Texas is a confusing place, and adolescence is a confusing time. Put them together and the world feels like a challenging place. Thankfully, we have the technology to try to make each of those things a little bit less confusing: books!
I wrote my young adult novel, The Fight For Midnight, to explore that confusion from a very specific viewpoint: that of a teenage boy who’s at the Capitol on the day of Wendy Davis’s 2013 filibuster of the state legislature’s abortion bill. He’s there for a specific reason—his crush invited him to protest the filibuster—and he’s never given a second thought to the issue that’s brought all of those protesters to Austin. As the day goes on, he questions if he actually agrees with the side he showed up to join, especially after he encounters an ex-friend there to support the filibuster. Those details are specific to this book, but exploring the feelings of young people trying to make sense of a world they’re not in control of is what makes young adult fiction so important.
There are endless ways to do that, and a huge number of fantastic authors have told such stories right here in Texas. They’ve done it for readers of all ages, in a variety of genres, for generations—some favorites for younger readers are Louis Sachar’s modern classic Holes, Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books, and Kacy Ritter’s forthcoming The Great Texas Dragon Race (out August 1)—but there’s something about the enormity of emotion that comes with navigating your teen years that especially resonates with me. These are six of my favorite recent Texas young adult novels, for your summer reading. (But, uh, feel free to also check out a copy of The Fight for Midnight, if you’d like!)
Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger
Darcie Little Badger’s 2020 debut is a special book. Two months after its publication, it was selected—by a panel that included Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemison, and George R. R. Martin—for Time’s “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” list. The fantasy story is about a seventeen-year-old Lipan Apache girl named Elatsoe, or “Ellie,” with a family gift for summoning the spirits of dead animals. She travels from her hometown in Texarkana to the (fictional) South Texas town of Willowbee in order to solve the mystery of what happened to her cousin—was he killed in a car accident, or murdered by one of the ghosts, fairies, and vampires that inhabit Little Badger’s Texas? Some books about teens are focused on the need to carve out an identity independent from that of your family—Elatsoe cleverly inverts that by focusing on a character whose search is about finding herself, and her cousin’s killer, from a place very much within that family structure.
Emergency Contact, Mary H. K. Choi
It took me a long time to sell The Fight for Midnight. During a discouraging spell in that process, I spotted a copy of Emergency Contact on the shelf at BookPeople, in Austin, and started leafing through it. Then I bought it, went across the street for dinner, and didn’t stand up again until I was more than halfway through the book. Mary H. K. Choi’s 2018 debut is about Penny, a Korean American UT-Austin freshman who connects with Sam, a slightly older boy who’s couch surfing his way through life in pursuit of some sort of stability when he learns that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. The two trade phone numbers, agreeing to serve as each other’s emergency contacts. Their connection unfolds via text, until the crucial moment when an online relationship becomes a real-world one. When I finished Emergency Contact later that night, I felt a renewed sense that teenagers and their emotions were worth writing about—which got me back into the game of approaching agents and editors about my own book.
Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu
It takes an uncommon amount of skill with character to pull off a story about teenagers who pick up the elements of rebellion that their parents were drawn to when they were the same age—that sort of thing runs a real risk of coming off as out of touch or preachy. But Jennifer Mathieu’s fourth book, 2017’s Moxie, puts that skill on full display. The book is about the political awakening of shy, small-town Texan Viv as she starts a zine (called Moxie) at her school to respond to the campus’s low-key tolerance of sexual harassment and the double standards the administration creates for female students. Rather than let the references to 1990s zine and riot grrrl culture make Moxie feel dated, Mathieu makes those things seem urgent instead, like tools from a previous generation that are there for today’s teens to pick up and use in their own struggles.
Dumplin’, Julie Murphy
One of the joys of fiction is its ability to transport us into a world we know nothing about. Julie Murphy’s 2015 second novel, about Willowdean “Dumplin’ ” Dixon, took me inside small-town Texas beauty pageant culture. The novel was a huge hit upon its release, exploring body image through the lens of a teen from fictional Clover City who struggles to accept her plus-sized body when a handsome jock expresses interest in her. The book tackles the subject in a zeitgeist-y way that subs in Dolly Parton references and family drama where another book might have leaned into preachiness. It spoke to—and helped influence—shifting national conversations about fatphobia.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe
Author Ben Philippe grew up in Montreal and moved to Austin to attend UT’s famed Michener Center for Writers. That experience clearly influenced his YA debut, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, in which a Black French Canadian teen makes the same journey—albeit in the middle of his junior year of high school. That teen, Norris, struggles with the sweltering Texas heat, racism both subtle and overt, and the challenges of fitting in as an outsider. He manages his feelings around all of this by documenting his classmates in a journal he dubs the titular field guide, in which he records snarky observations about the other students around him—even as he learns that there’s more to all of them than his snap judgments have allowed.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Benjamin Alire Sáenz—a 2023 recipient of a Texas Medal of Arts Award—has jumped from poetry to literary fiction to children’s books, but his fourth YA novel, 2012’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, is his definitive work. Despite the characters’ classical names, the coming-of-age story is set in 1987 El Paso, and the secrets of the universe Aristotle and Dante discover are secrets about themselves, their sexuality, and their family histories. It’s a tender novel about two Texas teens who are at different points in their journeys toward accepting their attraction to each other, written with a big heart and a nuanced understanding of how ingrained ideas about masculinity and queer identity can intersect.
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