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Realistic Fiction

Materials for Youth 8: Realistic Fiction Literature
from Annette Lamb on Vimeo.
To read the transcript of this video, go to the transcript page.

Cassie is considering the pros and cons to having an abortion.
Marco wonders whether joining a gang was really a good idea.
Emily thinks that if she just loses a few more pounds, she’ll be pretty.

You may be uncomfortable with the idea that tweens and teens are dealing with these issues, but they’re real.

Read Corbett, Sue (2014). How Reality Became the Hot New Thing in YA. Publisher's Weekly. Do you agree or disagree with the author about the future of realistic fiction for YA?

Realistic Fiction Defined

Realistic fiction tells a story that could happen in contemporary society. The characters, plot, and setting are all plausible, but come from the imagination of the author. The stories mirror the real world including the good, bad, and ugly. The genre is popular, particularly with females.

Realistic fiction is popular with youth for a number of reasons.

First, it’s accessible. From school to home life, young people are familiar with the situations. The book Liar & Spy (2012) by Rebecca Stead deals with family and friendship in a way that youth can connect with.

Second, it’s helpful. Children and young adults are looking for ways to deal with peer pressure, their parent’s divorce, or bullying. These topics are explored in realistic fiction. In Freakboy (2013) by Kristin Elizabeth Clark, gender-questioning teens deal with their identity. Told in free-verse, readers experience three voices exploring gender non-conformity.

Read Becnel, Kim (Winter 2013). Sticks, stones, and sneering tones: The librarian's role in ending the bullying epidemic. Children & Libraries, 10-15.

Finally, youth connect and empathize with the characters. They see themselves and their friends in the characters. From eating disorders to violence, personal and social issues are commonly found in realistic fiction for youth. According to Lourdes Lopez-Ropero (2012, 145), stories about bullying could be found as far back as Victorian public school stories. She notes that in many of today's works "bullying is not presented as dysfunctional adolescent behavior, but as a tool for addressing issues of difference and discrimination on the grounds of race, class, sexual orientation or personality; issues that filter into adolescent culture."

Topics associated with family, friends, and school are often the subject of materials for youth. However, some authors choose to incorporate other themes such as environmental issues. For instance, Phoenix Rising (1994) by Karen Hesse is about the aftermath of a nuclear accident.

liarfreakboyphoenix rising

Carl Hiassen is known for his middle school mysteries focusing on topics related to ecology such as endangered owls, illegal dumping, and wild animals.

hootAuthor Spotlight: Carl Hiaasen
Visit the author’s website.

Hoot (2002)
Flush (2005)
Scar (2008)
Chomp (2012)

Read Realism by Cathryn M. Mercier in Keywords for Children’s Literature.

Preferences in Realistic Fiction

Keep in mind that children generally prefer to read books about youth who are slightly older than themselves. They’re likely to reject books that are about children who they perceive are younger or less mature than themselves.

doll bonesNot all realistic fiction is the same. While some children will love the spooky elements of Doll Bones (2013) by Holly Black, others may prefer a romance or school story.

Although young people like to read about people who share their interests, background, and concerns, they are also drawn to characters that are quirky and unusual like Amelia Bedelia (1963) by Peggy Parish. They also enjoy mystery, humor, and animals regardless of the characters. Some youth are curious about characters and settings totally outside their experiences. However the work must somehow make a personal connection.

Prior to the 1960s, most books for children avoided controversial subjects. Instead, the books focused on adventure, family, friendship, and the positive side of life. Authors in the 1960s and 1970s, began to stress the harsh realities of life including cancer, death, divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, and non-traditional families. Youth began using literature to help explore the complexities of life in modern society.

John Green is one of a number of young authors who engage readers in uncomfortable topics such as cancer, death, and young love. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green tells the story of two teens with cancer who fall in love.

Green is particularly popular with youth that self-identify as "nerds". Along with his brother, Green hosts a YouTube Channels called VlogBrothers that encourages youth to think of themselves as Nerdfighters. The short videos focus on important social themes of interest to young adults.

faultAuthor Spotlight: John Green
Visit the author’s website.

An Abundance of Katherines (2006)
The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
Looking for Alaska (2005)
Paper Towns (2008)
Will Grayson Will Grayson (2010) with David Levithan

When working with young adults, it's important to know about their world view. Watch a couple webispodes of the VlogBrothers featuring the Green brothers. Their How to be a Nerdfighter video has more than 1.5 million hits!

Read Can You Get Too Old for YA Novels? by John Green in Cosmopolitan. Why do you think adults are attracted to YA novels?

annetteAnnette's Anecdotes
I enjoy listening to audiobooks on long trips. They make the time go fast. It's easy to identify an excellent audiobook because it immediately immerses listeners in the story.

Odyssey Award winner The Fault in Our Stars contains all the elements of an outstanding audiobook. John Green's compelling story and engaging dialogue are brought to life through Kate Rudd's versatile voice. Listen to an excerpt.

I'm amazed at how many people aren't aware that wonderful audiobooks are available through the library. I download mine through the OverDrive service at Pioneer: Utah's Online Library. It's similar to Indiana's INSPIRE.

Literary Techniques in Realistic Fiction

Many interesting literary techniques have been used in presenting realistic fiction.

Epistolary Approach

The epistolary form involves the use of documents such as letters, diaries, emails, or even Tweets to tell the story. Nothing but Truth: A Documentary Novel (1991) by Avi includes letters, memos (below left), diary entries (below center), conversations (below right), exam questions, and more.


The epistolary style is popular across genre, but it works particularly well to immerse readers in realistic fiction. Letters between a teenaged girl and a death row inmate serve as the basis for Ketchup Clouds (2013) by Annabel Pitcher.

Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984) by Beverly Cleary is a Newbery award-winning book told in letters from a boy to his favorite author. Click below center to read one of his letters.



Monster (1999) by Walter Dean Myers tells the story of a murder trial through excerpts from a screenplay and diary. Click the images below center and right to view pages.

monster covermonstercredits

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2001) by Stephen Chbosky, the story is narrated by an introverted teen who writes about his life experiences through letters to an anonymous stranger.

Increasingly, technology elements are being woven into young adults books. P.S. He's Mine! (2001) by Rosie Rushton and Nina Schindler is told through email messages.

TTYL (2004) by Lauren Myracle is part of the Internet Girls series. It tells the story through the instant message format. An updated 10th anniversary edition has been printed. It's interesting to compare how instant messages have changed over the past decade. Notice the reference to Facebook in the new edition. Click below center for the 2004 version and below right for the 2014 version.


For more examples, go to Epistolary Young Adult Novels from Good Reads.

Read Wasserman, Emily (2003). The epistolary in young adult literature. The ALAN Review, 30(3), 48-51.

Multiple Narrative Perspectives Approach

Youth enjoy books that use interesting literary techniques involving perspective. A popular approach is the use of multiple narrators.

A common approach is the use of multiple perspectives to tell a single story. Books like Eleanor and Park (2013) by Rainbow Rowell alternate chapters between the male and female characters. Graffiti Moon (2010) by Cath Crowley is told through the eyes of various characters chapter by chapter.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan are becoming known for their use of this technique in books like Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2007), Naomi & Ely's No Kiss List (2007) and Dash & Lily's Book of Dares (2010). Click below center for Dash's first chapter and below right for Lily's first chapter.

dash lillydashlily

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan tells the story of two boys with the same name. The authors wrote alternating chapters. One Will's chapter is written in standard form and the alternating Will is written in all lower-case letters.

In the case of Wonderstruck (2011) by Brian Selznick, the story is told through two characters living in two different time periods. At the end of the book, the two stories come together.

Sometimes a series of books uses multiple narrative perspectives. For instance, the first book in the Last Survivors series takes place in the suburbans with one family, the second book in the city with another family, and the next book joins the characters.

For more examples, go to Great Teen/YA Alternating POV from Good Reads.

Read Koss, Melanie (Summer 2009). Young adult novels with multiple narrative perspectives: the changing nature of YA literature. The ALAN Review, 36(3).

Categories of Realistic Fiction

holesYoung people tend to enjoy realistic fiction from a particular category. While there are many ways to organize these books, we’ll stick to the topics most commonly requested by youth.

In some cases, stories for younger children may include fantasy elements such as unrealistic activities or anthropomorphic characters, but have been included here based on their themes.

Adventure and Survival Stories

From climbing the highest mountains to surviving tornadoes, most youth enjoy reading about adventure and survival. Holes (1998) by Louis Sachar is an example of a book that combine adventure and survival.

Adventure stories are often nominated for state book awards and honors voted on by youth. Peg Kehret’s works have won more than fifty state young reader awards.

terrorAuthor Spotlight: Peg Kehret
Visit the author website.

The Blizzard Disaster (1998)
Earthquake Terror (1996)
Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)
The Volcano Disaster (1998)

fishAnnette’s Anecdotes
Of all the books I read as a child, My Side of the Mountain (1959) by Jean Craighead George probably had the most direct impact on my life. I always enjoyed the nature, but Sam Gribley convinced me that I could live in the wild. He learned about wilderness from books in the library and survived a winter in the woods. It took 50 years, but I'm now living in the mountains!

Can you think of a book that had a life-long impact on your life?

Wilderness survival is a particularly popular sub-genre. Children of the 1960s and 1970s grew up reading My Side of the Mountain (1959+ series) by Jean Craighead George, while youth of the 1980s and 1990s remember Hatchet (1987+ series) by Gary Paulsen. Hatchet is the first of five books known as Brian’s Saga. Today, many young adults gravitate toward the outdoor books of Will Hobbs that include works set in the American West including Arizona, Colorado, and Alaska. If you're looking for a way to entice reluctant middle and high school readers, Will Hobbs is the place to start with books like Bearstone (1989) and The Maze (1998).


neverAuthor Spotlight: Will Hobbs
Visit the author website.

Bearstone (1989)
Crossing the Wire (2006)
Jason’s Gold (1999)
Kokopelli's Flute (1995)
The Maze (1998)
Never Say Die (2013)
Wild Man Island (2002)

Stories about survival at sea or on desert islands are also popular. Kensuke’s Kingdom (2003) Michael Morpurgo is a sea adventure involving a boy who is swept off the family’s yacht and survival on a deserted island. The Cay (1969) by Theodore Taylor is a classic work of survival at sea. The Wanderer (2000) by Sharon Creech is told through travel logs. Click example pages below center and right.


Gordon Korman is known for his adventure series that involve extreme sports, adventure, survival, and spies. His books tend to be fast-paced, quick reads that are popular with reluctant readers.

everestAuthor Spotlight: Gordon Korman
Visit the author website.

Dive (2002+ trilogy)
Everest (2002+ trilogy)
On the Run (2005+ series)
Island (2000+ trilogy)
Kidnapped (2006+ trilogy)
Titanic (2011+ trilogy)

dolphonsAdventure, Survival, and Intrigue Books You Should Know

Brian’s Saga (1989+ series) by Gary Paulsen
Call it Courage (1940) by Armstrong Sperry
The Cay (1969) by Theodore Taylor
Himalaya (2004) by Jonathan Neale
Holes (1998) by Louis Sachar
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
Julie of the Wolves (1972+) series by Jean Craighead George
Kensuke’s Kingdom (2003) Michael Morpurgo
My Side of the Mountain (1959+ series) by Jean Craighead George
Night of the Howling Dogs (2007) by Graham Salisbury
The Wanderer (2000) by Sharon Creech

Animal Stories

From cats and dogs to turtles and monkeys, animal stories are popular with youth of all ages. The Incredible Journey (1961) by Sheila Burnford and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1938) by Richard and Florence Atwater are classic examples. The Shiloh (1991+ series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor remains a favorite dog series.


Many animal books are written for children. However an increasing number are focused on the young adult audience. Endangered (2012) by Eliot Shrefer follows a teen named Sophie who is visiting her mother who works at a sanctuary for bonobos in Congo. When war breaks out, Sophie escapes into the jungle with an infant bonobo.

Watch author Eliot Shrefer discuss his book Endangered in a short YouTube video.

Many picture books feature dogs including The Pokey Little Puppy (1942) by Erin Gathrid, Harry the Dirty Dog (1956) by Gene Zion, and Clifford the Big Red Dog by (1963+ series) by Norman Bridwell. Series for beginning readers include the Spot books by Eric Hill and the Biscuit books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli that focus on playful puppies.

Dogs are often found as central characters in works of realistic fiction. The relationship of a dog and a child is a classic storyline. Themes often focus on the acquisition of a stray dog. Because of Winn-Dixie (2000) by Kate DiCamillo is a chapter book that tells the story of a young girl who cares for a stray dog. The Stray Dog (2001) by Marc Simont is an award-winning picture book about a stray dog ultimately adopted by a family.

Horses are another creature that draw the interest of children and young adults. Marguerite Henry wrote dozens of books about animals, but she’s most famous for her books about horses including Misty of Chincoteague (1947) and King of the Wind (1948). War Horse (1982) by Michael Morpurgo focuses on an English farm horse who becomes involved in World War I. For younger children, consider the Pony Scouts (2010+ I Can Read series) by Cathy Hapka and Horse Crazy (2009 series) by Alison Lester. Paint the Wind (2007) by Pam Munoz Ryan is another horse story.

where the red fern grownAnimal Stories You Should Know

Beauty (1988) by Bill Wallace
The Black Stallion (1941) by Walter Farley
Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) by Jack London
A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray (2005) by Ann Martin
Dogsong (1985) by Gary Paulsen
Big Red (1945) by Jim Kjelgaard
Lassie, Come Home (1940) by Eric Knight
Old Yeller (1956) and Savage Sam (1962) by Fred Gipson
Shiloh (1991+ series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Stone Fox (1980) by John Reynolds Gardiner
Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) by Wilson Rawls


Many works of realistic fiction incorporate comedy elements. In some cases, these stories are so silly that they bridge the fantasy genre. During the 1940s and 1950s, humorous books for children became popular sellers including Homer Price (1943) by Robert McCloskey and Henry Huggins (1950) by Beverly Cleary.

annie fishAnnette's Anecdotes
Homer Price loved inventions and donuts, so did I. It's amazing how all a child only needs is a small connection to convince him or her to read a book. The illustration of Homer's donut machine on the cover enticed me to check out Homer Price (1943) by Robert McCloskey. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.

Can you think of a book with a cover you couldn't resist?

homer homer price

stallRamona (1955+ series) by Beverly Cleary has been popular for nearly 60 years. These humorous stories center on Ramona Quimby along with her friends and family. More recently, Gordon Korman’s Swindle (2008+ series) series focus on a boy’s fun, neighborhood adventures. The humor of The Fourth Stall (2012+ series) by Chris Rylander, a funny, school-based series, has been described as a cross between Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Godfather.

Young adult authors like Meg Cabot combine romance with comedic elements, while Jerry Spinelli weaves comedy into stories about family and friends. Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius (2004) is another author that weaves witty elements into her a coming-of-age stories. Her Bobby Ellis-Chan (2009+ series) books contain wild, but believable plots.

The key to comedy for young adults is fitting it naturally into the storyline. Angus, Thongs, & Full-frontal Snogging (1999+ series) by Louise Rennison was the first of the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series. Her books use self-deprecating humor and witty observations to seamlessly weave humor into every day life.

Humorous books can be an effective way to address social issues. Openly Straight (2013) by Bill Konigsberg is a witty story about a boy’s experiences dealing with his sexuality.

Gary Paulsen is best known for his wilderness adventures, but he’s also famous for his humor. Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered (1993) focuses on a city boy who spends a summer on the farm with relatives. Click below right to read the first page.


snogHumorous Books You Should Know

Angus, Thongs, & Full-frontal Snogging
(2000+ series) by Louise Rennison
The Aurora County Trilogy (2001+ trilogy) by Deborah Wiles
Dork Diaries (2009+ series) by Rachel Renee Russell
Dorko the Magnificent (2013) by Andrea Beaty
Bobby Ellis-Chan (2009+ series) by Lisa Yee
The Fourth Stall (2012+ series) by Chris Rylander
Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered (1993) by Gary Paulsen
Lawn Boy (2007) by Gary Paulsen
Millicent Min, Girl Genius (2004) by Lisa Yee
Openly Straight (2013) by Bill Konigsberg
Skinnybones (1988) by Barbara Park
Swindle (2008+ series) by Gordon Korman
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972) by Judy Blume
Three Times Lucky (2012+ series) by Sheila Turnage

For more ideas, explore YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list: What’s so Funny?

