As a school librarian, I was thrilled by the students who read voraciously, expressed joy over the books I recommended, attended every book club, and breathlessly shared recommendations for titles they wanted me to purchase.
But I had a soft spot for the ones who were not natural-born readers, the kids who read only under duress. Reading is an incredibly recent human development, neither universal nor “natural.” While mastering literacy skills is important and reading can bring great joy, there isn’t anything inherently morally superior about it—there are so many ways that humans express emotion, share stories, and learn information. Some teens have learning differences that make reading a challenge. Others can read perfectly well in another language but are still grappling with decoding written English.
And yet, all these kids, readers and nonreaders alike, attend school and are evaluated daily in ways that depend to a great degree on reading ability. The bookworms would have been fine even without me—show them books and they’d know what to do. It was the other kids who needed to walk into a space where they would be met without judgment, where their fears would be respected and their needs would be fulfilled.
The greatest challenge was finding books that were simple but not simplistic, of a manageable size but not babyish in appearance, and filled with engaging, high-quality content. There were never enough that fit the bill. So it was with tremendous joy that I noticed the YA titles from Enslow Publishing’s West 44 imprint that started crossing my desk last year. These are reluctant reader books whose trim size does not distinguish them from mainstream titles. They are novels in verse, so there is ample white space to make tracking easier and not too many words to overwhelm someone who is struggling. The quality of the writing is consistently strong, the covers are attractive, and the subject matter is diverse across many dimensions.
Second in Command by Sandi Van is about a boy from a socially conservative background, son of a Cuban immigrant, proud of his active military mother, and an Eagle Scout who wants to join a summer police program. It’s a mirror for many young people who do not often see themselves in YA literature.
In Sanctuary Somewhere by Brenna Dimmig, a Latinx boy who hopes to go to college to study meteorology is shocked to learn that he is undocumented, a secret that places his dreams for his future at risk.
A white girl in Maine who is struggling in school and faces multiple pressures at home becomes addicted to OxyContin in Little Pills by Melody Dodds. It’s a slippery slope as she seeks an escape from the challenges and stresses of her life but falls deeper into addiction.
The value of titles such as these cannot be overstated, and I hope that along with the huge doorstopper tomes YA has become known for we’ll see an increase in the number of titles that speak to all those other kids, the ones we can’t afford to forget.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.