The biggest part of why Young Adult literature is so popular is because it can raise questions without overtly asking them. Much like the parables of The Bible, these stories bring up scenarios where we are to react to them.
Today, I’m sharing 4 books that make readers ponder that biggest of questions: “What does it mean to be human?” These are in order of when I read them.
1. The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson
Mary E. Pearson starts things off with the most subtle example. Jenna Fox, the protagonist, wakes up from a year long coma and doesn’t remember a thing about who she was before. She is encouraged by her parents to learn from a series of home videos, starting with her first birthday and trailing all the way to a few months before the accident. Along the way she also learns about what the government defines as human. Medicine is capable of creating synthetic organs and limbs that operate and function as a regular limb would, but there’s also a point system to set a limit as to how much can be fake, the biggest part being the human brain.
Jenna accidentally cuts her hand to find that she herself has some synthetic parts, a product of that accident from a year ago. What her parents don’t tell her, and she manages to find out herself later on, is she is 90% synthetic, including most of her brain. She is not only not human by the country’s current standard, but also considered not human. We are then privy to some of her deepest thoughts and fears about what exactly she is, and what she isn’t.
2. Juniper Crescent, by Tony Graff
Okay, a small bit of shameless promotion. I love the question of what defines us as human, more than how much I like the question of what makes someone/something a monster. The big difference between Oksanya and Jenna is Oksanya can’t hide the fact she’s got something different about her. Jenna still looks and acts completely human; no stripes, no tails, no spots, ears, or fangs.
I started writing Juniper Crescent to be a response to the string of suicides as a result of bullying, which is nothing more than a feeble attempt to identify something as different. But it evolved into so much more. There were groups of people that I didn’t understand that I needed to understand more fully. I gained a healthy dose of respect for them, even if there were still ideas that I couldn’t agree to.
In the story, Oksanya has muscular dystrophy, and it seems she’s condemned to a short, hospital-filled life. Then an operation appears claiming it can fix it. This operation also has the power to fix genetic disorders and even give humans abilities and senses beyond what they were naturally born with. She herself receives genetic fragments of a cheetah, and meets other who seem to defy nature herself. Some can fly, see in the dark, and run faster than Olympic athletes.
Humanity’s reaction to this is a clear line between it being a miracle, and it being a new way to make monsters.
3. Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
Like The Jenna Fox series, Uglies offers us a view of humanity from a strictly human shaped perspective. In this future
version of the United States, people are born into a caste called Uglies. They look like you and I with all of our asymmetries, blemishes, imperfections, and scars. At the age of sixteen, however, they undergo an operation to make them Pretties. Everything is corrected, perfected, and enhanced. Life becomes a party of endless entertainment, where everything can be fixed almost immediately by a pill or an item that the smart walls can produce.
Tally Youngblood can’t wait to be pretty until she sees that the operation includes lesions on the brain that remove the instinct to question, challenge, and fight. Humans are dumbed down to be Pretty, thus keeping a form of peace. That sort of hijacking is unacceptable, and Tally begins a fight to take back her own humanity.
4. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
Rounding out the list today is the most recently published. Linh Cinder is a cyborg in a world that sees her as property. Neglect the fact that she can disobey her stepmother, think, dream, and laugh like anyone else. No one pays any attention to her and her best friend android Iko until one day when a prince in disguise comes by to get an android repaired and he treats her kindly. Not just the pat on the head given to a toaster for doing a good job, but a genuine act of friendliness that Cinder isn’t used to.
It turns out she’s adopted, and from the colonies on the Moon, and believed to be the lost princess who could overthrow Queen Levana and stop the madness between Luna and the Earthen nations. But first, she has to see it in herself, which includes seeing herself as capable and as human as everyone else.
So, there you have it. Next time you’re stuck in a mental quandary and things just don’t seem right, pick up one of these books and turn it into a full-on philosophical madhouse in your brain. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.