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Intrigue

picture me gonMysteries are a popular genre of fiction for youth. While some may contain fantasy elements, most of the books fall under the category of realistic fiction. For instance, in Picture Me Gone (2013) by Meg Rosoff, the protagonist is able to sense emotions and read expressions, but these elements are simply part of the realistic mystery rather than a tool of fantasy.

Mysteries often contain secrets, hidden clues, and problems that must be solved. There is normally information that is unknown and must be explained. In works for youth, child detectives and sleuths seek out clues to solve mysteries. To solve a mystery, the young people must use their skills at deductive reasoning.

Youth have enjoyed mysteries designed specific for them since the 1930s with series like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Although many adults find the characters and plots formulaic and one-dimension, young people may be comforted by the standard format and reliable storylines.

annie fishAnnette's Anecdotes
Like many children growing up in the 1960s, I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy mysteries. However, the Secret Seven mystery series by Enid Blyton was my favorite. When I read the Secret Hide-out (1965) (images below) by John Peterson in the late 1960s, I became fixated on creating a secret club like the one described in this book. My cousin and I established The Crazy Cid Club (CCC) and copied the club guidelines directly from the back cover of the book (middle below). We invented our own secret language and names. My name was Screaming Eagle. Our headquarters was in the basement of our grandparent's house. Books really do impact the lives of kids.

Can you think of a book that made you take action?

clubback coverclub

Many readers enjoy an entire series from start to finish such as the Nate the Great books (1972+ series) by the Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.

Introduce youth to mysteries through topics and approach of interest. Boys and baseball fans will enjoy the new Lenny and the Mikes (2014+) series by Josh Berk.

Teens are particularly interested in mixing mysteries with suspense. I Hunt Killers (2012) by Barry Lyga is an engaging thriller about the teenaged son of a serial killer. A thriller can also contain elements of social problem novels like Liar (2009) by Justine Larbalestier.

Spy novels can also fit into this category with series like Alex Rider (2000+ series) by Anthony Horowitz.

the wright threeSome authors focus on a particular theme. In the case of Blue Balliett, some of her mysteries incorporate the theme of artwork including works by Vermeer, Wright, and Calder.

Author Spotlight: Blue Balliett
Visit the author website.

Chasing Vermeer (2004)
The Wright Three (2006)
The Calder Game (2008)
The Danger Box (2010)
Hold Fast (2013)

westingMystery Books You Should Know

39 Clues (2008) by various Authors
Alex Rider
(2000+ series) by Anthony Horowitz
Big Splash (2011+ series) by Jack D. Ferraiolo
Cam Jansen (1980+ series) and Young Cam Jansen (1996+ series) by David A. Adler
Closed for the Season (2010) by Mary Downing Hahn
Doyle and Fossey, Science Detectives (2009+ series) by Michele Torrey
Detective LaRue (2003+ series) by Mark Teague
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (1964+ series) by Donald Sobol
The Egypt Game (1967) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) by E. L. Konigsburg
Gallagher Girls (2006+ series) by Ally Carter
The Great Cake Mystery
(2012) by Alexander McCall Smith
Half-Moon Investigations (2006) by Eoin Colfer
I Hunt Killers (2012) by Barry Lyga
The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) by Brian Selznick
Lenny and the Mikes (2014+) series by Josh Berk
Liar (2009) by Justine Larbalestier
Liar & Spy (2012) by Rebecca Stead
London Eye Mystery (2007) by Siobhan Dowd
Nate the Great books (1972+ series) by the Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Picture Me Gone (2013) by Meg Rosoff
The Postcard (2008) by Tony Abbott
Sammy Keyes (1998+ series) by Wendelin Van Draanen
Shakespeare’s Secret (2005) by Elise Broach
Spy School (2012+ series) by Stuart Gibbs
The Westing Game (1978) by Ellen Raskin


princessMany young adults, particularly females, are obsessed with teen romance novels.

Like other categories, these books range from high to low quality. While some librarians may find it annoying that so many teen girls are only interested in romance novels, remember that it may be possible to help youth expand their interested by connected to related sub-genre.

For instance, many of the popular vampire novels like the Twilight series are in the vampire-romance category. Help connect youth to historical fiction or steampunk through authors that incorporate love interests as a sub-plot.

Meg Cabot is a popular author known for her romantic fiction with books like The Princess Diaries (2000+ series) and All American Girl (2002-2005 series).

Sarah Dessen is a realistic fiction author that often uses romance in her story lines. Along for the Ride (2009) was a best selling coming-of-age story with elements of romance.

rideAuthor Spotlight: Sarah Dessen
Visit the author website.

Along for the Ride (2009)
Just Listen (2006)
This Lullaby (2002)
The Moon and More (2012)
The Truth About Forever (2004)

Romance novels are often linked to the exploration of sexuality.

Read Kurtz, Jason & Schuelke, Nicholle (August 2011). Blume, Burgess, and beyond: Sexuality and the young adult novel. VOYA, 228-230.

Romance novels for young adults are often the subject of censorship. Explicit sexual content and suggestive language are two common reasons. For instance, many of the works by Judy Blume have been censored.

Increasingly, romance novels and other books are dealing with nontraditional relationships including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning. Sometimes these romantic elements are subplots such as the popular graphic novel Drama (2012) by Raina Telgemeier that explores a girl's experience in a school theater production.

