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Life Changing Experiences in Teen Fiction

by Tom Reynolds

*Originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of RA News.*

"Everyone's life," says Ezra Faulkner, the protagonist in Robyn Schneider's The Beginning of Everything, "has a moment when it becomes extraordinary -- a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen." 
Adolescence is a time of change. For teenagers life changing events can be as small as meeting a new person or as big as dealing with a death or serious illness. A young person's image of themselves and their life possibilities change in adolescence, and as a result life changing events are a principle feature of young adult fiction. 

Teen fiction

The Appeal of Stories about Change

This article focuses on realistic and speculative fiction. There are several characteristics sure to appeal to teenage readers in these novels:  smart, complex, and quirky teenage characters, engaging dialogue, and strong personal narratives. Teenagers see their own experience mirrored in these stories of young people gaining independence and self-confidence, learning acceptance, and finding new possibilities and direction by dealing with life's changes and challenges.

Adolescence as Change

Adolescence as time of continuous change is the theme of Surface Tension: a novel in four summers by Brent Runyon. The reader observes the main character, Luke, become a young adult over time. His transition from 13-year-old to high school student is viewed in a series of two-week snapshots over four summer vacations spent at a lakeside cottage. Luke sees change in both the lake and in the people around him while struggling with new experiences and feelings. 

Independence & Self-reliance 

In these novels, teenagers become stronger and more self-reliant facing difficult situations where they are challenged by other people or or changes in society at large. 
In Saci Lloyd's eco-fiction novels, Carbon Diaries 2015 and Carbon Diaries 2017, Laura Brown chronicles the disruption of normal life in London from the beginning of carbon rationing in 2015 to 2017 when natural disasters caused by climate change and political upheaval have depopulated the city. Finding the strength and self-reliance to face increasingly difficult changes, Laura progresses from high school to college, finds success with her punk band, and struggles in the relationship with her boyfriend Adi.
Lucy, a gifted young pianist, gives up the piano and goes through a period of angst-filled self-examination before she can challenge her dominating grandfather and return to playing on her own terms in Sara Zarr's The Lucy Variations.
Terra travels to China with her friend Jacob and both of their mothers in Justine Chen Headley's engaging North of Beautiful. The journey allows Terra to see that her beauty is not diminished by the port-wine birthmark on cheek, gives her the opportunity to recommit to her art, and to find the courage to stand up to her verbally abusive father. 
Seventeen-year-old Radley  returns to the United States to find that the President has been assassinated and that her parents are missing in Karen Hesse's lyrical and bleak Safekeeping. While searching for them, she struggles to escape a government crackdown and travels through Vermont to Canada accompanied by the pregnant Celia and her dog. The strength and self-reliance she gains along the way preparing her to face even more difficult life changes.
In David Lampson's This One Time with Julia, hapless but likeable eighteen-year-old Joe, an unforgettable character, who can't read or judge other people or situations, lives a very limited life until his twin brother Alvin disappears and he meets Alvin's beautiful girlfriend. A dark and mysterious love story follows as Joe travels with Julia to Tennessee. He gets a job with her dysfunctional family, learns to read, and begins to understand something about the complicated nature of human relationships. Finally facing the truth about his brother’s death, Joe takes independent action for the first time in his life.

Primarily Love Stories

These novels examine how romantic love can change teenage lives.
John Green combines his engaging and witty prose with a deeply moving storyline about young people facing death who are sustained by love in The Fault in Our Stars. 16-year-old Hazel, whose terminal cancer is in remission, falls in love with a fellow cancer survivor. He helps her attain her special wish to visit an expat American writer living in Amsterdam and to realize that, while the world is "not a wish-giving factory," life itself is special and should be embraced and held onto for as long as possible.
Kate McGarry's teen romance Pushing the Limits features two very different high school seniors, the once popular Echo and outlaw orphan Noah, who both have tragedy in their family backgrounds. The two become romantically involved and help each other gain closure on their respective tragedies.
Just One Year, by Gayle Forman, tells the story of Willem, a young Dutch actor whose efforts to reunite with Allyson, the American girl he spent one romantic day with in Paris are constantly frustrated. He is forced to consider what is important and to ponder the role chance plays in the most important events of life. A sequel to Just One Day.

Teen fiction

Acceptance & Healing

In these novels, teenagers find healing and self-acceptance by moving, making new friends and rediscovering old ones, and accepting the help of caring adults.
In Robyn Schneider's humorous, angst-filled romance The Beginning of Everything, Ezra returns for his last year of high school feeling lost after a traffic accident leaves him with a permanent leg injury and ends his dream of playing college tennis. Uncomfortable with his old friends, he discovers new possibilities for a full life by reconnecting with a childhood friend and developing a new relationship with a bright, but secretive girl.
When Liam, the popular but troubled protagonist in K.L. Going's funny King of the Screwups, is forced to move in with his gay uncle in upstate New York he finds a surrogate family that recognizes his talent for fashion, and after some misadventures, gains new confidence and self-control.
Regret and self-loathing haunt Josh in Johanna Knowles' Living with Jackie Chan. He is able to move on from a past mistake after he moves in with his karate-loving uncle, starts a new school, and meets an attractive new neighbor. A sequel to Jumping off Swings.
In The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson, Susin Nielsen-Fernlund's moving and emotionally intense novel for younger teens, new friendships in a new city and caring adults help 13-year-old Henry overcome the shock and grief he feels after his older brother Jesse kills a bully and then commits suicide.

Promoting Fiction about Life-Changing Events to Teens

Realistic and speculative fiction that deal with life-changing events has a natural appeal for teenagers. Girls and boys will enjoy these character-driven stories with a moving and emotionally intense tone. The fact that they are often punctuated by teenage humor and emphasize interpersonal relationships and the transformative power of friendship and love only add to their appeal. 
Other authors who have written novels centered on life-changing events include: A.S. King, Han Nolen, Matt de la Pena, and  Susan Beth Pfeffer.
Fiction featuring life-changing events is easy to promote using booklists, displays, and blog posts. It's likely that your teen readers are already posting their own reviews and comments about these books on your library's website, and on other popular sites like
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Tom Reynolds is a librarian, writer, the author of Teen Reading Connections and the novel Rudy Becker, Stargazer.