Not every teen reader can relate to wizards or cheerleaders. Such a Pretty Girl, Rules of Survival, Shelter, and Stealing Heaven deal with gritty themes such as surviving incest, child abuse, and homelessness. Along with providing inspiration, these realistic teen novels offer compelling, streamlined story telling that should appeal to adult readers as well as teach empathy.
Beth Cooley’s 2006 Shelter (Delacorte Press) is a reverse Cinderella story. When Lucy’s father dies, overnight she must adjust from living a sheltered upper-middle class lifestyle to living in a shelter with her mother and younger brother. Lucy’s mother has not worked outside the home in years and navigates the maze of finding employment that will get them out of the shelter. Lucy struggles to find friends at her new high school, excel at school to secure a scholarship, comfort her brother, and overcome the pain of the friends who deserted her once the money ran out. At first, Lucy dreams of getting her old life back, but eventually she appreciates her newfound resilience and her new life. Cooley crafts engaging characters and skillfully creates suspense out of the family’s struggle to exit the shelter.
What if you have been brought up to be a high-class thief? If that premise intrigues you, so will Elizabeth Scott’s 2008 Stealing Heaven (Harper Teen). At eighteen, Dani is finally old enough to choose her own destiny. She becomes legally responsible for herself, but eighteen also means that if she were to get caught stealing, she would be charged as an adult and end up with a permanent criminal record.
Nothing dirty, nothing violent, just scamming wealthy people out of their silver summarizes Dani and her mom’s heists. The demands of her mother’s chosen career include constantly moving across the country and creating phony names and identities to go along with each move.
Dani’s fight to find her own identity is further complicated when she meets Greg, a cop, and struggles with keeping up her guard while getting to know him. Ultimately, Dani must choose between Greg and her mother who happens to also be her employer.
Such a Pretty Girl
Laura Weiss’s 2007 Such a Pretty Girl (Pocket Books) masterfully portrays a mother who is a consummate love addict and who idolizes and physically craves her husband to an irrational degree. Her denial is so great that she convinces herself that teenage Meredith, her only child, is to blame for seducing her own father.
When the story begins, Meredith’s father is getting out of prison after three years instead of the nine he was originally sentenced to serve for molesting her. Her mother sold their house to finance an expensive attorney who got his sentence reduced on a technicality. Meredith is terrified. Her mother not only completely dismisses her fears, but also prompts Meredith to help celebrate her father’s return by saying, “I put touches of color in your father’s condo, too. I think he’ll be pleased. Oh, and I took three steaks out to thaw so now is not the time to go into that silly vegetarian kick.”
The suspense builds as fifteen-year-old Meredith fights off depression as she plots to keep herself from getting raped once again by her father.
Rules of Survival
Matthew, the son of a sadistic single mother, narrates Nancy Werlin’s 2006 Rules of Survival (Penguin Group). He is the oldest of four siblings and their protector. The first rule of survival is pretending. Pretending that everything is OK. Pretending that each time you get beaten up will be the last time. Pretending that you are the adult. This novel captured the art of switching gears from fearing for your life to acting as if everything is perfectly OK.
The author captures the slow spiritual awakening of Aunt Bobbie and the father and the world through the eyes of a teenager struggling to keep his spirit from breaking in the face of a troubled, violent parent.
How does a child escape a dangerous parent, stay out of foster care, and keep his siblings together? Staying alive is the first challenge. Keeping his siblings alive is his second challenge. Matthew’s journey is mesmerizing.
Do you know of any other superb gritty YA/teen fiction?