In other cases, the relationship aspect plays a central role in the story such as Boy Meets Boy (2003) by David Levithan and the graphic novel a + e 4ever (2011) by Ilike Merey.

In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Saenz two Mexican-American boys who become friends and eventually lovers. Click the image below left to read an excerpt describing one of the boys who is thinking about his feelings about boys.


boyRomance Novels You Should Know

a + e 4ever (2011) by Ilike Merey
Along for the Ride (2009) by Sarah Dessen
Anna and the French Kiss (2010) by Stephanie Perkins
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Boy Meets Boy (2003) by David Levithan
Drama (2012) by Raina Telgemeier
Eleanor & Park (2013) by Rainbow Rowell
Hope Was Here (2000) by Joan Bauer
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2007) by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
The Princess Diaries (2000+ series) by Meg Cabot
The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants (2003+ series) by Ann Brashares
(2000) by Jerry Spinelli
Tara*Starr and Elizabeth (1999-2001 series) by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin
The Truth About Forever (2004) by Sarah Dessen

School, Friends, and Family Stories

School and family stories tend to focus on light topics and often contain humorous elements found in everyday life. For instance, the works by Andrew Clements focus on the everyday lives of young people dealing with school, friends, and home.

The Year of Billy Miller (2013) by Kevin Henkes focuses on the school and family life of a second grader. The book is divided into four chapters: teacher, father, sister, and mother.

While parents play an important role in works for children, parents play less of a role in young adult fiction. Instead, stories focus on the role of friends and other relationships.

Series books like Anastasia Krupnik (1979) by Lois Lowry, Judy Moody (2000) by Megan McDonald,
Junie B. Jones (1992) by Barbara Park, Kids of Polk Street School (1984+ series) by Patricia Reilly Giff, and Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School (2010+ series) by Andrew Clements are common in this category. While some series are of high quality and written by well-known authors, others are based on standard story formulas and may be written by ghost writers hired by a publisher to mass produce books. Regardless of the quality, young people enjoy series books. Youth feel like they get to know the characters and feel comfortable with the situations and outcomes.


keepersAuthor Spotlight: Andrew Clements
Visit the author website.

Above Average (2014)
Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School (2010+ series)
Frindle (1996)
Lunch Money (2005)
No Talking (2007)
The School Story (2002)
Troublemaker (2011)

Although set in a school environment, Wonder (2012) by R. J. Palacio is much more than a traditional book about school, friends, and family. Auggie Pullman was born with a facial deformity and has been home-schooled. The story focuses on his experiences entering fifth grade and is told through the different perspectives of family members and classmates.


Listen to How One Unkind Moment Gave Way To 'Wonder' from NPR.
Think about how a book like Wonder fits into the friends, family, and school category.

An increasingly number of authors are aiming at the reluctant reader. They seek ways to immerse youth in reading. For instance Dan Gutman’s My Weird School (2004+ series) and the Genius Files (2011+ series) books are written in a conversational style that appeal to youth.

geniusAuthor Spotlight: Dan Gutman
Visit the author website.

Funny Boy Series (2013+ series)

The Genius Files (2011+ series)

My Weird School (2004+ series)

roscoeSchool, Friends and Family Stories You Should Know

13 Little Blue Envelopes (2005) by Maureen Johnson
The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids (1991+ series) by Marcia T. Jones and Debbie Dadey
Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls (2008+ series by Meg Cabot
Anastasia Krupnik (1979) by Lois Lowry and Benjamin Pratt
Beacon Street Girls (2004+ series) by Annie Bryant
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972) by Barbara Robinson
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2007+ series) by Jeff Kinney
How to Eat Fried Worms (1973) by Thomas Rockwell
Judy Moody (2000) by Megan McDonald
Junie B. Jones (1992) by Barbara Park
Kids of Polk Street School (1984+ series) by Patricia Reilly Giff
The Penderwicks (2005+ series) by Jeanne Birdsall
Ramona (1955+ series) by Beverly Cleary
Roscoe Riley Rules (2008+ series) by Katherine Applegate
Sassy (2009) by Sharon Draper
Sideways Stories from Wayside School (1978+ series) by Louis Sachar
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (2010+ series) by Tom Angleberger
The Year of Billy Miller (2013) by Kevin Henkes
Wonder (2012) by R. J. Palacio

Read Home by Mavis Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature.

Social Problem Novels

Many books focus on the challenges facing their characters. Hearing and vision loss, mobility issues, illness, and abuse are just a few of the possibilities. These social problem novels often associated with issues related to class, race, or gender prejudices.

Many social novels deal with issues of friends and family incorporating themes related to death, mental illness, divorce, peer pressure, sibling rivalry, and teen pregnancy. The First Part Last (2003) by Angela Johnson deals with teen pregnancy from the boy's perspective. This very short novel is a excellent way to encourage male teens to read social problems novels. Click the page below right to read an excerpt.


In young adult literature, these books are sometimes referred to simply as “problem” novels as youth are confronting these social or personal issues for the first time. This term was coined in the late 1960s to identify works like The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton and The Pigman (1968) by Paul Zindel.

It’s interesting to note that S. E. Hinton was an 18-year old woman when she wrote The Outsiders. Susan Eloise Hinton didn’t use her first name or age because her publisher didn’t think reviewers would take her work seriously (Jensen, 2014).

Read the blog posting A Censored History of Ladies in YA Fiction (May 24, 2014) by Kelly Jensen. Do you agree or disagree with her position and evidence?

