The Best YA Novels Tackling Tough Subjects
No stranger to tough subjects, author Matthew Quick tackled mental health issues in "Silver Linings Playbook," his novel that inspired an Academy Award-nominated film adaptation. With his latest young adult novel, "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock," he takes us into the mind of Leonard, a misunderstood outsider who brings a gun to school, plotting to murder his ex-best friend and then kill himself. What makes "Leonard Peacock" so compelling is not merely the hot-button issue around with the plot revolves, but the care with which Quick lays out Leonard's motivations, from slow hints at what led him to this moment to the letters he writes himself from the future, pleading with his present-day him not to pull the trigger.
It takes a skilled author to inspire dialogue about serious subject matter so organically. Quick shares his picks for other YA novels that take on difficult topics--from terrorism to abandonment--in an accessible, respectful and hopeful way.
Here's the truth: I never set out to write a novel about a high school student with a gun in his backpack. Like all of my stories, this one started with a voice in my head. Leonard's voice was angry, intelligent and--at times--unapologetically cruel. But, it was also wounded, human and even occasionally hilarious. I listened to that voice, recorded it on paper and did my best to stay out of the way--keep it authentic and true. Working with troubled teens taught me that young people in crisis always need to be heard, their pain acknowledged, and they usually do open up when they feel safe and visible.
The five novels below give much needed voices to serious problems, and do so with remarkable care and humanity.
Not technically a YA book, because the main character is 10, but one that should be read by teens and people of all ages. When Jamie's sister is killed in a terrorist attack, his dad holds all Muslims responsible. Jamie's loyalty is tested when he transfers schools and the only classmate offering friendship wears a hijab. A beautiful and humane story.
Mental health issues
Roskos writes about mental health issues--anxiety in particular--through his character James, who is obsessed with Walt Whitman and does therapy with an imaginary pigeon. This one was written with a hard-won authenticity, which Roskos discusses with refreshing candor in his blog posts and public appearances.
This novel covers cancer, murder, abandonment--but mostly it's about two young men who find each other at the right time and try to figure out life's bigger questions. Francisco writes with a wise and open heart.
Matthew Quick is the author of "The Silver Linings Playbook" and three young adult novels, "Sorta Like a Rock Star," "Boy21" and "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock." His work has received many honors, including the PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention. "Sorta Like a Rock Star" was an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults. Visit him at matthewquickwriter.com/ or on Twitter: @MatthewQuick21.