My grad school days are long behind me, but I recently stumbled on this old essay while cleaning out some folders, and I just had to share it! A mini-essay on young adult short story collections written by yours truly 3+ years ago, but still pretty relevant, if I do say so myself. Enjoy!
Short Stories for Young Adults
“Unfortunately, many teen readers tend to overlook collections of short fiction when selecting leisure reading material.” Sarah Jessop’s comment in Quill & Quire effectively sums up the experience of many young people when it comes to short stories. For many teens, short story collections simply do not appear on their pleasure reading radars. The only short stories they are typically exposed to are those included in the collections of literary classics regularly dissected in high school English classes. Short stories can quickly become synonymous with school, grades and teachers, making them unlikely to be seen as the right material for recreational reading.
As Jessop suggests, this lack of interest in short story collections is unfortunate, as there are many excellent collections of short stories for young adults currently on the market, with new titles being added every year. Finding these collections, however, can be a challenge for even the most dedicated young short story reader. When searching for short story collections to feature in this essay, I contacted librarians at several public libraries and asked them to recommend short story collections for teens. Few of the collections recommended by the librarians were likely to ignite a passion for short stories, with several entries including the words “inspiration” and “encouragement” in the titles (including “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul”). These titles were reminiscent of books teens might be given by their well-meaning but definitely uncool parents or teachers – books that might contain valuable advice or insight for teens, but don’t necessarily make for exciting reading. Considering the massive popularity of fantasy, science fiction and dystopian settings in the young adult fiction world, I was surprised to find that these genres were poorly represented in the recommendations.
The three short story collections included here were recommended to me not by a library professional, but by Google, or rather by the various young adult literature aficionados on the internet. A Google search for “cool short story collections for teens” took me to several “Goodreads” lists and young adult literature-themed blogs, including the very helpful (and humorous) website “Reading Rants” (www.readingrants.org). Here I found list after list of short story collections, including more titles than I ever could have imagined existing. There were short story collections about the trials and tribulations of being 13, stories about being a boy, stories about being a Mexican or Chinese immigrant, stories about first kisses, stories about vampires (of course), even a collection of stories about menstruation. I chose the following three short story collections because they appealed to me personally as a geek, and because I felt that they reflected current trends in young adult literature towards fantasy and the supernatural, including the recent rise in popularity of zombies. Each of these collections includes stories that cover a range of topics and present material written in different tones and styles to suit different personalities, interests and moods. Here, in alphabetical order, are three of my favourite young adult short story collections, which I think could just help turn teens into short story aficionados.
Black, H., & Castellucci, C. (2009).Geektastic: stories from the nerd herd. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
From the very first lines of the very first story, I knew that this collection of “geek” themed short stories was something that would have been on the top of my to-read list as a teenager. “Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way” tells the Romeo and Juliet-esque story of two star-crossed lovers who just happen to be a Star Wars fanatic (him), and a Star Trek fanatic (her). Can there truly be a happily ever after for a Jedi and a Klingon? The stories in Geektastic cover the adventures and misadventures of a wide range of geeks, from astronomy lovers to online gamers to Rocky Horror Picture Show devotees. The different authors bring their own unique writing styles and perspectives to the collection, adding variety and making each story a new and exciting experience. This variety highlights one of the real strengths of a short story collection – short stories are perfect reading material for busy teens, allowing them to devour entire storylines in a single brief sitting, in between their many other activities, hobbies and responsibilities. They are also ideal for struggling or reluctant readers, who might find the length of conventional novels intimidating, or have difficulty remaining focused on longer stories. Geektastic encourages teens to embrace the things about them that make them who they are, and to be proud of their “geekiness”, without ever crossing into the dreaded “feel good” category (avoiding the fate of the much less cool Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul). The characters in Geektastic aren’t victims or social outcasts, moping around feeling sorry for themselves. These characters have agency – they’re living their lives in their own ways and being themselves, for better and for worse. For teens, seeing their contemporaries portrayed in a way that is both positive and honest must be refreshing, and appealing. Geektastic doesn’t preach, but it does inspire, while still definitely bringing the laughs.
Link, K., & Tan, S. (2008). Pretty monsters: stories. New York: Viking.
Kelly Link knows fantasy. The winner of three Nebulas, a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award, Link and her husband run their own independent publishing company (Small Beer Press), and co-edit the fantasy side of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. It should come as little surprise then that this collection of fantasy-themed short stories is a consistently excellent read. Fantasy is a hot genre right now, whether it is labelled supernatural, paranormal or magic realism, and Pretty Monsters has enough variety to suit lovers of almost any fantasy sub-genre. Link’s stories run the full gamut of fantasy themes and tones – from creepy to wistful, and from funny to melancholic, featuring aliens, wizards, a mysterious television program, the living dead and even a phone booth in Las Vegas.The stories may be short, but the characters are complex, the plots engaging and the writing crackling. Link is able to write in a variety of different styles, making each story feel fresh and unique, and ensuring that the reader can read the entire collection of stories without feeling fatigued. The stars of the fantasy stories are teens, usually teens who are a little bit different, a little bit weird, a little bit awkward. Link recognizes that this is in fact what most of us were like as teens – not the extremely popular jocks, or the extremely strange social outcasts, but just a bunch of young people who didn’t quite feel like they fit in with the rest of the world. The stories in Pretty Monsters are quick reads, perfect for teens with busy lives looking to fit some entertaining reading into their packed schedules that is easy to read but remains intelligent and respects their intelligence.
Black, H., & Larbalestier, J. (2010).Zombies vs. unicorns. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, both stars in the young adult world in their own right, have brought together an all-star cast of writers to debate the age-old question of what’s more awesome – zombies or unicorns. This is an irreverent collection of short stories ranging from the hilarious to the chilling, all interspersed with good-humoured banter from arch-rivals Black and Larbalestier. If part of the challenge of getting teens interested in short story collections is convincing them that short stories can actually be fun to read, one would be hard-pressed to find a better recommendation than Zombies vs. Unicorns. Some of the brightest stars in young adult literature, including Scott Westerfeld, Garth Nix, and Libba Bray, bring their own unique spin to the stories, with styles ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde. There is little doubt that zombies are extremely popular in pop culture at the moment, on television (“The Walking Dead”), on the big screen (“World War Z”, “Warm Bodies”) and in literature for adults and teens (both films were originally novels for adults and teens respectively). The addition of unicorns to the mix is an unexpected twist that brings a fresh perspective to the zombie genre. The inclusion of a homosexual couple in one zombie story in particular is a refreshing addition that reflects the modern reality of today’s teenagers. There is some “strong language and adult content” in several of the stories that might make this collection more appropriate for adult teens, perhaps 16 and older.
Short story collections for teens can definitely be cool, and should certainly be on the reading radar of every young adult. Short stories are an excellent way for struggling or reluctant readers to get involved in leisure reading, they are perfect for time-strapped teens, and they come in every genre, style, tone and format imaginable to suit the needs and preferences of all different kinds of readers. The challenge for librarians and teachers is raising awareness, and making sure that teens know that these kinds of books are readily available. Thanks to the internet, and the many young adult literature blogs and websites available, it is easier now to discover endless short story collections, but many readers need that first push to even begin a short story search. Librarians should be able to provide that push and ignite the spark of interest, and should immerse themselves in the full spectrum of literature formats and styles. There are all sorts of new and exciting books out there just waiting to be read, and connecting with the right reading material can turn anyone, any teen, into a life-long reader.