In many social novels, youth learn about the consequences of their behavior. In On My Honor (1986) by Marion Dane Bauer, Joel promises not to go beyond the bike path. However, he and his friend Tony decide to go on a forbidden adventure that ends in tragedy. Adventure stories that involve challenging authority and dealing with consequences are popular with reluctant readers and are a good way to introduce youth to social problem novels. Click the page below right to read an except.


Many of these works overlap with the popular young adult “coming-of-age” theme. In these books, readers see the protagonist mature from youth into adulthood. The Alice (1985+) series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor follows Alice McKinley as she grows up and deals with topics from God and sex to friends and family.

In Kinda Like Brothers (2014) by Coe Booth, a middle-school aged boy living in the inner-city deals with a new foster child entering the family.

Laurie Halse Anderson is well-known for her social problem novels. Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of rape and recovery.

Skim Tannert-Smith, Barbara (201). "Like Falling Up into a Storybook": Trauma and Intertextual Repetition in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 35(40), 395-414.

coverAuthor Spotlight: Laurie Halse Anderson
Visit the author website.

Catalyst (2002)
The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014)
Speak (1999)
Twisted (2007)
Wintergirls (2009)

teachingAnnette's Anecdotes
Having begun my library career working with children in elementary school libraries, I was familiar with social problem books for children such as On My Honor (1986) by Marion Dane Bauer. However I wasn't really "up" on what was happening with young adult social problem novels.

It wasn't until I read Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson that I realized the importance of these novels in the lives of teens. During the 1990s, young adult social novels began to truly immerse readers in the very realistic, multi-dimensional world of teens. These books help teens navigate the messy, all-too-common, real-world dilemmas of young adulthood. Laurie Halse Anderson was responsible for turning me into a young adult novel reader.

What author has impacted your thinking about young adult novels?

Remember that some social problem novels can be quite disturbing for some youth. For instance, Wringer (1997) by Jerry Spinelli explores the issue of animal abuse and hunting. Reading about this topic could be traumatic for an animal lover. Click the page below right to read an excerpt.


Seek out books to help youth understand those people with disabilities and challenges in their lives. For instance, Stuck in Neutral (2000) by Terry Trueman focuses on a teenager with severe cerebral palsy and Rules (2006) by Cynthia Lord explores life with an autistic brother.

Over the past decade, social problem novels have shifted from one dimensional, formulaic works to edgier stories that don't always take the "moral high ground". The protagonists have become more complex and the plots more real. Looking for Alaska (2005) by John Green deals with sexually explicit situations, substance abuse, and suicide in a realistic way that appeals to young adults.

War is a common plot in books for young adults. Sometimes the story focuses on the impact of war on a soldier, while in other cases the focus in on the family of soldiers or life in a war-torn country.

Works of realistic fiction often reflect the issues of the times they were written. During the past decade, immigration issues have come to the forefront of social issues discussions.

Read Kieran, Davis (2012). “What Young Men and Women Do When Their Country is Attacked”: Interventionist Discourse and the Rewriting of Violence in Adolescent Literature of the Iraq War. Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 37(1), 4-26.


Read Cummins, Amy (2013). Border Crossings: Undocumented Migration Between Mexico and the United States in Contemporary Young Adult Literature. Children’s Literature in Education, 44, 57–73.

okaySocial Problems Novels You Should Know

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie
The Chocolate War (1974) by Robert Cormier
Crank (2004+ series) by Ellen Hopkins
A Corner of the Universe (2003) by Ann Martin
Crossing the Wire (2006) by Will Hobbs
The First Part Last (2003) by Angela Johnson
The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) by Katherine Paterson
Hope Was Here (2000) by Joan Bauer
Kinda Like Brothers (2014) by Coe Booth
Looking for Alaska (2005) by John Green
Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli
Okay for Now (2011) by Gary D. Schmidt
On My Honor (1986) by Marion Dane Bauer
The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton
Pigman (1968) by Paul Zindel
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky
Rules (2006) by Cynthia Lord
Stuck in Neutral (2000) by Terry Trueman
Summer of the Swans (1970) by Betsy Byars
Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher
Walk Two Moons (1995) by Sharon Creech
Waiting for Normal (2008) by Leslie Connor
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan
Wringer (1997) by Jerry Spinelli

Sports Stories

Like animal stories, sports stories have a very particular audience. While some youth enjoy a focus on the sports elements, others prefer to read about the challenges of teamwork and peer interaction. According to Tunnell (2012, 140),

“Sports stories fall into two groups: game focused and problem focused. Game-focused books are interested in the score and who wins the game. The major question always centers on victory: ‘Will the Panthers win the city championship?’… Problem-focused sports books have a sports setting, but the major dramatic question always goes beyond the final score.”

Matt Christopher was well-known for his sport books for youth. Young people, particularly boys, enjoy his formula books that usually end with the “right team” winning. Although he died over a decade ago, his legacy continues through the work of his sons Duane and Dale who work with ghost writers to publish books under the name Matt Christopher.

perfectAuthor Spotlight: Matt Christopher
Visit the author website.

Catcher with the Class Arm (1964)
The Kid Who Only Hit Homers (1972)
Peach Street Mudders Stories (1954+ series)
Perfect Games (2014)
Soccer Cats Series (2013+ series - abridged editions)
Tough to Tackle (1971)

Tim Green is another author known for his sports book for youth, particularly in the areas of baseball and football. His series like Baseball Great (2009+ series) have become popular children’s chapter books.

