Keeping It Real: The Grittiness of Contemporary YA

October 19, 2016   •   By Paul Volponi

THE SHORES OF young adult literature feel the impact of many waves, especially when it comes to fiction. Even a casual observer of the ever-shifting YA scene can probably identify several of the more recent swells, including sci-fi, zombies, vampires, werewolves, wand-wielding witches and wizards, and dystopian futures displaying differing shades of darkness and hope. So, with all of these otherworldly genres garnering massive attention, what is the current state of realistic YA fiction?

Realism is still the bedrock of YA literature. Many writers in the field believe that there can be no greater goal than accurately portraying the lives of young adults and their relationships in society. I first fell in love with realism riding that raft with Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the only book in high school I think I actually read. Years later, Steinbeck kept me glued to the page with his realistic and earthy dialogue in The Grapes of Wrath. For the six years I taught teens on New York City’s Rikers Island (the world’s biggest jail), I was often reminded of the cops who watched over Steinbeck’s migrant camps and dusty state borders. I’d share those scenes with the teen inmates I taught. Despite the plains of 1930s Oklahoma being a universe away, they almost always found a connection to their own lives.

When I began writing realistic YA fiction more than a decade ago, my intention was to hold a mirror up to reality, to show an accurate reflection of the streets in front of me, without moralizing or judging. That can be a difficult tightrope to walk, especially when the winds blow hard from one direction or another.

Early on, I received an email from a small publisher in Texas who read a draft of my first YA novel, Black and White (2006). They said they couldn’t publish the book because they feared, based on my last name, that I wasn’t black. They were concerned about the book’s purported authenticity. Several years later, after the novel was published, the American Library Association, which had probably never seen a photo of me, included me on a list of well-known African-American authors. Today, that publisher’s email and ALA listing are framed side-by-side on my office wall, their presence reminding me that it is only the writer’s vision and passion that counts. And for me, that vision and passion is firmly rooted in realism.

Since that time, I have written realistic novels about incarcerated teens (Rikers High, 2010); refugees escaping from Cuba to Miami (Game Seven, 2015); the best and worst of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (The Final Four, 2012); refugees fleeing Katrina in the Superdome (Hurricane Song, 2008); and about how kids as young as eighth-graders are being offered future college athletic scholarships (Top Prospect, 2016). I am proud of this body of realistic work. But I am even prouder of the company I keep in the many writers who share my intense passion for realism.

Chris Crutcher is among our most important YA novelists. In 2000, the American Library Association bestowed upon him the Margaret A. Edwards Award, recognizing his body of work, which includes nearly a dozen novels: Running Loose (1983), Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993), Ironman (1995), and a riveting collection of short stories entitled Athletic Shorts (1991). The award celebrates the author’s significant and lasting contribution to the world of YA literature.

Ironically, Crutcher’s works are also among the most frequently challenged by censors, who contend that his strong language and use of themes such as parental abuse and mental and physical disabilities are simply too mature for YA audiences. “The things we don’t talk about, the things that remain secret, are the things that make us sick,” Crutcher told me, concerning the tough issues about which he writes and the need to have them heard.

Crutcher draws inspiration from real-life events he has witnessed during his careers as an educator in alternative schools and as a child and family therapist. For example, his novel Whale Talk (2001) is about the unlikely formation of the Cutter High School swim team, nicknamed The All-Night Mermen. (What’s so unlikely about it? Well, the school doesn’t have a swimming pool.) Crutcher drew inspiration for several of the book’s characters from the 1996 school shootings at Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington, which resulted in three deaths. Crutcher’s original (unpublished) draft of Whale Talk contained a similar incident, but following the devastating events at Columbine High School in 1999, Crutcher decided to revise his novel.

“The power of good, realistic young adult fiction is its capacity to give voice to the reader, and to make connection; to allow the reader to experience situations and imagine her- or himself in them,” said Crutcher. “Out of that power comes the opportunity for readers to look at life through different eyes and gain empathy for the plight of others, or to find solace in characters who walk the same emotionally dangerous paths they walk. It also has the power to entertain.”

Caleb Roehrig is one of the many younger writers seemingly inspired by Crutcher’s views on realism. The author’s debut novel, Last Seen Leaving (2016), features a protagonist named Flynn who must face the truth about himself while trying to piece together the facts concerning the sudden and unexplained disappearance of his girlfriend. “I think realistic fiction is vital for young readers,” he said to me. “When I was a teenager, trying to come to terms with my sexuality in an environment where ‘gay’ was still a dirty word, it was impossible to find books that directly addressed the issues I was dealing with,” said Roehrig, a writer and television producer who originally hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “For marginalized youth, in particular, it is so validating — and so important — to reflect their real lives in print.”

Similarly, novelist Coe Booth writes about her own experience growing up in the Bronx, in a trio of remarkably poignant tomes: Tyrell (2006), Kendra (2008), and Bronxwood (2011). Her realistically crafted characters include Tyrell, a teen living in a homeless shelter with his mother and younger brother. Booth artfully assembles all the temptations of the streets dangling in front of Tyrell, who is desperate for a quick score as a solution to his problems. Bronxwood, the sequel to Tyrell, features the protagonist’s father back home from a stint in prison — and anything but a positive role model for his son. Kendra is the story of three generations of women, their relationships complicated by the hardships of inner-city life.

Realistic fiction has been a major conduit for creating more diversity in YA literature. Booth’s body of work has helped in that regard. Her newest release, Kinda Like Brothers (2015), is aimed at a younger middle-grade audience. “There are so few books about and for black children, especially boys,” said Coe, a former National Book Awards judge. Kinda Like Brothers, she said,

is about an 11-year-old boy named Jared whose mom is a foster mother. She brings home a little boy named Kevin (who is way cooler than Jared), and they have to share a room, causing a lot of friction. But, as Jared learns more about the difficulties of Kevin’s family life, it starts to become a brother story.

Author Paul Griffin is as real as they come. After graduating Dartmouth in 1988, Griffin worked on truck docks, in construction, as a dog trainer, EMT, bartender, waiter, and dishwasher (alongside actor Vin Diesel). His most rewarding job, however, was teaching at-risk and incarcerated youth. Determined years of keeping his eyes and ears open as he traveled the streets of New York, often accompanied by his three dogs, helped Griffin to refine his spot-on narratives, with their uncannily accurate voices of inner-city teens.

Twenty years after starting out, his “first” novel (actually the 24th he had written) was released. Featuring a pair of teen squatters, Ten Mile River (2008) tells a compelling story of survival and friendship. It was followed by The Orange Houses (2009), which touches upon bullying, war, and illegal immigration. The novel introduces us to Tamika, a hearing-impaired girl who, along with a pair of other outcasts, deeply influences the lives of the tenants in their housing project. The writer’s honest and unflinching portrayal of teens at their best and worst earned The Orange Houses a slew of honors, including an ALA Top 10 for Best Fiction Young Adult. But none of those honors are more satisfying to the author than actually seeing teens with his books in their hands.

“Recently a librarian asked me, ‘The glass: half full, or half empty?’ It’s both. I’m a hopeful realist,” said Griffin,

Realistic fiction reminds me that it’s okay to be where I am. When I read realistic fiction, I think, “Wait, I know these folks. These places.” Being there, being in a place you know, in a book, you believe that somebody gets you. That somebody cares. That’s critical, particularly for the kind of boy I was, afraid to be caught carrying around a book.

Griffin’s authentic voice emerges whenever he reads to gatherings of young adults — most strikingly in his readings from Stay with Me (2011), a novel about an anger-driven dyslexic who finds unconditional love for the pit bulls he rescues. The mesmerized silence of an entire class hanging onto Griffin’s every word is testament to the fact that many young adults recognize his uncompromising vision as their reality.

As a youngster, author Karen McManus was supposed to be playing outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Yet she was often secretly shuttered indoors, working on her writing craft. The result of those cloistered afternoons is visible in her debut YA novel, One of Us Is Lying, which hits the shelves in 2017.

Reflecting today’s technology-driven teen-world, McManus’s novel is fueled by a foreboding sense of the darker side of all our posts, tweets, and memes. Her protagonist, 17-year-old Simon, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app. Before he could post juicy reveals about four high-profile students, Simon died right in front of them. Now the four are murder suspects — or are they simply patsies with secrets to hide, trapped in someone else’s larger, more ominous plan?

“The teen years are pivotal for defining yourself, your world, and how the two intersect. There’s so much growth, change, and reflection,” said McManus, who holds an MA in journalism from Northeastern University. “I think it’s important for readers to see themselves in the books they choose, and also to get to know people who are completely different. Realistic YA is a great way for teens to not only validate their experiences but expand their horizons.”

As for myself, my two most recent works focus on the lives of prominent young athletes. I was inspired by a photo of several Cuban refugees sailing a transformed 1959 Buick toward the coast of Florida. I wanted to write the story of how those refugees, especially the teens aboard, arrived to that moment in time. The idea became Game Seven, about a young shortstop whose father was “El Fuego,” the greatest Cuban pitcher ever born — until he defected to the US, leaving his family behind. After several years of living in Cuba as the son of a defector, and forbidden from playing baseball on the national traveling team for fear that he would defect as well, Julio boards the car/boat for the perilous 90-mile trip to the United States. It took a great deal of research to complete this novel, including searching out the stories of people who had made such journeys on the open sea in vehicles as flimsy as rubber inner tubes tied together with ropes.

My latest novel, Top Prospect, about a preteen quarterback who finds sudden fame, was inspired by a real-life college football coach who twice decided to give future college scholarships to eighth-graders. These were just handshake deals with nothing binding on either party, except for the lasting effects they had on the now overly scrutinized lives of those young athletes. In both instances, the coach left the college at which he was employed for another job — first the University of Tennessee, then the University of Southern California — before either of the youngsters ever arrived on campus. The novel looks at the overwhelming pressures placed on the shoulder pads of a fictionalized quarterback named Travis Gardner, who takes just such a frightening ride, with his entire hometown and ESPN sitting shotgun.

As a writer, I’m constantly searching for the next story, my eyes and ears open, harking to the words of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad: “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinking about stuff.”


Paul Volponi is a writer, teacher, and journalist living in New York City. He is the author of 11 novels for young adults.