Writing is a powerful thing. If we want to inspire students to write, we can use young adult fiction with protagonists who write to encourage and arouse the writers within all our students. I just finished reading Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light and found myself dog-earing so many pages with powerful passages and statements about a writer’s life.
“We think language as this tame thing that lives in neat garden beds, bound by rules and fences. Then someone shows it to you growing wild and beautiful, flowering vines consuming cities, erasing pavement and lines. Breaking though any fence that would try to contain it. Reclaiming. Reshaping. Reforming. In my life, I’ve never known anything else that felt so full of infinite possibility. Words make me feel strong. They make me feel powerful and alive. They make me feel like I can open doors. (Zentner (2021:264)
Here are 13 young adult books that offer teen protagonists who write:
Cash Pruitt is the protagonist in Jeff Zentner’s In The Wild Life by (2021). Cash loves his rural Tennessee hometown, his grandparents who raised him after his mother died of an overdose, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a science genius whose boundless knowledge of the natural world fills him with wonder. Both children of an opioid-addicted parent, Delaney and Cash have a deep bond and when Delaney’s scientific discovery – a mold with powerful antibiotic properties – both are awarded scholarships at a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. Cash worries his grandfather, who has emphysema, will die while he is away at school, but accepts the scholarship. At school he takes a poetry class that shows him the power of language to reshape experiences of pain and fear into beauty. As in Zentner’s earlier works, grief is a central theme explored in many forms.
In the YA novel Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (2021) Angel and Isaiah are two young Black teenagers living in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the days leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot and massacre. The two come together for a summer job running a mobile library, delivering books to poorer black areas. Despite early contention and philosophical differences (Angel is a follower of the more conservative Booker T. Washington; Isaiah prefers the teachings of the more revolutionary WEB De Bois) the two fall in love as the world around them begins to catch fire. Isaiah writes poetry throughout the story and it is great to see a young man use poetry as a form of expression.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (2018) using letter writing and journaling to understand Justyce McAllister, a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend. None of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
Jaqueline Woodson is an amazing young adult author who has powerful stories to tell. In her book From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (2010) addresses what it means to be a family. Melanin Sun has a lot to say. But sometimes it’s hard to speak his mind, so he fills up notebooks with his thoughts instead. He writes about his mom a lot–they’re about as close as they can be, because they have no other family. So when she suddenly tells him she’s gay, his world is turned upside down. And if that weren’t hard enough for him to accept, her girlfriend is white. Melanin Sun is angry and scared. How can his mom do this to him– is this the end of their closeness? What will his friends think? And can he let her girlfriend be part of their family?
The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.
Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020) has won the National Book Award and the Printz Award. The book is told in poetry. Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2018), Cath is a Simon Snow fan. For Cath, being a fan is her life―and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words.
Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead (2015) begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more–though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was–lovely and amazing and deeply flawed–can she begin to discover her own path
Newbery Medal Winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010) begins shortly after a fall-out with her best friend. Sixth grader Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes, and she doesn’t know what to do. The notes tell her that she must write a letter—a true story, and that she can’t share her mission with anyone. It would be easy to ignore the strange messages, except that whoever is leaving them has an uncanny ability to predict the future. If that is the case, then Miranda has a big problem—because the notes tell her that someone is going to die, and she might be too late to stop it.
Eighteen-year-old Eliza Mirk is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea in Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (2019). When a new boy at school tempts Eliza to live a life offline, everything she’s worked for begins to crumble. In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, Eliza is LadyConstellation, anonymous creator of a popular webcomic called Monstrous Sea. With millions of followers and fans throughout the world, Eliza’s persona is popular. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves her digital community. Then Wallace transfers to her school and Eliza begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile. But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart.
In Riley Redgate’s Final Draft (2018) the only sort of risk 18-year-old Laila Piedra enjoys is the peril she writes for the characters in her stories: epic sci-fi worlds full of quests, forbidden love, and robots. Her creative writing teacher has always told her she has a special talent. But three months before her graduation, he’s suddenly replaced–by Nadiya Nazarenko, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who is sadistically critical and perpetually unimpressed. At first, Nazarenko’s eccentric assignments seem absurd. But before long, Laila grows obsessed with gaining the woman’s approval.
Natalie’s best friend, Zoe, is sure that the novel Natalie’s written is good enough to be published. But how can a twelve-year-old girl publish a book? Natalie’s mother is an editor for a big children’s publisher, but Natalie doesn’t want to ask for any favors. The School Story by Andrew Clements is 20 years old but a perfect read for 5th and 6th graders. Zoe’s brilliant idea is that Natalie can submit her manuscript under a pen name, with Zoe acting as her literary agent. Can Natalie and Zoe pull off their masquerade?
What happens if your notebook ends up in the wrong hands? Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) is about Harriet M. Welsch, a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Despite being written decades ago, there are some key themes about friendship that are worth noting.