Adolescents, Adolescent Novels, and Authors Writing the Edges

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

“If you are not living on the edge,
you are taking up too much room.”

–Jayne Howard

As I explained at the beginning of the month, I wanted to explore and share my thoughts about a number of books that 1) have characters on the edge of something 2) have their readers on the edge of something, or 3) have brought to the fore topics that reside on the edge of something.  The books I shared are excellent pieces of work that have the potential to shift the discourse with adolescents, but this may only be done if we recognize that—in reality—most of us are on the edge of something, and if we aren’t, well, maybe we should be. Actually, that’s probably the best thing about working and reading with adolescents.  They are venturing out and testing the edges and we can be there with them! But we often need some tools to facilitate young adults’ learning, and the books I have highlighted can be a great start. But if there is hesitation about some of the books I have already mentioned in the last three weeks, perhaps we start with the books that show just how many of us are on the edge. From that location, we can start the discussions about the bigger questions and concerns adolescents often ponder, but cannot speak.

So many books!  Books like, Ninth Ward (Parker Rhodes, 2010), which brings the story of Lanesha, a twelve-year-old with second sight “seeing” the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.  Do people really have second sight? That’s not the point, but I know that is where some readers will get stuck.  The point is Hurricane Katrina, people caught by weather-related tragedies, and their outcomes.  Lanesha and her Mama Ya-Ya are on the edge of the future that will be devastating to those in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  Many people—because of geographical location—are on the edge of such disasters.  Then there is the novel, In Zanesville (Beard, 2011), that starts with a horrific house fire while the 14-year-old narrator is supposed to be babysitting. This book gives readers a sense of what adolescence often is: confusing, hilarious, and filled with angst over any number of issues, events, states of being. On the edge of adulthood, the edge of popularity, the edge of disaster.  That’s Zanesville.

Now, Marcelo in the Real World (Stork, 2011) gives us a look at a protagonist on the edge of discovering what’s real, maybe what isn’t, and why these differences might be important. Marcelo is a 17-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome, pushed by his father to enter the real world of work by taking on a job at his father’s office. What Marcelo learns about being on the edge of difference is important to all young adults.  Dairy Queen (Murdock, 2007) presents the story of D.J. Swenk, who is learning how to handle a farm, a cute boy from the rival school, and her own bid at becoming a football player. This book was so much fun to read, and shows how the edge encroaches on everyday life.

The God Box (Sanchez, 2009) is a novel that presents the struggle the protagonist Paul has between his religious beliefs and homosexuality. Moving from the firmly held beliefs to the edge of questioning, Paul is a sensitive character who reflects the questions many teens may have when it comes to their beliefs and human nature. Two complementary texts that take readers to a similar edge are Vast Fields of the Ordinary (Burd, 2010) and What They Always Tell Us (Wilson, 2010).  Moving from What They Always Tell Us is The Things a Brother Knows (Reinhardt, 2010), which presents Levi and Boaz struggling together after Boaz returns from the military. Deeply engaging, all of these books show readers that the edge and the ordinary are really not so far apart.

Another young adult novel not to be missed includes Nothing (Teller & Aitken, 2010), which presents Pierre, a Danish boy, who announces “nothing matters.” As others attempt to show what really matters, more and more horrific events unfurl. Readers will not have to go to the same lengths as the students in this book, but the text is a great place to begin discussions on what matters in life and to specific individuals versus the group. And finally, there is Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Saenz, 2009), which brings us to Zach, an 18-year-old alcoholic who is in a facility but can’t remember why. Expected to work toward remembering, Zach’s progress is filled with starts and stops as he begins to think the past may be too painful to revisit.

There are many other books like After Ever After (Sonnenblick, 2011); A Time of Miracles (Bondoux &Maudet, 2010); Beat the Band (Calame, 2011); Forest of Hands and Teeth (Ryan, 2010), and; Before I Fall (Oliver, 2010) that young adults would be interested in reading, and which present adolescents on an edge. Too many to name, but the reality is that many readers will recognize their classmates, their friends, their family members, or themselves as they read the books I have highlighted in the last four weeks. Whether dealing with death, difference, or survival, when we look at these topics/themes, we are really dealing with life and the everyday. And everyday gives adolescents choices about where determining where they are; on the edge, heading for the edge, or retreating from an edge. The edge is all around them even as the flow of the continual and expansive is an ever-present part of their worlds.

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One thought on “Adolescents, Adolescent Novels, and Authors Writing the Edges

  1. Nojood Alsudairi says:

    I am enjoying reading the posts of this month as they made my mind “ache” of thinking. We have many books in Arabic whose topics, charcters or readers are on the edge of something. I might suggest “the edge” as the theme of our (faculty and students’) book group for this semester because I need other people to “ache” with me. Thank you Holly for such an inspiring idea.

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