Our Reading Lives

YA and Middle Grade Books that Teach Big Lessons

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Aurora Lydia Dominguez

Staff Writer

Aurora Lydia Dominguez is a journalist, high school teacher and college professor based in Hollywood, Florida. A journalist at heart, she worked for places like The Miami Herald and J-14 Magazine as a reporter and editor before going from the newsroom to the classroom. Aurora's passions include reading a book on Saturday mornings with her cat Luna, time with her husband Seb and pop rock shows. You can email her at aurily50@hotmail.com.

As an avid reader, I am always not only devouring books, but also immersing myself in the characters, their personalities and the story’s plot development. If a book does not have a plot where the characters grow, evolve, and learn from their own growth and their relationship with other characters, I’ve noticed it does not capture my attention as much.

No matter the genre, the character growth displayed in many books has lessons that could potentially be learned by the reader. There are books that have stayed in my mind for years, and from these, specific scenes that have really left an impression. Most of these scenes are middle grade and young adult books, a few of which I read when I was a teen and some that I picked up as an adult. It seems to me that middle grade and young adult books are often full of characters and situations that we are meant to learn from, especially when we are younger and still learning who we are and what we want from ourselves and the future.

Let’s begin with a book from the 1980s series Sweet Valley High. As a teen, I would hop on over to the school library at my high school in Puerto Rico and borrow as many books from this series as I could. I also visited a local indie bookstore and became known as the girl that would always request some books. Not only was this my first experience with the kindness and community of an indie bookstore, but I was also exposed to the recommendations of the wonderful bookstore sellers. One of the books that I picked up based on curiosity and a bookseller’s recommendation was On the Edge. The 40th installment in the series is one that I still talk about today. In the novel, we follow Regina Morrow and Bruce Patman. The couple have been dating for months and their relationship seems to be working and they are connected and in love. Despite this, their strong front is threatened to be broken when the devious Amy Sutton pairs up with Bruce for a school project and flirts her way into stealing him away from Regina.

Regina takes the breakup and betrayal extremely hard, so she begins hanging out with Justin Belson, a senior at Sweet Valley High who is bad news and hangs out with a fast and troublesome crowd. Regina finds herself immersed in this world, to the point that her heartache and sadness leads her to dabble with drugs at a party. After trying cocaine, Regina overdoses and dies. Not only was this book impactful to me, to the point that I still recommend it to others to this day, but its mature and shockingly realistic elements woke me up to the realities of what drugs were and are capable of causing. Regina’s passing in the book from an overdose, especially in a YA book that came out in 1987, really stuck with me and taught me to be careful with the friends that I choose and to definitely stay away from dangerous substances.

Another book that I dug into recently was a middle grade by author Nina Moreno called Join the Club, Maggie Diaz. This super sweet novel is accompanied by amazing illustrations by artist Courtney Lovett and tells the story of overachiever Maggie Diaz. In the book, Maggie is frustrated at the fact that it seems that her family and group of friends have everything figured out when it comes to their individual passions and what they wish to pursue and learn at school and beyond. Currently, Maggie finds herself surrounded by besties Zoey and Julian, and finds solace and happiness in the band and comics club. In Maggie’s immediate family is her mother, who is pursuing a college education and about to finish. Then there’s her older sister Caro, who is the picture of perfection, as she currently excels in the sports and tutoring clubs.

In response to seeing this all around her, and feeling like everyone else has found their passion besides her, she decides to literally try everything out. Maggie dives in and gets into every club, from the future leaders to workshop kids and everything in-between. As she begins burning the candle at both ends and starts feeling overwhelmed from trying to fit in with everyone, Maggie realizes she’s in too deep as she starts disappointing her friends and they grow distant. Maggie also starts realizing that all these after-school activities are not what she expected them to be. The book goes on to add a few witchy additions to the story, which is super cute, but what I loved about the story is that everyone — from middle grade–aged kiddos to the YA crowd and even adults like me — can relate to Maggie. Maggie feels like her worth and her friend’s worth and personalities are tied into their ambitions and what they learn in these clubs. The book teaches that in life, our worth should not be tied to what jobs we have, clubs we join, or even our personal interests. There is much to say about a book that teaches such powerful lessons, like how there’s more to life than careers and clubs and even what we become based on our interests. In the end, friendships, family, and time for ourselves is much more important. This is a lovely book that I recommend to everyone because of the great character development and life lessons.

Then there’s the Twilight series and saga. Yeah, I know, this YA series is considered a controversial one and many will agree with me that the whole Bella and Edward relationship is pretty toxic. For me, this fantasy taught me exactly that lesson and also that having fun while reading is necessary, no matter the topic. While the Twilight series is definitely not perfect, it certainly got me out of a reading slump at the time and also taught me that there’s nothing like a fun paranormal novel to get you out of a slump.

Also, the at the height of its popularity, the Twilight series connected readers and created a pop culture phenomenon. But, as I read it, it also taught me a lot about love and relationships and what not to do when it comes to falling in love. For example, while falling in love with someone is a ton of fun and a wonderful thing, to me Bella attached too much of her worth to her relationship with the moody and broody vampire Edward Cullen. There’s a scene that stayed with me in New Moon, where Bella is depressed over an issue with Edward, and the pages are pretty much blank as time passes. Her depression hits her and she feels lost and like she has no will to live on. I wanted to shake her from the outside and tell her: “Bella, you are worth more than your relationship! You have so much to look forward to!” In the end, this taught me that when it comes to heartache and relationships, we need to separate them from our own being and personality. A relationship does not make us or break us and we need to always put ourselves, our livelihood, and mental health first. A relationship and a partner should never define you, no matter how all-encompassing and romantic it might seem. There’s nothing romantic about controlling someone else or putting someone else before yourself. At times, that’s a lesson that is a tough one to learn.

In the end, it’s amazing how literature can grasp us with its unique stories and embedded lessons. For many, reading is an essential way for us to relate to characters and learn from them, especially when it comes to the challenges and realities that they face. I have so many other books and series that have taught me important lessons and have scenes that will forever stay with me, and I am sure there are many more awaiting to be read in the future that will teach us lessons that we will never forget. I will always look forward to reading something new and learning a new lesson through reading. It’s a great thing when books become our personal teachers.

What YA and middle grade books taught you great lessons? What lessons have they taught you? Any other books you recommend I pick up? Tell me on Twitter @AuroraMiami and make sure to also let us know @BookRiot. Reading is definitely a powerful vessel that makes us learn so much!