Reading with Discernment: YA Literature

One of the high school classes I teach is devoted to helping students become discerning readers. Modern young adult fiction can be a minefield of conflicting worldviews, confusing messages, and the subtle (or not so subtle) push for readers to blindly accept the stories they read with little or no hesitation. We spend a good amount of our class time in discussion about how to read with discernment, and how to see past flashy characters and exciting plots into the heart of what the story is saying.

Below are some key areas to look at before and while reading a new book:

Knowledge of the author: Tolkien picture

Before diving into a new book, it is a good idea to look at who is writing it. Many authors have websites where they post a biography and a list of other works they have written. It is good to note when and where an author grew up, what sort of family life they had, and what their relationship with God or the church looks like. Some authors will not go into that amount of detail, but it is good to find what’s out there in order to get a good idea of what type of book they might write.


Look at how the author treats dialogue. Are many of the characters caustic, or overly sarcastic? Are words used to build up or tear down? How are parents or other authority figures spoken to in the story? How are conflicts handled verbally? Does the author rely on crude humor instead of creative wit? Even if the dialogue flows well, what is actually being said by the characters? What type of worldview is being promoted through the dialogue?


Are the actions of the characters reckless? Do characters act out of a sense of responsibility or selfishness? How do people of different genders, cultures, or societal classes treat one another?  Is recklessness rewarded, or does the author allow the characters to experience consequences?


When reading a book, look at the nature of the characters. Are they self serving? Is disobedience rewarded? Is sacrifice shown as a strength or a weakness? In the end, do the characters grow in a positive way? Is there any shred of redemption in the story?

More on Character:The Mortal Instruments

There is a trend in young adult fiction which has been growing steadily for over a decade: the idea of the traditional hero being replaced with the “anti-hero.” An anti-hero is a character that is portrayed neither as hero or villain, but a strange mix of both. The anti-hero can be a useful character to have in the story, but the problem comes when these anti-heroes are embraced as what a “true hero” is. Unfortunately, many readers find anti-heroes exciting, and many authors are using the anti-hero as an “edgy” alternative to traditional heroism.

How do we counteract this message? We look for stories that do not portray heroes as weak, or boring. A hero is not someone who never struggles with temptation, never has any problems, or never once questions their purpose. Scripture reflects our ultimate hero, our Savior and Lord Jesus. He was not weak, watered down, unexpressive, or disconnected. He was tempted, He experienced sorrow, He gave His life in the most heroic act humanity has ever known. He rose from the grave, conquered death, sin, and bondage. He is our example of true heroism.


It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of young adult literature out there, but an active approach to finding new books can go a long way towards encouraging discernment in teen readers. Taking note of an author’s background, the way the story portrays dialogue, action, and character morality is a fantastic way to stimulate discussion about why a book is or is not a good choice for your family!

*Images taken from, and 

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  1. Eve on January 11, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Thank you so much, I just found your website and am very glad. I have a ten-year-old boy who speed-reads and it is hard to keep up with his voracious reading of fantasy books. I am always barely one step ahead. I will definitely be coming back to this site. And I need to have a talk with him about becoming discerning on his own. Good tips.


    • Janie on January 12, 2016 at 7:34 am

      I’m so glad you found us!

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