Mike Lupica has gained popularity for his books that go beyond the playing field. His problem-focused books incorporate sports but also feature well-developed characters. The Comeback Kids books (2008+ series) include books on soccer, football, basketball, and more. His newest series is titled Game Changers (2012+ series).

legendAuthor Spotlight: Mike Lupica
Visit the author website.

The Big Field (2008)
The Comeback Kids books (2008+ series)
Game Changers (2012+ series)
Million Dollar Throw (2009)
True Legend (2012)

Increasingly, sports books are extending their themes to bullying, drug abuse, and other social issues themes. Boost (2008) by Kathy Mackel focuses on a female basketball player dealing with issues related to a strict exercise and diet regime. The book provides a realistic look at the controversy surrounding steroid use.

Chris Crutcher is known for his social problem books that often incorporate some aspect of athletics. His books are often challenged because they focus on teens coping with issues beyond the sports field. His latest book Period 8 (2013) is a psychological thriller that incorporates ethics and athletics.

Gordon Korman is an author who often incorporates sports themes into his works of realistic fiction. Reluctant readers are drawn to his books like Pop (2009) that explore friendship, but also include football action. His series called Monday Night Football (1997) are always popular, particular with boys.

For youth that enjoy humor and fantasy with their sports, consider Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure Series (1997+). This series incorporates elements of time travel and baseball. His Tales from the Sandlot Series (1997+ series) has paranormal elements. Each books in his Million Dollar series (1997+ series) incorporates a different sport.

roberto sandlotstrike

You don’t usually think of romance and football in the same book, but Dairy Queen (2007) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock has something for everyone. It’s a book that both teen boys and girls will enjoy. Mysteries are also combined with sports books. The Sports Beat books (2006+ series) by John Feinstein is an example.

fenwaySports Books You Should Know

Baseball Card Adventure Series (1997+) by Dan Gutman
Baseball Great (2009+ series) by Tim Green
Boost (2008) by Kathy Mackel
Dairy Queen (2007) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Fenway Fever (2013) by John H. Ritter
Football Genius (2008+ series) by Tim Green
Game (2008) by Walter Dean Myers
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies (2009) by Mick Cochrane
Ironman (2004) by Chris Crutcher
Kickers (2010+ series) by Rich Wallace and Jummy Holder
Million Dollar series (1997+ series)
Monday Night Football (1997) by Gordon Korman
The Moves Make the Man (1984) by Bruce Brooks
Period 8 (2013) by Chris Crutcher
Pop (2009) by Gordon Korman
Shutout (2010) by Brendan Halpin
Sports Beat books (2006+ series) by John Feinstein
Tangerine (2006) by Edward Bloor
Tales from the Sandlot Series (1997+ series) by Dan Gutman
Winning Season (2005+ series) by Rich Wallace

Realistic Fiction Transmedia

Social media are part everyday life for most youth. They send text messages, use Facebook, and share photos in Instagram. It makes sense that many book publishers are weaving social media features into their books.

The Amanda Project is a collaborative, interactive experience based on a book series. Each book is written by a different author. Readers can participate the website and even create characters that may be included in future books.

Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher incorporates tapes made by a friend who has died. Readers can listen to the recordings on YouTube. Additional resources are found at the book website.

39 Clues is an adventure-mystery series with various authors. The books come with trading cards that can be used to unlock information about the series website. The website contains background information, games, and activities.

Read Sekeres, Diane Carver & Watson, Christopher (2011). New Literacies and Multimediacy: The Immersive Universe of The 39 Clues. Children’s Literature in Education, 42, 256–273.

In The Genius Files (2011) by Dan Gutman (preview at Google Books), readers are encouraged to take a cross country RV trip with the characters. The introduction to the book provides a challenge to readers, "To the Reader... All the places mentioned in this book are real. You can visit them. You should visit them!" The first chapter describes a schools and mountain. You can find these on Google Maps. The next chapter says "Coke had been intrigued enough to do a Google search of wingsuit BASE jumping. Go ahead and look it up..." When you look it up, you find video and images of jumpers! As they travel they visit fun places like the "Largest Ball of Twine" in Cawker City, Kansas.

The Nick and Tesla series (2013+ series) by Science Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith are aimed at young scientists and detectives. The books contain mysteries and feature real projects to build. Readers can go to the Nick and Tesla series for additional activity ideas, downloads, and places to submit work.

The N.E.R.D.S. book series (2009+ series) by Michael Buckley is a great way to connect reading with a sense of place. The books make use of GPS coordinates and encourage map making. Click the prologue below right to see the real coordinates.


Many of the popular school and friendship series have websites to accompany their books. A few are listed below:

The Value of Realistic Fiction

Marilyn Irwin (2013) notes that in addition to the fact that realistic fiction is actually read by youth, the genre has several other redeeming values.

“For some, realistic fiction provides a better understanding of themselves. They see themselves in the characters in the book and they know they are not the only one who has a sibling with autism, can’t talk to girls, has been sexually assaulted, and any number of other depictions of life experiences. Through many of the stories, they discover that they are OK with their feelings.

In this multicultural and global world, realistic fiction brings new experiences to children and young adults. Urban youth find out about small town life, and vice versa. Caucasian children learn about growing up as part of a minority group, and vice versa. American youth find out about growing up in Korea, Iran, Mexico, and other places around the globe.

Furthermore, realistic fiction can help children prepare for future experiences. The death of a friend, grandparent, pet, or other acquaintance is so difficult to deal with, and realistic fiction can help young people cope with that. Having bigger or smaller breasts or more or less facial hair than your peers can be overwhelming, and realistic fiction can help young people handle that, too. Life deals you a lot of blows, and these books can guide children and young adults.

Finally, many of the books are just plain fun. Yes, there is humor in realistic fiction, and that lets us all laugh at ourselves, too.”

The Challenge of Realistic Fiction

Many librarians have concerns about realistic fiction, because they represent the most challenged books in the library collection. It’s easy to be a wimp and avoid the controversial topics. However, it’s our responsibility to provide offerings that youth want and need.

Many of us were lucky enough to grow up in a stable, loving family. However many of our young people are facing issues we didn’t encounter. Irwin (2013) states that

“AIDS and secular humanism weren’t part of the vocabulary 25 years ago, yet our children hear about these topics on the news. My community discovered a high incidence of oral sex at the middle school level when local physicians raised a red flag about a rise in sexually transmitted disease in that age group, and rural areas all over the country are reporting increases in teen pregnancy and STDs. And let’s not even begin to talk about small town meth labs. So, much more may be going on than what you want to think is present.

Furthermore, much of what goes on in Orleans, Indiana is different from what happens in New Orleans, Juneau, Alaska, Phoenix, and Tehran, yet our children don’t stay in one community all their lives anymore. Patricia McCormick has a novel for young adults out about human trafficking, the sex slave trade industry in Calcutta. She traveled to India and witnessed first hand teenage girls in the brothels to write this book. A tough and ugly subject to cover? You bet. Is this a topic our young people need to know about? What would you decide?”

In an essay by Patrick Jones (2005), a YA librarian, he talks about going to the library as a middle school student. Here’s what he said about that experience:

“I ventured to ask if the library also carried magazines concerning my number one interest: professional wrestling. But no, the library did not have any wrestling magazines, and for that matter, the tone of the librarian’s response suggested there was something wrong with me for assuming the sacred stacks of this citadel of lifelong learning would be littered with magazines about grown men in their underwear pretending to hurt each other. Thus, I left the library thinking, as the walking nerve that is the middle grade mindset, that there was something wrong with me for liking wrestling, rather than knowing this librarian had failed to purchase a ticket on the clue train. I left vowing never to return to this and any other public library. (p. 75)”

We may not like books that depict sexuality, drug or alcohol abuse, murder, suicide, or any number of other tough topics that are included in books for children and young adults today, but the youth do. They are curious. They want to know. What’s relevant to you may have no relevance for them, and you need to “purchase a ticket on the clue train,” as Patrick says, so they keep coming back to the library.

Censorship of Realistic Fiction

alsakaSocial novels are some of the most commonly challenged books in the library. Some parents feel uncomfortable about their youth reading sexually explicitly content or books containing controversial topics.

Well-reviewed books are particularly vulnerable because they’re more visible. For instance, Printz Award winning book Looking for Alaska (2005) by John Green was challenged because of it’s controversial content. However, in more than one situation it was left in the high school curriculum as well as on the library shelf.

Many of ALA’s 100 Most Commonly Challenged books fall into the social problem category including The Outsiders and The Pigman. Other popular examples include The Chocolate War by (1974) by Robert Cormier, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007).

A number of Judy Blume’s books are on ALA’s list including Are You There God” It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Deenie (1973), Blubber (1974), Forever (1975), and Tiger Eyes (1981).

Even sports novels have been challenged including Whale Talk (2001) by Chris Crutcher.

Evaluation of Realistic Fiction

Donelson and Nilson (2005, p. 121) provide solid points to look for in realistic fiction.

With the plot, they ask that it be “interesting and believable… centering around a problem that a young person might really have,” not be “predictable.”

The characters should be realistic with a “balance of good and negative qualities,” no “cardboardlike exaggerations of people … [that] are too good or too bad to be believed.”

The setting should contribute to the story and be “described so that the reader can get the intended picture.” The theme should be “worthwhile” and leave the reader “with something to think about,” but not “a preachy message.” It should also have “universal appeal so that it speaks to more than a single group of readers.” The style should not have “dialogue that sounds forced or inappropriate to the characters.”

Use caution in selecting formulaic series like the old Nancy Drew books. You can identify these by their interchangeable characters, settings, and problems. These books lack the fresh, multi-dimensional characters that engage youth. These predictable books are like empty calories, they’re fun for a while but they don’t make you feel good. However, many youth find that they tire of these formula love stories or mysteries and begin looking for a balanced diet of quality works.


Donelson, K. L., & Nilson, A. P. (2005). Literature for Today’s Young Adults, 7th ed. Boston: Pearson.

Hogan, Walter (2005) Humor in Young Adult Literature: A Time to Laugh. Scarecrow.

Hogan, Walter (2009). Animals in Young Adult Fiction. Scarecrow

Irwin, Marilyn (2013). Materials for Youth. Lecture notes.

Jones, P. (2005). Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: A personal view of librarianship. In N. Horrocks (ed.), Perspectives, Insights & Priorities: 17 Leaders Speak Freely of Librarianship (pp. 73-79). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Lopez-Ropero, Lourdes (2012), ‘You are a Flaw in the Pattern’: Difference, Autonomy and Bullying in YA Fiction. Children’s Literature in Education, 43, 145–157.

Mercier, Cathyrn (2011). Realism. In, P. Nel & L.Paul, Keywords for Children’s Literature. NYU Press. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=P3mLbIFas50C

Tunnell, Michael O., Jacobs, James S., Young, Terrell A., & Bryan, Gregory (2012). Children’s Literature, Briefly. Fifth Edition. Pearson.

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