with a few exceptions}

Homeschool Moms, Beware the YA Book Shelves {with a few exceptions} #homeschooling #teenreads #YAbooks


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I picked up Tweet Cute from the library several weeks ago because I had seen it on so many Best Of lists this past year, including many from Christian book reviewers. It's a 21st-century literary reinvention of the popular 90s Rom-Com You've Got Mail. One such reviewer even used the word "chaste" to describe it on a list of must-read romantic comedies. (Although now in hindsight, most of the other books she included on her list were definitely of the "open-door" variety--the kind that give you a front-row seat into someone else's bedroom. So a book that doesn't have any explicit sex scenes would perhaps be "chaste" comparatively.)
 
However, after reading only 50 pages, I felt like I needed to bleach my eyes. Every page was sprinkled with foul language--F-bombs and their seedy companions. Needless to say, I filed Tweet Cute under the DNF category in my reading journal and soldiered on to find something that was both clean and captivating. 

Not surprisingly, the book was shelved as a YA title. To be honest, I normally try to avoid that section of the library like the plague, especially when it comes to picking out books for my teens. But since I ordered this particular book online for myself, I gave little attention to the call number delineation. Lesson learned.

Why am I mentioning this? you ask.

Homeschool Moms, Beware the YA Book Shelves {with a few exceptions} #homeschooling #teenreads #YAbooks

YA is More Like a Genre than an Age Ranking  


Well, because YA is an often misunderstood section of literature for parents. Many moms assume YA is an age-level ranking like middle-grade (books which are generally appropriate for 8-12 year-olds) or leveled readers (books which are generally appropriate for 5-9 year-olds). They see the label "YA" on the spine and assume that it refers to the next level of reading--a level suited for young adults (13-20 year-olds). But in reality, YA is more like a genre of literature than an age ranking.
 
Like all genres, YA has some universal themes and qualities that will be present in all the books classified as YA. Just as you'd expect to see mythical creatures and supernatural power in a fantasy novel, you should expect to see the following in most YA titles:
  • coming-of-age angst
  • rebellion against authority
  • substance abuse
  • discussions of sexual curiosity and orientation
  • explicit language

Many often include incidents of incest, self-mutilation, and suicide as well. In other words, the YA section is the shady, back alley of the library.

Supporters of the recent trends in teenage literature argue that the dark themes merely mirror what is already happening in the lives of American youth and that books should offer both escape and coping skill ideas for those who might face these scenarios in their real life. 

But, the truth is, not every teenager experiences such gruesome or graphic activities. The disturbing themes and topics of YA literature can leave impressionable teens feeling hopeless at best and victimized at worst.

Yes, the teen years are the time when kids should be introduced to weightier topics and even opposing world views in order that they can process and form opinions about hard things while still under the guidance and loving care of a parent. But, introductions can come by way of conversations and gentle discipleship. YA books, don't just introduce, they often influence and indoctrinate. 

Alternatives to the YA Section


My goal in shining a light on this dark portion of the library is not to discourage you from letting your teens read books. But to offer you some alternatives. 

If you, like me, have a voracious teenage reader and you're looking for books to satiate their growing literary appetite, might I encourage you to do one of two things? 

1. Urge them to continue reading meatier middle-grade titles. I'm 41 and still enjoy reading books like The Wingfeather Saga, Heart of a Samurai, and The Pushcart War. The themes in middle-grade lit are timeless and usually have redemptive and hopeful qualities to them despite their sometimes heart-wrenching plotlines. 

Don't get hung up on reading levels. At some point, reading is not about advancing in reading level and more about enjoying the story and themes. Once your child knows how to read with fluency, don't be as concerned with finding a book that includes a more difficult vocabulary as you are about finding one that contains clean content. 

2. Help them find clean and captivating books in the adult section. With the exception of open-door Rom-Coms, many adult books are often cleaner than those in the YA section. 

