Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, I kept a copy of Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” in its classic lavender-tinted paperback edition, tucked away in a closet in my playroom with the vague intention of returning it to the local library, someday. As months went by and I read and reread the novel upward of a half-dozen times, it became clear that I would never give it up. I imagined thousands of dollars of fines accruing and ultimately an arrest followed by some period of detention. Wasn’t the involvement of law enforcement the only proper response to an abject refusal to relinquish something so precious?
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For women who grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s — nurtured in the fictions of Ms. Blume, Paul Zindel and Norma Klein among others, writers for whom an urbane brand of social realism was the only reasonable métier — the arrival of the “Twilight” franchise a decade ago, with its enormous success, signaled a gloomy period of regression for the young-adult novel.
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Now, though, the appetite for paranormal lunacy has abated, and issue-driven fiction set very much in a universe of urbanism’s chief concerns is having a renaissance. This week, “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears on The New York Times’s best-seller list for young-adult books. The story follows the beating of an innocent black child by a white police officer who thinks he has stolen a bag of chips.
In a similar vein, “The Hate U Give,” to be released early next year, chronicles the story of a 16-year-old prep-school girl who witnesses a police officer shoot her unarmed best friend. A movie version of the novel, by Angela Thomas, is already in progress. And right now, prominently displayed at Barnes & Noble in Downtown Brooklyn, is “Bright Lights, Dark Nights,” a novel about racial profiling set against the backdrop of drugs and violence.
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The recent upheavals in the economy stemming from the financial crisis, the rise of racial tensions and the increased animosity toward immigrants that the current election cycle has fed and exposed have arguably made this new catalog inevitable. The world has intruded in the lives of children in so many ugly ways. Even an amused tone does not preclude political currency. Consider the coming book “June the Sparrow and the Million-Dollar Penny,” which is meant for children between 9 and 12. In it, an orphaned girl who lives along Central Park discovers one day while she is sitting in Gray’s Papaya that her fortune has been decimated in a Ponzi scheme. She is then forced to move from an apartment in the Dakota to an actual Dakota (South).
Some of these books take place in unnamed cities so that they can feel universal to their readers. “The American Street,” highly anticipated and arriving this winter, is a novel set in Detroit but is meant to evoke Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the 1980s when it was a desolate and untamed place. The author, Ibi Zoboi, is Haitian and grew up in Bushwick, and she wanted to tell the story of an immigrant girl coming-of-age in a place where she must navigate a community plagued by crime and addiction.