Tuesday, August 12, 2014

YA and Me

YA and I have had a long history of back and forth, love and hate colliding so I never knew just what I thought of the genre. I enjoyed the ever-popular Twilight when I read it, but I despise it now. I was late to the Harry Potter bandwagon and finally caught up all things Potterhead when I was a sophomore. I trolled only through the teen section at the library, but nothing ever truly interested me (so much so that I left a lot of series unfinished). And after all of that, I started reading adult novels when I was, let’s say, 15. I started reading Nora Roberts (hello, porn in books—ha, actually, her sex scenes aren’t that explicit) and I stepped away from the young adult genre. From then on that, but mostly romantic suspense books of Carla Neggers and Heather Graham material, were all I read. I didn’t get back into young adult until my freshman year of college.

I’ve always wondered why, so I’ve come up with two simple reasons. One, I was more mature for my age, felt like an adult stuck in a teenager’s body. And two, I didn’t have a typical high school experience. I was an overweight band geek with glasses and had very little true friends. I spent my free time reading, and at school, I was incredibly shy and rarely ever talked to people. I did my homework, tested well, and dreamt of a future away from the small-minded and infuriating people of Lakeview. I hated it there. I hated the present so much I think I became interested in adult because it was an escape for me. The future, what I could have after this hell was over (okay, it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be—but I truly hated high school). I wanted time to speed up so I could have those futures, the ones where I was happy and in love and had the life I’ve always wanted. Sounds kind of ridiculous, I know. But it was all better than reading books with characters my age living the life I wanted in high school. I didn’t play sports. I never wore a guy’s football jersey or held hands with one in the hallway. I didn’t start driving until I was a senior, and I never went to a party. I didn’t drink or smoke or experiment with drugs. I never gave my parents a reason to ground me, and I never rebelled except when it came to the books I read. I can’t believe my mom let me read Nora Roberts in high school, considering I literally had to force her to let me find out why Harry Potter was so freaking popular. But after a while, she let me make my own decisions when it came to books. Because she trusted me. Because I didn’t rebel. Because I was a good little girl who didn’t give her any reason not to give me that kind of responsibility. Sometimes, I wish I’d rebelled more. Sometimes, I wish I could go back and have a “normal” high school experience. But then I remember how great college is and how I feel like I’m finally finding my niche in the world. And I tell myself that it’s okay to feel nostalgic about the past, so as long as I don’t reminisce about changing it. It’s in the past. Yeah, high school wasn’t all that great for me, filled with ups and downs and a few lows that I don’t want to think about again. But I wouldn’t change how everything happened, because I like who I am right now.

I honestly don’t even know why I got back to reading young adult novels. I was pretty much against them for years. This is going to sound bad, but I was one of those people who thought YA was nothing more than fluff. Inconsequential. I snorted at the girls and boys who thought they’d found the love of their lives within days. I placed higher standards on the characters and never thought about the fact that they’re teens and that they have a lot of growing up to do. They were nothing more than pleasure reads that didn’t have much substance. I’ve since learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Young adult is a genre that’s been discredited, judged, and ridiculed for years. I don’t know if you knew this, but an article was recently published on Slate that opened up age-old arguments and created a freaking movement. Bloggers, readers, authors, and people alike rallied against the person who wrote that article and became a force so strong that not even a hurricane could destroy it. Really, Slate, we should thank you. Because of you, people forged alliances and dominated the social media outlets with their opinions on your not-so-factual article. Lauren DeStefano, author of The Chemical Garden and Internment Chronicles series, created a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. #PromoteaYAInstead. Positive against the negative. Love against the hate.

They failed to understand the repercussions of what would happen when they decided to publish that article. Or maybe they had, and creating such a shaming article was their exact intent. Who knows? People like that woman who wrote the article will always exist, but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them. Young adult novels nowadays might not be of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen variety, but they are more than just teen dramas with “likable” protagonists and satisfactory endings (and I say that in the snobbiest way possible, Slate). …But criticizing the Slate article is not why I wrote this post. It isn’t even the point I wanted to make.

***

This post is about YA and me. I’ve already said above, in my ridiculously long introductory paragraphs, that I used to not think that highly of young adult novels. But over the year and a half since I’ve been reading them again, I’ve come to appreciate just how special they are to me. I *think* it started when I got into the highly popular Hunger Games series. And then I found The Archers of Avalon series by Chelsea Fine through my blog. Once I read that, I started gobbling up YA novels. And because of my blog, I’ve been able to find so many amazing gems, like the AoA series. But I didn’t read other subgenres except fantasy/sci-fi, paranormal, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian. Basically, I read everything but contemporary. That’s because I used to think that YA contemporaries were all fluffy reads with no substance and characters who never had hardships. And I thought: I couldn’t possibly relate to these characters. But Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry changed my opinion on YA contemps. It’s an amazing book about love and strength that deals with the sensitive subjects of foster care and mental illness. Since then, contemporary YA is something that I look for all the time.

