One of the many great things about contemporary YA is that it focuses on real issues that many teens are facing. These can range from romantic troubles and firsts, to the tumultuous social scenes of high school, to the often dramatic and strange ways our relationships to our families change as we get older. But sometimes that familial change is out of our control — sometimes there’s a massive event that affects our family and dramatically alters both our relationships and the way we thought our lives were going to go. I love that even when we’re experiencing these difficult times, we don’t have to cope with them alone. Literature is here to help. Sickness, divorce, sudden death — all of these are devices used to explore the ways our families both disappoint and uplift us, and how our close (or not close) connections to our families affect us as we grow up. In honor of the 5th anniversary of Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson (which is available as a featured free read until May 22nd), one of the best family upheaval narratives out there, I’ve rounded up a list of some of my favorite books that feature a sudden and dramatic change in the family dynamic. Check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments below!
5 Heartwrenching Tales of Family Upheaval
Second Chance Summerby
In Morgan Matson’s second novel Second Chance Summer Taylor Edwards’ mostly normal family is devastated by the news that her father has cancer — and only three or so months to live. Facing the diagnosis head on, her dad decides the family ought to spend the summer at their old beach house. Tight quarters means that this overscheduled and extremely busy family has to finally spend real time together, and get to know one another again. Not to mention the beach house resides in the town where Taylor’s old best friend and first ever boyfriend live.
Second Chance Summer explores the difficultly of connecting and reconnecting with family, as well as friends and first loves.
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The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Thingsby
This book is a touch older (since when is 2003 almost fifteen years ago?) but it was one of my personal favorite books growing up. Ginny Shreves is an overweight sophomore attending a private Manhattan school. Her family is a bit wacky — her mother is an adolescent psychologist constantly trying to analyze Ginny, her father can’t stop commenting on how pretty Ginny would be if she just lost weight, and her older sister Anais joined the Peace Corps to escape their mother’s overbearing attitude. The only normal one seems to be Byron, Ginny’s older brother and her personal hero. That is, until Byron is suspended from Columbia University for committing date rape.
Author Carolyn Mackler tackles a ton of serious and hard to discuss topics in this book — including weight issues, rape culture, and the uncomfortable and often unrealistic expectations of overbearing parents — but she does so with a biting wit and a fantastic observational eye. Trust me — this is a YA classic worth checking out.
Tell Me Something Realby
Calla Devlin’s phenomenal debut novel takes place over a hazy California summer in 1976. The three Babcock sisters — Adrienne, Vanessa, and Marie — are struggling to deal with the realities of their mother’s cancer diagnosis. They regularly take trips from their San Diego home to a controversial treatment center across the border in Mexico, where their mother receives a non-FDA approved medication called Laetrille. While there, they meet Caleb, a teen in remission who Vanessa starts to develop feelings for, and his mother, Barb. After the Babcock girls’ mother invites Caleb and Barb to live in their house, things begin to take a turn for the unexpected.
I won’t give away the book’s midway twist — but it’s a devastating and fascinating look at the ways in which the lives of our parents can consume us.
If you haven’t read Nicola Yoon’s debut novel yet, you’re just in time to sneak it in before the highly-anticipated movie adaptation hits theaters on May 19th. Madeline Whittier suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) which means she can’t leave her house without risking life-threatening infections. She only interacts with her mother, her nurse Carla, and the books she’s allowed to read. But when a new family moves in next door, Madeline — who can watch them through her window — begins to befriend the son, Olly, through instant messages. As their romance develops, her disease continues to make things complicated.
This is another book with a stunning midway twist that ruminates on the ways our parents try to control our lives — sometimes to protect us, and sometimes to protect themselves.
The Last Songby
Seventeen-year-old Ronnie Miller’s parents are divorced — she lives with her mother in New York, and her father lives in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Ronnie spends most of her days trying to ignore her parents and live her own life, right up until her mother suggests that Ronnie and her brother go to Wrightsville Beach for the summer to leave with their father, Steve. While Ronnie hates the idea at first, she starts to warm up to Wrightsville Beach thanks to cute local Will Blakelee. But the summer starts to turn when it turns out Ronnie and her brother have been sent to Wrightsville because her dad has cancer.
In the grand tradition of Nicholas Sparks novels, this is a tearjerker tragedy with a phenomenal central romance.