Teen Books Worth Reading


In full disclosure, not every YA book is abhorrent. With more and more libraries dedicating entire sections to YA, many classics like Little Women and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been tossed into that section. So when in doubt, encourage them to grab a YA that was written before 1960--the decade when children's lit took a hard turn, pushing the envelope of what was deemed culturally appropriate for kids and teens.

Clean YA for Teens


There are, of course, a few needles in the horrible haystack--contemporary books for teens that are both clean and captivating. A shortlist of books my teens have enjoyed include the following:

Watership Down-a few uses of d*mn 






The Cay- a few uses of d*mn 





The Ranger's Apprentice series- a few uses of d*mn and h*ll




The Kingdom Series and other books by Chuck Black


The Healer's Apprentice and other books by Melanie Dickerson


Clean YA for Adults


In addition, there are a handful of more contemporary titles that while perhaps too heavy-handed for teens, are appropriate for adults looking for books that are both clean (no explicit sex scenes, and little to no language) and captivating. 

The following is a shortlist that I have read and enjoyed:

Salt to the Sea- I listened to the audio version of this one and loved it. While it is quite clean for a contemporary YA, it does deal with some tragic but true events from WWII, including the rape of young girls by Russian soldiers, the brutal treatment of Germans to Jews and Jewish sympathizers, and the deaths of thousands of civilians at sea when ships were hit by war-time torpedos. For this reason and because it includes 3-4 expletives, I do not feel it's appropriate for young teens. 


My Lady Jane- This humorous retelling of the life of Lady Jane Grey is the first in a trilogy dedicated to famous Janes throughout history. The authors take quite a lot of literary license and give many of the key players the ability to transform into animals at a whim. In order to do so, they must discreetly shed their clothes. Upon returning to their human state, they are decidedly naked--a detail which the authors handle with quite a bit of discretion and modesty. In addition, the writers decide to keep Jane alive instead of having her beheaded nine days after taking the throne as history records. Please note: The story is sweet, but the writing is at times crass and contains the kind of silly humor that would garner an eye roll from most adults. It's basically the Monte Python of YA lit.

One thing I definitely appreciate about this book, however, is the fact that "consummation" (the authors' word for sex) is never described, but merely mentioned, and is used in reference to a couple who'd just been wed.


The Downstairs Girl- This rather clean YA touches on the universal themes of racial and gender inequality and offers a rare look at a Chinese-American's experience during the post-Reconstruction era of the deep South. 


A Final Word


The teen years are some of the most impressionable. This is the time when kids are often extra sensitive to the changing culture around them. Some proponents of the YA section say that these books are not necessarily any darker or more disturbing than the world in which we live and that through reading, teens can learn to relate to the current culture. But, I disagree. 

A person, any person, teenage or otherwise, does not need to read a play-by-play of a suicide attempt to know that thoughts of suicide are a struggle for many. They don't need to get a figurative peek inside someone's bedroom to get the explicit details of an extramarital affair to know that it's a reality in the world. 

I think as a Christian mom, it is my job to be a gatekeeper--to protect the thoughts and emotions of my kids, my teens, and even myself, to the best of my ability. As the Apostle Paul wrote, I'd do well to encourage all of my family, even my teens, to read whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, I want them to think about these things. (Paraphrased from Phil. 4:8)

I'd love to know your family's experience with YA. What titles would you recommend? 

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38 comments:

  1. Hi Jamie. I really appreciate this post about YA literature. I fully agree with you about the content of YA lit. I call much of today's YA lit "junk." I am a Christian homeschooling mom, but I am also a volunteer librarian in my small town. I am in charge of purchasing children's and YA books for our library. Sadly, there are not many YA books that I feel are decent enough to add to our library. However, there are a few books and series that stand out.
    Chuck Black's Wars of the Realm, Knights of Arrethtrae, and Starlore Legacy series are all excellent.
    Robin Jones Gunn's Christy Miller series and spinoffs
    Melanie Dickerson's fairy tale romance series
    The Silence Between Us by Allison Gervais
    Even though they are controversial, I love The Giver quartet by Lois Lowry.