But being around the blogosphere introduces me to other opinions that aren’t my own, which is okay and fine and all that. What kills me though is that there are still these stigmas surrounding YA novels. Aside from the one I talked about above (fluff and no substance), there are unfortunately still other negative implications when it comes to YA. Some people, like that Slate woman, think adults should be ashamed of reading them. But I’m more interested in how they (these books) affect teens. I’ve heard people say that teens can’t handle reading books with more challenging subjects and grittier material. And I know that a lot of people have differing opinions on what content is appropriate for this age group. There are no true restrictions when it comes to what authors can write about in YA novels, but there are books that push the boundaries on what could be considered “too much” or are not okay for young teens.

What really sparked this post came from my mom. Yes, her. When she and I were waiting for Aimee Carter at the Michigan Author Event I went to in June, we chatted. She thought it would be a neat present if I bought my cousin Lizzie a personalized copy of one of the books there. I’m her secret Santa for Christmas this year, because yes, we have a huge family and have to pick names. I thought it was such a cool idea. But I’m not a good person to ask when it comes to knowing if a book is appropriate for someone younger than me or not. Blame it on the fact that I read adult novels in high school and that I always felt more mature than my age suggested. Anyway, I thought about buying her Pawn, because she really liked The Hunger Games. But I also thought she might like My Last Kiss by Bethany Neal. It’s a little on the darker side, yes, but it sounded good. I told my mom to read the synopsis and see if it’d be okay for Lizzie. She got three sentences into it before saying: No. It made me think: what did my mom read that made her think my 14 year old cousin shouldn’t read the book?

But my mom might just be a special case. She’s very protective and goes all mama-bear on you. However, for most of my life, that sheltering instinct pissed me off more times than not. A lot of what is acceptable in YA and what isn’t stems from the parents of teen readers. And that’s totally understandable. Because, hello, they’re parents and want to make sure their children aren’t exposed to the harsher realities of life. But the thing is… teenagers will be exposed to the ugly truths of life, no matter how much you don’t want them to.
“That boy on the playground who sits by himself on the swing-set is the target of a bully. He’s scared and hurt, and no one will stand up for him. That girl sitting by herself in the lunchroom is contemplating suicide. She feels all alone and doesn’t think anybody would even notice her absence. That jock who feels on the top of the world is smacked around by his father behind closed doors. The guy he looked up to is not the hero but the villain, and he won’t tell anyone for fear of being called weak. That cheerleader who parties way too much and dresses inappropriately is a victim of rape. She’s never told anybody and she feels like her self-worth is tied to how guys think of her. That boy who always smiles at the world and who cracks jokes all the time lost his brother a few years ago. He suffers the pain in silence because he doesn’t want to burden anyone with a weight that drags him down. That girl who laughs way too loud and who is surrounded by friends is anorexic. She thinks her self-esteem is tied to her body and the way she looks. That popular boy who is never alone is a closeted homosexual. He doesn’t want to be a secret anymore, but he’s scared to say anything. That geek who is constantly teased for her intelligence is a cutter. She wears long sleeves to hide the scars of a hobby that makes her feel in control. That loaner who spends his time outside the school and smoking cigarettes is a foster child who was abandoned. He’s struggling with his own identity. That nerd who gets straight A’s and is on her way to being valedictorian has a drug problem. It was just supposed to be an experiment."

Life is cruel, and life is messy. But ignoring these problems is not the answer, and sheltering your teens from the ugly truths is not the solution.

Books are a safe place to talk about these sensitive subjects, a safe place to explore the darker and deeper side of life. Sure, they’re not real. But they’re a great stepping stone to discussing with teenagers the dangers that suppressing the truth can do. I know parents want to keep their babies young forever, but eventually, they grow up. They’re insanely curious creatures who somehow always find everything out anyway, even if you’ve tried so hard to shelter them from it. They’re intelligent and mature enough to understand what they’re reading. We don’t give them nearly enough credit. They can handle these sensitive subjects.

