Generation Z has a lot to deal with at the moment. They’re inheriting a world filled with racism, classism, homophobia, and environmental degradation, where the outlook for employment rights is bleak and they are in danger of being murdered in their own classrooms. Fortunately for all of us who want to create a better world for them, they’re spearheading the next charge. As a group, they are smart and articulate, and they are not taking any of this lying down. They are organizing, mobilizing, making their voices heard. It’s easy to get nihilistic with the state of the world as it is, so this week’s book club is dedicated to some hopeful, diverse, and motivating stories for teens making a difference.
1. All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell ($19): People of diverse sexualities and gender identities have, as far as we know, always existed. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ representation of the past is limited, giving the impression of a modern phenomenon to a historical constant. This collection of YA stories about queer teens through history seeks to remedy that, taking us back in time with works of historical fiction set in the United States and Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. The stories span from late 14th-century England to 1999 Massachusetts.
Authors such as Dahlia Adler, Malinda Lo, Natalie C. Parker, Elliot Wake, and Sara Farizan tackle the compelling short stories. In one, a black teen comes to terms with her asexuality in the 1970s. In another, two young women escape their weddings and find each other (and possibly piracy). The Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood stories are both transformed through a transgender lens. A magical realism tale features a girl who has to take on her late abuela’s healing arts to save her beloved. There are magician’s and painter’s assistants, spirits, witches, and stowaways, but also very real issues and themes. Teens will enjoy and relate, even if they may have to look up who Kurt Cobain was.
The key word here is positive representation. Teens sick of the “bury your gays” trope will be pleasantly surprised and relieved, as most of the stories in this anthology fall on the happy ending side of the spectrum. There are troubles, but also successes and love. That doesn’t mean, though, that all the stories are about romantic love either; self-acceptance and friendship play a huge part in the positivity through the ages. From Anna-Marie McLemore’s “Roja” comes the anthem: “We lived. We survived to whisper our names to each other even if we could not yet confess them to anyone else.”
2. A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena ($18): Unlike the stories that make up the previous anthology, A Girl Like That tells a sadder tale, but it’s a unique story of resistance and love. Bhathena, born in Mumbai and raised in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Toronto, returns to Saudia Arabia to tell the story of 16-year-old Zarin Wadia and her 18-year-old boyfriend Porus Dumasia, found dead in a car wreck. As the religious police swoop in to question why the two were allowed to be alone together, we learn why many parents considered Zarin to be a cautionary tale: Unafraid of embracing romance and risk, she’s a bit too outspoken and daring, a little too intelligent in a society that fears smart women. Plus, she’s dealing with the stigma of being an orphan, begrudgingly raised by her aunt.
Despite the harsh, heartbreaking realities it portrays, Bhathena’s lyrical writing feels buoyant and hopeful. “When I was nine, a high priest at the fire temple next to Cama colony in Mumbai made us write a description of what we thought happened after we died…I wrote of souls the way I imagined them, featherlight and invisible, floating upward through a layer of clouds that looked like flat white cotton, but felt cool, misty, and very wet. By the time the souls would get through the cloud covering, their earthly clothes would be soaked with moisture. Then they would pass through a sunny, heated zone that smelled like toast, and then another cold, wet layer. Hot and cold, cold and hot, until the air thinned and the sky darkened from light blue to navy to black.”
Partially narrated by Zarin and Porus after their deaths, and partially by two other points of view, the book has been hailed for its complex, unusual characters that don’t see a lot of representation in Western lit: For example, Zarin is Zoroastrian, and while she’s captivating, Bhathena doesn’t make her perfect. The book is also getting a lot of attention for the way it deals with racism, religion, domestic abuse, and rape culture in Saudi Arabia and India with searing and unstinting frankness. Jodi Picoult calls it “fascinating and disturbing.” It may well fire up the reader to effect change.
3. Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration edited by Rose Brock ($19): If you need a supercharged dose of hope after the previous novel (and the world’s) tragedy, look no further than this collection of 24 YA writers’ memories of the times that gave them the power to move forward. “This is what I believe,” contributor David Levithan writes: “Despair comes from the things that are bigger than us. Hope comes from the things that are our size.”
Contributors like Julie Murphy, Aisha Saeed, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Marie Lu, and Atia Abawi tell “stories that prove that, sometimes, hope can only be found on the other side of adversity,” with titles like “Nobody Remembers the Names of People Who Build Walls,” “Caution: This Hope is NSFW (But It Shouldn’t Be)” and “Don’t Listen to the A**holes.” Editor Rose Brock, organizer of the North Texas Teen Book Festival, writes: “I’m an optimist. A hoper. And whether it’s in my genetic makeup to see the glass as half full or it’s a product of conditioning, I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere – in books, in movies, and most importantly, in real life.”
So if life has got you or any teens you know down, “feeling disempowered and hopeless,” take courage. “We see you,” says Hope Nation. And here’s something to give you hope: All of the authors have donated their contribution fee to a personally meaningful charity, with publisher Philomel Books matching each donation while inspiring young adults. Everyone else, try to stay positive: Maybe Generation Z really can save the world.
What books give you hope? Tag us in your next motivating read @BritandCo.
Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.