Young Adult Narratives for the Digital Age


by Hal Patnott

More and more we live on the Web, narrating our days in snaps, tweets, IMs, and status updates. It only makes sense then that we can find books on the shelves that reflect our digital lives. Why not? People thousands of miles away from one another connect, form communities around shared passions, and fall in love (or, at least, fall in love with the idea of having someone to love) online.

Novels in texts and emails invite the reader to participate and explore the story. They offer an immediate narrative and pacing as rapid-fire as key strokes. Like in poetry, every word counts. There’s less room for leisurely description. Messages between two characters need to capture voice and carry the plot.

If you’re looking for an energetic, emotional, and suspenseful read to recommend to a teen, try one of these 2016 titles with a nontraditional narrative style. Come check out the advanced reader’s editions at the Butler Center if you want to see them for yourself!

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson (Chronicle, April 2016) 

An entire country separates Gena and Finn. Gena attends a boarding school on the east coast. She looks forward to a future at an Ivy League school. Finn, on the other hand, followed her college boyfriend Charlie out to California, where she struggles to find a job. They have nothing in common except their love for the cop drama Up Below. Through fan fiction and fan art, two young women who might never have met form a bond that starts as shared enthusiasm for a television show and develops into love more complicated than friendship.

Fans of the book Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell will recognize a similar affection for the world of online fandom in Gena/Finn. Like Cath in Fangirl, both Gena and Finn cling to the stability of their fan community when they feel isolated and unsatisfied. Far away from her home with no friends to confide in but Gena, Finn fears taking the next step of commitment in her relationship with Charlie, who knows nothing about her obsession with Up Below. Always private about her past, Gena has her own secrets, a fight with mental illness, and unresponsive parents who left to gallivant around the globe. Told through blog posts, emails, text messages, and journal entries, Gena/Finn invites readers into an intimate and fast-paced story of two fans trying to make sense of the real world.

Girls Like Me by Lola StVil (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2016)

Shay Summers doesn’t “fit into the puzzle of high school” and she doesn’t fit in to her step-mother’s narrow-waist-line expectations (12). In class and in the halls, the head cheerleader Kelly torments Shay at every opportunity, while at home Shay is haunted by the memory of her father who died in a car crash. At least her two best friends Dash and Boots stand by her side on the outskirts of social acceptance. As the anniversary of her father’s death looms over her, Shay seeks a distraction online. She meets a boy called Godot on, a website where everyone at her school shares the latest gossip. Godot falls for Shay’s wit, and he identifies with her feelings of loneliness at home. As their instant message relationship progresses, Godot urges Shay to meet him in real life. However, Shay fears rejection, especially when she learns Godot’s true identity: Blake Harrison, King of the School.  She must decide whether a chance at real-life love is worth the risk of losing Godot.

Girls Like Me alternates between verse and text messages. Short lines and chatspeak convey the urgency and the longing of Shay’s romance with Blake as the story unfolds. Over text message they use fonts to communicate their feelings. A single post carries enough weight to change the status of their relationship. Ultimately, neither Shay nor Blake is satisfied with digital love, but if they want their love to last in the real world, Shay needs to learn to love herself first.

Gemina: The Illuminae Files_02 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House, October 2016)

The second installment in the Illuminae Files picks up on space station Heimdall. Hanna Donnelly, daughter of the space station’s commander, knows nothing about the BeiTech Corporation’s assault on the illegal mining settlement of Kerenza. Consumed with her social engagements and her perfect love life, she has no idea that in less than two weeks BeiTech will launch a new attack to destroy the Heimdall and all evidence of what happened in Kerenza. When a BeiTech invasion force sneaks on board the Heimdall, Hanna is thrust together with unlikely hero Nik Malikov, a member of a dangerous criminal organization, to save their people before BeiTech destroys the station and a time paradox rips apart the universe.

Like the first book in the series, Gemina unravels through transcripts of video feed, radio transmissions, chat logs, reports, and emails. Kaufman and Kristoff raise the stakes—not only life or death hangs in the balance, but the existence of two entire universes depend on Hanna and Nik for survival. The intricately woven plot takes every detail into account. Frequent shifts in perspective build tension as the story twists and turns in unexpected directions with heart-stopping force. Although Gemina follows a new set of leading characters, readers should start with Illuminae to fully understand the context of the story. For fans of science fiction and thrillers, the Illuminae Files is a series worth exploring.

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