Books can be a wonderful way for parents to connect with their tweens and teens. Not only is there the shared experience of reading itself and sharing opinions about the books, but adolescents typically find it much easier to talk about characters than themselves.
Regan McMahon, Deputy Editor of Books at Common Sense Media (one of my very favorite parenting resources) shared some great titles that tackle the big issues in today’s world – from immigration to consent to gender equality – and how parents can best use them as tools that foster conversation and provide insight into their teen.
Advice for parents on using books as a tool for connecting with their kids about the big societal issues
“Books give you a way to talk about challenging topics that aren’t easy to bring up or talk about. If you’re talking about characters going through those situations, dilemmas, moral questions, it creates a safer distance. It gives you a chance to express your values around those issues, and to see where your tween or teen kids stands on them. Like if a character gets into trouble from lying, you an ask, ‘Is lying ever OK?'” McMahon says.
She strongly recommends reading books at the same time as your teen or tween.
“Reading books together levels the playing field, making you more like equals rather than the parent always being the one with all the answers,” she explains. “In discussions about what happened to characters, each reader’s reactions are valid. That alone can open kids up to talk, because their viewpoint is respected.”
Parents might be surprised at the topics tackled in YA literature, and it may make it easier to share information with mom and dad.
“If kids have trouble talking about their own feelings, talking about what a character is going through may reveal fears or anxieties on your kid’s mind. So many books for kids and teens deal with loss, grief, bullies, friendships gone bad, disastrous mistakes, death, divorce, you name it. Talking about characters going through these things can help kids process what’s happening in their own lives, and may give you a clue about what’s troubling them,” she said.
One tip McMahon has is to select books where there main characters are around the age of your kid. She says kids “use characters as a way of thinking through what they themselves are capable of, what they might become, what choices they should make in their own lives.” Books also build empathy because they let readers walk around in the characters’ shoes.
When your kid finishes a book and you ask her, “What did you think?”, you’ll probably hear, “It was good” or “It was OK” or “I liked it,” and that’s the end of it. Having specific questions to ask opens up a discussion. Common Sense Media offers reviews as well as conversation starters and questions to ask your kids in their reviews.
McMahon says, “We gear our questions to be not about plot but about the bigger issues the book deals with. We also gear our questions to make the reader more media-savvy. We’re all about building media literacy, so we might ask a question about a book that’s been adapted as a movie and ask which the kids liked better — the book or the film? Or in the case of a graphic novel, “What can a story in this format do that a book with only text can’t?” We also ask questions like, “Is it fantasy violence easier to take than violence in a realistic setting?”
She adds that their questions often focus on character strengths because “understanding characters and their motivations can help build empathy in real life.”
Books recommendations for teens to get them thinking and talking about important issues
Hooper by Geoff Herbach
A recently adopted Polish teen struggles to fit in and finds himself most at home on the basketball court in this book that tackles issues of immigration and race with heart and humor.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle
Sometimes reluctant readers gravitate toward books in verse and also toward nonfiction. This memoir of the Cuban-American author’s childhood told through poetry covers both of those.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
“I loved that book,” my teen said when I asked her about reading this title last year. She said it was interesting to see how this teen romance presented different perspectives surrounding immigration.
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu
Short stories of women who defied the odds and achieved excellence in their professional lives
Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
This novel examines the impact when a girl’s twin brother is accused of rape and cover a lot of big topics, including consent, family dynamics, the effects of trauma, teen dating, and bullying.
He Said, She Said by Kwame Alexander
Quarterback Omar sets his sights on class valedictorian Claudia but this tale of teen romance goes deeper than one would expect and deals with social media, sexual health, the role of sports stars on a national stage, and political invovlement.
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
My teen really enjoyed this book about first-generation Indian-American teens dealing with coming of age issues and establishing their own identities while also honoring their family’s traditions.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown
This nonfiction graphic novel is a great way to help kids really understand the humanitarian crisis behind the headlines about those fleeing their war-torn homeland.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
This novel about an African-American teen in Portland won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and was named a 2018 Newbery Honor Book. It addresses race and gender bias, privilege, and the power of art.