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    1. Sorry that it posted as "Unknown." My name is Jennifer. ��

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    2. I totally forgot to add Chuck Black's books and the Christy Miller series. Adding it now. I've not read the others you've mentioned, besides the Giver, but I'll definitely look into them. Thank you!

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  2. Hi Jamie! Interesting article! I appreciate your integrity and stand that young adults do not in fact NEED to read books with explicit content to learn about the world or culture around them. This has been a topic of discussion with our Christian homeschool group this year. I said that the things we CHOOSE to read or have our Kids read are seeds, not just planted into the intellect, but into their heart, mind, emotions, and spirit as well. We should follow the guidelines outlined in scripture.... whatsoever is true, good, lovely... think on these things. The harvest of our children's lives depends on what they sow. Thank you for encouraging this homeschool mom!

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    1. Sharon, I love that seed analogy. It's so true! Thank you for fighting for the spiritual well-being of teens in your homeschool group.

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    2. I appreciate the seed analogy!

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    3. And just as we dont choose to put those seeds into our minds it is even more important we dont put them into the growing minds and spirits of our children. I am aalso am finding I have to be very diligent with middle grade books. We try to shy away from anything written recently unless I have read a review such as yours or I re-read it.

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    4. I feel the same way about Modern Middle Grade. Anything written after 1963 needs a more diligent vetting eye.

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  3. My name is Sharon, from Pennsylvania

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  4. Thank you so much Jamie!! I love good, Christian approved book lists!! Please post more!

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    1. Book lists are my favorite to write and to read! I'll keep them coming.

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  5. Pelican Book Group offers clean YA titles. Another place to ask around is Avid Readers of Christian Fiction on Facebook where Christian titles are recommended and discussed.

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    1. Good to know. Thank you for those resources. I'll have to look into them.

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  6. The Link for Audible does not work. That's a great deal. I'm trying to find it on amazon now without any luck.

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    1. Ugh...sorry about that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think I got it fixed now.

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  7. I appreciate you talking about this issue. It's been a real challenge to navigate the library up with my teens and tween. My son loves the Rangers Apprentice series you mentioned. In an earlier comment someone mentioned the Giver quartet from Lois Lowry. Although it's controversial, it's a great series to read together and discuss. I would also add Tales of Larkin series by Alan Harris and Hamelin Stoop series by Robert Sloan.

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    1. It's definitely a book that would need some discussion. I wouldn't just hand it to a tween/teen without reading it with them.

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  8. Thanks so much for a very timely article - just the help I needed!

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  9. Thank you so much for this post! I used to read books from the YA section and wonder how teens were allowed to read this stuff when I couldn't even check out a Mary Stewart mystery when I was a teen in the 90s (with my mother's permission as she had read it). Times have changed so much.

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    1. They absolutely have. Sadly, most parents don't vet their teens' books and have no idea what their kids are even reading.

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  10. I think the challenge gets even harder when you have avid readers. Most of the books you listed above, my teens read before they hit the YA section. My older teens really struggle finding books that they enjoy; they are very well read so it is rare to find a book recommendation that hasn’t made the rounds here.

    I would love to recommend Tara Sullivan. The Bitter Side of Sweet and Golden Boy. Two amazingly well done YA books. Highly recommend! Eye opening to some real life issues in Africa.

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    1. Thank you for those suggestions. I will have to look into them. Yes, it is quite difficult to keep up with avid/advanced readers. That's why it's so important for moms to spread the word to other moms about good books they come across.

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  11. I would also recommend unreservedly anything by Katy Huth Jones. She has several books out, including a 5-volume high fantasy starting with Mercy's Prince. She is just finished with a 3-volume addition to that series. Many of her books are available via Kindle Unlimited.

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  12. Hi Jamie, this is a fantastic post. I think you are spot-on with your concerns with YA lit. I am truly thankful for the realization that once our kids can read fluently, reading for pleasure is the next goal. My daughter could reread every Rick Riordan book on repeat if I let her. Thankfully, she reads plenty in between those, but she doesn’t shy away from her interests. I know she is at her pleasurable reading level, and that is where she needs to be- not in the YA section. (This also reaffirms that I am in good mind for wanting to read JFIC books for pleasure!)

