It’s Hard to Teach Voice in Writing. These 4 Novels Help.

Teaching voice to teenagers can be a tricky business. Voice is so personal, so varying, so complex. 

To make the business even trickier, there are many powerful ways to teach the written voice–so many that it’s difficult to teach them all.

All of which explains why this task calls for examples from literature. But where to get started?

These four YA novels offer students beautiful expressions of voice. They also happen to be excellent books, which students may find that they are excited to read once they’ve had a taste of the story and the style.

1. Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

You probably heard about this one unless you’re strongly opposed to YA literature or you’ve been living under a rock. It’s the latest from the author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, who is known for his trademark wit and sincerity. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests in increasingly suffocating thought-spirals from which she cannot break away.  

Green’s wit is back in spades, and the lessons in voice come from his successful descriptions of Aza’s seemingly indescribable feelings: “Felt myself slipping, but even that’s a metaphor. Descending, but that is too. Can’t describe the feeling itself except to say that I’m not me. Forged in the smithy of someone else’s soul. Please just let me out. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this.”

This novel offers a case study in how to express the things that seem to only make sense in one’s own mind. It’s a voice lesson for our students that is worth the price of this book.

2. Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

We’re currently riding a wave of excellent books dealing with race and police brutality (All American Boys, by Reynolds & Kiely, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, among others). Dear Martin separates itself from the others by offering heartfelt, introspective thoughts from its main character, Justyce, who is arrested inappropriately while trying to help a friend, and faces worse interactions with police and the media later in the novel. 

Justyce writes letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to process his feelings, in King’s nonviolent manner: “I know I’m a good dude, Martin. I thought if I made sure to be an upstanding member of society, I’d be exempt from the stuff THOSE black guys deal with, you know? Really hard to swallow that I was wrong.”

With so many teens realizing, like Justyce, that their expectations will not always be met by adults, society, or so-called friends, Justyce’s voice serves as a textbook example of internal dialogue.

american street3. American Street, by Ibi Zoboi

A National Book Award finalist, American Street shares the story of Fabiola Toussaint, an immigrant to Detroit from Haiti. Her voice perfectly expresses the feeling of being pulled between two cultures, two families, while struggling to belong to both worlds. Fabiola says, “My two paths meet at this corner, and it seems like I have to choose one. One street represents a future, the other leads to a different kind of life.” 

Ibi Zoboi, the novel’s author, also beautifully mixes Fabiola’s beliefs with moments of magical realism, allowing for the expression of spiritualism in a very poetic way. As so many of our students may be trying to express aspects of their cultural background in writing, the character of Fabiola provides a lovely yet accessible example.  

4. Rani Patel in Full Effect, by Sonia Patel

A 2016 Morris Award finalist, Rani Patel in Full Effect introduces us to Rani, an Indian-American teen poet and rapper living in Moloka’i, an island in Hawaii. Sonia Patel does a masterful job characterizing Rani, imbuing in her a strong connection to her heritage but also to Hawaiian and ’90s hip-hop culture.

We see this in every phrase that she utters, including one memorable, imagined encounter with the rapper LL Cool J: “If I ever met him, I’d probably give him a chin-up and say, ‘S’up LL.’ Naw. Let’s be real. I’d give him a big bear hug and say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for Mama Said Knock You Out. It’s cheaper than therapy, man.'”  The inclusion of Rani’s poems and lyrics only add to the strength of her voice, which tops my list of the most dynamic voices in YA literature.

These are just a few examples of outstanding YA novels that offer powerful examples of voice. I’d love to know if any readers have additional favorites. Email, tweet or share!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom