Music and Young Adult Literature

Music undeniably plays an important role in youth culture. A 2007 study of 16 to 22-year-olds found that 27 percent (the largest percentage), listed music and fashion preference as the most important characteristic that defines their identity, over other features like religion, ethnicity, and race. Another study reports that 8 to 18-year-olds spend an average of an hour and 44 minutes listening to music each day, with 15 to 18-year-olds spending almost two and a half hours.

For young adult authors, then, it’s not surprising that many choose to infuse their writing with music. By incorporating music into the literature, authors are at once reflecting the culture about which they are writing and appealing to young people’s interest in the music itself. Popular paperback series like Gossip Girl drop band names alongside designers and celebrities. There are plenty of titles about aspiring young musicians including Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going and Rock Star Superstar by Blake Nelson. And lots of authors provide playlists on their websites that inspired their books or accompany them.

I’m particularly interested, though, in books that feature teens who just love music and do so in an effective, convincing way. There have been a number of books published recently that fit into this category, all of which have also been very well received critically.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky features a lot of popular music, which the main character Charlie comes to love. The song “Asleep” by the Smiths deeply moves him and acts as a character itself in the story. He references other songs and makes mix tapes for his friends. The prominence of music in this book makes sense considering it is published by MTV Books. A list of all the songs mentioned in the book is available on the book’s Wikipedia page.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan offers the most overt musical themes. Both the title characters live and breathe music. Nick plays bass in a band and makes sappy mix tapes for his now ex-girlfriend. Norah follows the music scene in the city, privy to the benefits of having a record executive father. The two meet at Nick’s rock show and bond over their common love of music and the New York music scene. The book’s website has lots of playlists created by the authors and by fans. Get music mentioned in the book from this iTunes iMix.

In Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, Annabel starts the school year friendless and alone in the lunchroom. She shares her lunchtimes with fellow loner, Owen, who spends most of his time lost in his headphones. The two bond and Owen introduces Annabel to the world of music through mix CDs and his radio show. Eventually, Annabel finds a reason for listening: “As long as I had something to listen to, I could blur the things I didn’t want to think about, if not block them out completely.” See the book’s soundtrack on the Penguin USA site (along with some other YA books!).

The main character of King Dork by Frank Portman is also a huge music fan. He generally listens to classic music of the 1960s and ’70s, with strong opinions about certain bands. For example, at a party he reluctantly attends, he comments, “The music on the stereo was all Small Faces and the Who and the Kinks and the Jam. Not too shabby.” He and his best friend also have a makeshift band that they constantly reinvent with new band names and album titles, though never really get far with the actual music making. Get the King Dork Discography compiled by the author.

And more YA books with a strong musical bent:
Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway (see my previous review or get the playlist)

Beige by Cecil Castellucci (Get lots of punk top 10 lists from the author’s blog, beige is punk!).

Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

More books with soundtracks or playlists:
The Twilight series has lots of soundtracks created by Stephenie Meyer on her website.

Top Shelf released an instrumental soundtrack to go with the graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson.

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier is considered to have the first “booktrack,” an album of music inspired by the book.

E. Lockhart compiled an iMix of all the showtunes mentioned in Dramarama.

Libba Bray lists songs that set the mood for A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels.

Gabrielle Zevin creates a playlist in this interview for Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac.

On Readergirlz, the featured authors create playlists for their books. Browse through their archives for lots of playlists!

A playlist for John Green’s Paper Towns.

An iTunes mix by Melissa Marr for Wicked Lovely.

YA book blog Persnickety Snark created Soundtrack Saturdays inviting readers to post about a music connection to a YA book they’re reading.

Music blog LargeHeartedBoy has a regular feature called Book Notes where authors create and discuss a playlist for their books. Sara Zarr participated for Sweethearts.

There are plenty more out there! Most of these books and playlists tend to stay on the pop/rock side of things. Has anyone seen books or author playlists geared toward other genres? I’m thinking especially of hip-hop/rap, but also country, metal, or electronic.

To highlight music in your library, consider making displays with some of these books and albums by artists featured in their soundtracks. Make bookmarks with the playlists and insert them into the book. Have teens submit playlists or songs that go with their favorite books for display or for a contest. Show teens how to create online playlists using iMeem or and post them on your library website. Have a program where teens learn to use digital mixing software like GarageBand or even invite a turntable DJ to show teens how to DJ using actual records. Host a concert for local teen bands or have an open mic night. Screen movies that feature music like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or Juno.

3 thoughts on “Music and Young Adult Literature”

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