    I wish Classic Lit had its own section in the library!

    I also would add Lovely War byJulie Berry to an appropriate book for a YA.

    Thank you!

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    1. Lovely War has been on my TBR for quite some time. You've just bumped it up to the top of the pile. Thanks!

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  13. Young Adult is a misleading "genre"/age classification for books! We think of young adults as teenagers but the books are not written for 13 yr olds at all (or even 12-18 range really).
    The content and marketing is really for adults.. apparently 70 percent of all YA titles are purchased by adults between the ages of 18 and 64! The target market really being women in their 20s and 30s..

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    1. That's what I've heard. I wish they would change the classification/title at the library to be more clear to parents.

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  14. I recently discovered author Susan Meissner, who has written some great historical fiction covering various time periods. They are probably best for older teens as there is some mention of sex/sexual situations, but none are graphic and any language is mild if present at all. Great stories and characters, with an opportunity to learn some history as well.

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    1. I would say that Susan Meissner is adult fiction, but never really sexual content in any of her books. She is a Christian author with Christian content in her books.

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    2. I enjoy Susan Meisner's books too. My one hesitation for giving them to teens is that some of her titles have ghost/spirit elements in them. I'd definitely encourage parents to have a pre-emptive conversation with their teens prior to giving these books the green light with their teens.

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  15. I also agree as a mom of a Young Adult who loved the library and volunteered there until Covid and who NEVER went to the young adult section to borrow books, because she did not feel comfortable in that section. She loves Emily Dickerson and the Andrew Peterson books.

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  16. I would say check out these authors for YA to add to your list of recommended. Instead of warning people off, start by purchasing the good ones to encourage more publishers to publish them. When we warn people off all the time, we cause more issues. The older fiction, labeled as classics often have other problematic issues as well.

    Melanie Dickerson
    Sara Ella
    Mary Weber
    Nadine Brandes
    Chuck Black
    Wayne Thomas Batson
    Bryan Davis
    Sandra Fernando Rhoads
    Kara Swanson
    Lisa Bergren
    Morgan Busse
    Lindsay Franklin

    These are just a few! Encourage them to read more adult fiction as well, while yes, they deal with more adult issues, YA is a time to be learning about those. I am so thankful for going right into adult christian Fiction at those ages.

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    1. I agree with what you're saying. There are several authors worth reading, but parents need to be warned about the YA section so that they know to vet titles carefully and not just allow a free-for-all or an anything goes attitude about library selections.

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  17. Very helpful post! I now have The Cay on my list for my next library trip. I just finished reading aloud a series to my 12 y.o. and 15 y.o. (and my teen thoroughly enjoyed this series, which is delightful to me, given that he often gets tired of my reading aloud to them). It's called Wing and Claw by Linda Sue Park. I've read aloud several of Park's books (we are a Korean-American family), such as The Kite Fighters, A Single Shard, and Seesaw Girl. Wing and Claw (there are 3 titles in this series) has no boy-girl funny business; lots of friendship and facing consequences of decisions; love for family; and a real theme of responding to wickedness in non-violent ways.

    It has a depth of language and description that was sufficient for a 15 y.o. And it was fun for me to read aloud. It dealt with the real struggle we all face in making decisions and facing temptations to compromise. I don't remember any cuss words in the 3 books, and, although it's not a Christian-themed book, there is a strong feeling against "magic." The main character is a "pother," an apothecary who uses plants and herbs to create healing remedies, and he and his family are adamant that there's no magic involved.
    Anyway, I recommend it and am thinking of buying it as Christmas presents for a teen nephew. The 3 titles are Forest of Wonders, Cavern of Secrets, and Beast of Stone.

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    1. Thanks for those suggestions. I've loved all the Linda Sue Park books I've come across. I just recently purchased The Kite Fighters at a used book sale and hope to read it with the tween book club that I lead.

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