Don’t tell me that teenagers shouldn’t be reading these books, because THEY SHOULD BE! My parents, for all that I love them, did not prepare me for the world as well as they could have. And honestly, my mom and I didn’t have the greatest relationship, and we didn’t talk about the important things. I never felt that I could go to her with problems because our communication sucked. Sex? Nope, no way. Drinking? Well, I never cared for the sport. Drugs? Wasn’t interested. Suicide, eating disorders, abuse, sexuality, mental illness and everything else that teens are exposed to at their young age? Nothing. The heavy subjects were ignored; the difficulties I faced didn’t send me running to my parents. I kept it all inside. I sheltered myself as well as they did. I hid behind adult books because I wanted to stop being a teenager. I hated it. And guess what? The adult books lied! It’s not as glorious as they make it out to be.

And what about the teenagers who need these books? What about those kids in the scenarios from above who feel like they can’t talk about their problems and feelings? One of the greatest things about books is that they’re relatable. That we can connect with the characters and the situations in them. What if it helps them? I’ve read books that have literally changed my life and my attitude and outlook on it. Reading a book with a similar situation to theirs could be the difference between still thinking they’re alone and knowing that they’re not.

This is why I want to work with teenagers; they are my favorite age group. They used to not be, but I know that’s because I hated being one. But I want to help them face their problems head-on and be in their corner when no one else will. If I could, I’d just give them a book about whatever they’re going through and tell them to read it. Because you know what? Book therapy should be a real thing. That’s what books have been, and probably always will be, for me.

When we censure their books, when we tell teens what they should be reading, we’re not only ignoring the reality of their situations but choosing to tell them that they’re too young to understand. That their problems don’t matter. That they’re not mature enough to handle life. And this way of thinking has to stop! This way of shoving aside the opinions of teenagers needs to end. Yes, they’re young. But they go through so much in a short period of time. And if we constantly censure what they read, we’re basically throwing away great tools to help them survive the most terrifying—and beautiful—of life transitions.

***

Honestly, when I started writing this, I didn’t think it’d be this long. Standing O to you if you read through all of it. :P No, but I guess I just had a lot to say on the subject. It’s one that I feel very strongly about. As you can tell.

Come back tomorrow for a post where I asked authors and bloggers what YA meant to them.  J

2 comments:

  1. Wow, that was a really great post! I agree with you 100%. I don't think there is ever any reason to censor what a teen reads (with the exception of perhaps something horribly graphic just for the sake of being horribly graphic). I want my kids to grow up learning about many different people, lifestyles, cultures, abilities, time periods, fantasies, ethnicities, and whatever else authors can dream up.

    Like you, my parents were not much for communication, especially on the heavier stuff. The "sex talk" went like this: Mom: "Do you know what sex is?" Me: "yeah" (I only kind of did, I was like, 10) Mom "okay." Sooo. Yeah. And also like you, I was a good kid. No partying, no sex, no drugs, no drinking, no staying out late, etc. I did, however, kind of love high school, not because I was super popular (I had my close circle of swim team friends, but that was it), but I just felt like that time period was full of possibilities for me.

    In truth, I think I started reading YA because I long for those days when I felt like I could be anyone or anything I put my mind to. When literally my entire life was in front of me. I had no regrets, and lots of hope. I'm sure as an adult (since I am not exactly geriatric here lol) I still have those opportunities, but adulthood feels very stifling. YA is such an escape that brings me back to a time during which I felt alive, and reminds me of how I'd like to feel again.

    Thank you for being so candid with this post. You've really made me think a lot about why I read YA, and why it is so important in general.

    P.S.- I think your mom is totally off base about the book for your cousin ;) At 14, sadly, she has probably heard a lot worse than anything in a book, and at least the book has a story to tell.

    -Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was so nervous about posting this, and I probably rewrote and reread it maybe a 100 times. So thank you for being so sweet and kind! It's hard for me to be personal on here, even though this is all pretty much anonymous (losing that mindset as I've made some good friends).

      I think if I'd had a better high school experience, I might feel differently about YA. I might not have stopped reading it. But I'm slowly coming to realize that high school is a more important time for most people. It's what college is to me for others. And it's why I'm coming to know with 100% certainty that working with teenagers is what I want to do with my life.

      I think my mom is too! I honestly have read quite a few books (The Truth About Alice being one of them) that I'd give to my younger cousins. They're harsh, but so well-written. They are more honest about life than most people are.

      Thank you so much for commenting! :)

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Comments always make me smile. :) Seriously. Even if you comment on the post weeks or months later, it makes my day! So don't hesitate to leave your thoughts even if it's been a long time since the post was published. I'll try to reply to you, especially if you ask a question, but sometimes life happens. But I do read and appreciate every single one of them because I know how hard it can be to find the time or energy to comment. So a heartfelt THANK YOU for brightening my day when you do. <3