Despite a reputation for being angsty, featuring love triangles, and always being set in a make-believe world, much of today’s young adult fiction focuses on the here and now. So before I get to today’s roundup, let me address some common YA myths and highlight the strengths of the genre.
Myth: Young adult audiobooks are just for teens.
Reality: Although YA audiobooks often deal with issues that are of particular concern for high schoolers, adults will find plenty to think about and discuss with their peers and with their children, all while gaining insight into the younger generation and the issues they are dealing with in regard to school, work, friendships, and the future.
Myth: Young adult audiobooks are all fantasy.
Reality: Although some of my favorite listens have been in that genre, the truth is that YA fiction often deals with real-life contemporary issues relating to family, social media, school, sexuality, and dating.
Myth: Young adult audiobooks are always all about upper-middle-class white kids.
Reality: Although you’ll still find plenty of stories set in snooty private schools (a genre I happen to like), modern YA audiobooks are increasingly inclusive, making it easier for teen listeners to find characters who reflect their own lives in terms of socioeconomic class, ethnic background, religious beliefs, and sexual identity.
Today’s Take 5 audiobook recommendations underscore the strengths of contemporary young adult fiction. Pick one up for your kids or yourself, suggest one for your adult book club, or—better yet— play one through speakers and listen with your teenager. You may be surprised by the ensuing conversations.
COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz is about Nevaeh’s struggles with finding an identity after her parents get divorced and she moves to Harlem, which drives home her many double identities. For example, her white affluent father wants her to have a late bat mitzvah, but her black maternal grandfather is a Baptist minister. She lives in a diverse neighborhood but attends a mostly white private high school in the Bronx. Nevaeh’s journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance is performed by Bahni Turpin, whose characterizations highlight the diverse characters and the teenager’s complex emotions.
Although set in the 1980s, BUTTERFLY YELLOW by Thanhhà Lai touches on issues that are very much in the forefront of today’s news. In this immigration story, Hang leaves a refugee camp to track down her younger brother who was taken from Vietnam by well-meaning Americans in the last days of the war. Hang’s story of trying to assimilate to a new country and to reconnect with family while trying to find a way to compartmentalize the violence she witnessed in her homeland is still relevant for today’s immigrant teenagers. Narrator LuLu Lam’s Earphones Award-winning performance includes a range of believable accents and a sensitive delivery.
Author Andrew Norriss addresses the tough twin issues of bullying and depression in FRIENDS FOR LIFE, which follows three teenagers who struggle with unrelenting teasing and loneliness. Francis, a boy who likes to sew; Andi, a girl who likes the martial arts; and Roland, an overweight gamer, find hope through a friendship built on the shared experience of being able to see the ghost of a teen girl. Narrator Alison Larkin keeps the focus on the difficult issues dealt with in this audiobook but isn’t afraid to let the humorous moments shine. The audiobook concludes with a conversation among three teens who talk about the themes featured in this novel.
On the surface, Erin Gough’s AMELIA WESTLAKE WAS NEVER HERE is a fun teen rom-com with LGBTQ+ themes, but the story, set in an Australian private school, has a little more depth than that. Two seniors, Wilhelmina, a budding artist with liberal tendencies, and Harriet, a conservative star athlete and student, join forces under the pseudonym Amelia Westlake, to protest a variety of social injustices at their school, from #MeToo moments to unfair grading practices. Narrators Candice Moll and Jaye Rosenberg sound believable as the teenagers, and their alternating performances are well matched in terms of characterizations and pacing.
THE ARRIVAL OF SOMEDAY by Jen Malone takes a realistic look at disease and mortality. Although teenage roller derby star Lia is well aware she was born with a liver disease that will someday require an organ transplant, she isn’t really prepared for that day to come when she is only 18 years old. This audiobook tackles a variety of issues beyond facing up to medical realities, such as friendship, family, and how best to live one’s life. Narrator Katherine Littrell masterfully delivers Lia’s fluctuating emotional state and her family and friends’ support and concern.
Now it’s your turn: Which contemporary young adult audiobook should I add to my wish list?