YA Lit Rebels: With and Without Causes

Hi all! Again, down the rabbit hole of YA Lit. . .

As I was reading through another stack of library books, I noticed that there was another trend that seemed to repeat (and I bet it’s going to come as a HUGE surprise to you teachers/parents/siblings/etc out there): REBELS! And all kinds of rebels, too–rebels that rebel and then feel bad, rebels that rebel and don’t feel bad, rebels that rebel for a cause, and rebels that rebel for, well, what seems to be the fun of it.

So the classic rebel could easily be Katniss in The Hunger Games (and probably some of her cohorts, for that matter). Although reluctant to be the symbol of the revolution between the Capitol and the districts of Panem, who could forget the iconic image when she twirls in that dress on Cesar’s stage, igniting into a fiery mockingjay, sparking the fire that lights the rebellion? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, *please* get thee to the library!)

However, it’s not like Katniss has a copyright on being a rebel. In fact, there are some really unique and intriguing YA books out there that deal with various kinds of rebels, too.

In terms of rebels regretting what they’d done (and indeed rebelling against their own rebellions!), one particularly interesting fantasy series is Cate Tiernan’s Immortal Beloved. Clearly aimed for the older YA set, it follows “Nasty,” one of the immortals who’s lived her life as a ne’er do well–and has not only not done well, she’s done downright vile. As her immortal friends have become increasingly oppressive, obsessive and generally dark magic crazy, she decides she needs to escape. Enter a special retreat for immortals who want to try to resolve their issues, recover who they are as people, and learn to be generally better. The holistic retreat is a shock for Nasty–but as the series progresses, her rebellious nature ultimately leads her towards awareness and improvement, rather than simply acting selfishly and exclusively for her personal benefit. This is a very well-written series, and a very engaging set of rebels!

The Secret to Lying

Following the fantasy rebel theme, though a little more lightly, is Todd Mitchell’s The Secret to Lying. It follows 15-year-old James, an afterthought and general nerd in his previous school, to a new school for the gifted. There, he decides to reinvent himself, to rebel against the stereotype he had been pigeon-holed as, and to spread his wings as a new stereotype (hmmm.): the cool kid. Not a bad idea, but his reliance on creatively retelling the truth leads to not only a humorous/uncomfortable string of events, but also functions as a warning to the reader. This is an interesting page-turner of a story, and speaks to the idea of rebelling gone not quite as well as originally hoped and intended.

Royalty has it’s place rebelling in YA lit, too.

And it rebels with a major cause. Rae Carsons’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns series features a 16-year-old princess-turned-queen protagonist who rebels against neighboring tyrants on behalf of her people. She also rebels (though perhaps inadvertently) against the Disney princess stereotype, as a self-described heavily overweight new queen. Her tendency to rebel both from societal norms and gender norms adds intrigue to a page-turning series.

Oh, but before you conclude that rebellion is a thing of fantasy, brace yourself! It also has a very strong hold in realistic YA fiction.


John Greene’s Looking for Alaska follows Miles Halter as he matures into a rebel against societal norms with his new friends, chases the girl, and tries to learn what’s important in life at his boarding school. Expect cigarettes, swearing, sex, violence and alcohol. (For some reason, elements of Miles remind me of a certain Holden Caulfield).

Finally, Craig Silvey’s tour de force Jasper Jones follows 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, brought to the brink by the heavy weight of a major secret, a complicated family life, a racist town, and a budding romance. Ultimately, he rebels against his family, against societal norms, even against the law. . . and becomes (arguably) a better–but definitely a happier–person for it. This book, seriously, made me laugh until I cried–talk about beautifully written dialogue!

And these, my friends, are just the tippy-top of some of the YA Lit rebellion canon, from what I can tell. Anyone else read some good rebellions lately? What are your thoughts about teaching rebellion in classrooms? How much is ok? How much topples over the edge? And why oh why is rebellion such a popular YA lit topic, anyway?


2 thoughts on “YA Lit Rebels: With and Without Causes

  1. LD: Love all these suggestions, thank you…will follow up on new titles, since I am a little adrift in the huge, raging seas of YA…
    I have a question, though: Is it important to make a distinction between a ‘hero’ and a ‘rebel’? A person of royalty fighting to save their kingdom seems to be maintaining the status quo (“my right to lead my people as designated royalty”), while at the same time rebelling against status quo images of ‘princess’…or ‘female’, even.
    I know being heroic is hardly fashionable these days, but it does seem as if Katniss takes on the huge role of ‘hero’ to save the people she loves, and hence the admiration she inspires. Rebellion in how she presents herself and her clothing is a much smaller arena, and more about personal boundaries, which is what I understand rebellion to really encompass.
    This can get confusing when a people rise up and stage a ‘rebellion’ against the government that is currently in power. Again, though, it is an act against what is in place, whereas heroism is fighting FOR something important, in spite of the odds…
    Just a thought…

  2. Hi there, Lisa, and thanks for your thoughts! I see what you mean about the difficult line between hero and rebel. I suppose the big question mark for me would be less how others see them and more how they see themselves. For example, Katniss does not see herself as a hero. In fact, she reiterates throughout the series how truly she wants nothing to do with the rebellion, and would much prefer to revert back to hunting rabbits illegally and longing (inexplicably–Team Peeta all the way!) for Gale. I think she also sees and hears about all the people dying in the rebellion and hates that she’s tied to it. By the end she semi-embraces her role as representative of the bigger whole, but I think she would not be willing to define herself as a hero. Just as a rebel, albeit one who figureheads the rebellion.

    The same applies to the princess in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa. She’s in a tight spot when she’s kidnapped and forced to survive with the rebels who have taken her, but ultimately she becomes sympathetic to their rebellious plight as she learns more about them, their cause and their shared enemies. What she fights for ultimately isn’t simply a return to the cloistered safety of her old life, but a change and newness that she’s willing to embrace. She fleshes her position as a rebel throughout the series, though, and I can see where a member of royalty defending their country would not be a rebel, but perhaps just an adept ruler.

    Very interesting distinction, though, and one I’d love to hash out in more detail–especially because so much YA lit seems to really circle around the perspective from which we view the characters.

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