This year I read a lot of young adult fiction, and I was struck by how much these books engaged social justice issues in a complex and nuanced way. Fair warning, though: when teenage protagonists struggle with issues of equity and difficult moral decisions, they sometimes use vulgar language. While such language is quite common in today’s world, some parents may take issue with this language being used in a Christian school. I suggest you read the book you are thinking of using in class before you make your decision. If you decide to use it in your curriculum, you might want to prepare both parents and students with a frank letter of introduction that details both the problematic language and scenes in the book and the important themes and ideas that the book gets across. If you intend to add the book to your classroom library, I suggest that you read it fully and consider labeling the book in some way so that your students will know what they are getting into if they choose to read it.
The books I review here did not all come out in 2017. Some are books from earlier years that I finally got around to reviewing this year. In any case, I am sure you will enjoy them.
Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
The story begun in Scythe continues in this long-awaited sequel that has, if possible, more twists and turns than the original. The characters from Scythe are back. Citra (alias Scythe Anastasia) is working with Scythe Curie to attack the injustices of the Scythedom from within. Rowan has become Scythe Lucifer, donning an illegal black robe and killing scythes who are abusing their powers—gleaning them in such a way that they cannot be restored. And the Thunderhead, the artificial intelligence that serves humanity, has taken a young man named Greyson and used him to save Scythe Curie and Scythe Anastasia from an attempted assassination. The Thunderhead designates Greyson as Unsavory, takes him off the grid, gives him a new identity, and uses him as an agent. When Greyson’s human handler is gleaned, Greyson must figure out the right thing to do. The book comes to an amazing climax on an artificial island where the scythes are meeting and where the villain shows his hand.
This book is breathtakingly thrilling, partly because we are so connected to the characters and partly because of the theme that runs through the series (which my student Molly first identified for me): the protagonists tend to be caught between two mentors and their ideals but must still make important moral decisions for themselves. Thunderhead plays with this theme as Rowan and Greyson are deprived of their mentors, and Citra is increasingly learning to think without her mentor’s advice.
Nothing is offensive in this book. Strong middle school readers could certainly read it, but it is probably best for high school students. It would be great for teaching worldview. Both these books are phenomenally good. Read them!
Backfield Boys: A Football Mystery in Black and White by John Feinstein
Tom “Bull’s Eye” Jefferson and Jason “White Lightning” Roddin have grown up in New York City and been friends since their early grades, partly because of their common love of football. Tom is an excellent quarterback and Jason is a remarkably fast wide receiver. When they both get recruited to attend a prep school in the South that is known for its alumni who go on to play pro ball, they leap at the chance. But when they get to the school, they find it much different than they imagined. The trouble starts when Tom is assigned to be a wide receiver and Jason is assigned to train with the quarterbacks. When they bring up the mistake with the coaches, they are met with stubborn belligerence and punishment for questioning authority. Based on some of the comments from their coaches, they begin to wonder whether the problem might be that Tom is African-American and Jason is Jewish.
While John Feinstein is known for skillfully weaving together sports and mystery, this book proves he can also tackle social justice issues in realistic and inspiring ways. This book models critical questioning and engages readers in thinking about social justice issues ranging from the prevalence of concussions in football to racist responses, interracial dating, and systemic discrimination and how to combat it. Feinstein includes a bit of history about civil rights, religious discrimination, and presidential politics as well. The final product is a highly engaging sports mystery that will get readers thinking about civil disobedience and working for justice.
Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M. T. Anderson
For English teachers, this is an excellent graphic novel to introduce anything that touches on King Arthur. Though Arthur only makes a cameo or two in the book, it captures the excitement of a knight with a pet lion fighting against evil magic, a dragon, and enemies. But it also concerns itself with the relationship between Sir Yvain and the queen whose husband he killed in battle. Theirs is a relationship filled with intense hate and, eventually, deep love as well. This book is ideal for late middle school and high school students.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Castle Crenshaw’s voice sounds upbeat and sarcastic in the first chapter, but then we find out that one night, years ago, Castle’s dad had been drinking, and when Castle’s mom fought back against the usual physical abuse, Castle’s dad grabbed a pistol. Castle and his mom ran for it, and Castle’s dad was arrested and taken to jail. The story, however, takes place years later and opens with Castle looking through a chain-link fence at tryouts for an all-city track team. On a whim, he walks over and challenges one of the kids to a race. Though the coach is angry about the interruption, he gives Castle one chance. When Castle ties the kid, the coach convinces Castle to give the team a try, though Castle isn’t very enthusiastic about it. And, of course, it doesn’t go smoothly. Castle, who takes on the nickname Ghost, is fast but insecure. He can be a hard worker but is inconsistent and is also embarrassed by his tennis shoes, so he shoplifts a better pair. He is nearly kicked off the team several times, and yet it is clear to the reader that Ghost has found a home.
What I love most about this book is Coach Brody’s character. He is a tough guy who cares about the kids on his team and is willing to push, encourage, cajole, and challenge them to get them to commit to something and experience what being excellent at something can do for them. The book also shows the value of community. As Ghost finds out that his fellow team members, who he initially doesn’t think much of, have their own stories, they eventually become people he cares for.
Sometimes seen as an upper elementary book, Ghost has a wide appeal for older students too. My eighth-grade daughter is a runner and loved this book. I am not a runner, and I loved this book. I think you and your students will love this book too.
Bill Boerman-Cornell is professor of education at Trinity Christian College. He blogs about graphic novels and YA literature at bookcommercial.blogspot.com.