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Archives: young adult literature

Essay: The Safest Seat In The House

Essay: The Safest Seat In The House

The following essay was written for an exam for my Literature For Young Adults class this spring. The exam question was about censorship and asked students to discuss three of the books we had read during those six weeks to discuss in the essay. Please keep in mind that this was written in a thirty minute window and I haven’t touched it since (save to type it here). My response, which received an A, expresses how I feel about banned books and young readers.

Books are tiny windows, ways of viewing lives. It doesn’t matter that these may be works of fiction. In fact, in many cases, fictions wield more power. Books offer a way for readers to experience all that the world has to offer and all that the world has to take away. While it may be the instinct of parents to shelter their children from the darkness in our world, it is a mistake to shelter them from darker literature. These windows to the darkness offer children a valuable experience at a safe distance. They are allowed to see and understand without being victimized in reality. Censorship of these works does not remove these negative experiences from our world, but instead it leaves children unprepared to manage them.

To a casual reader, Albert Camus’s The Stranger may seem like a horrible little story about a callous man who kills someone and is executed. Meursault is not a paragon of our western Christian values by any means. He is an atheist who lies to please others and sleeps with a woman he does not love. He certainly is not what most of us would raise our children to be. Yet, we can see ourselves in him. He floats along the path of least resistance. He does not engaged in life and friendship, but instead goes through the motions and exists. It is this kind of living that brings him to the beach with a gun in his pocket and an enemy in his presence. Thus, Meursault becomes an example of how anyone who does not make their own decisions can become a killer. He teaches the reader that we have to care about life. Men who just go along with the actions of others can be just as guilty of evil as those who actively seek it. So many teenagers go through high school agreeing with what’s cool and doing the minimum that is expected of them. How easy it is to lose control of your own life when you don’t care!

Another excellent cautionary tale is Steve Harmon’s story in Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Myers shows a shocking, violent, nightmarish life behind bars. Steve listens as his cell mate is raped in the next bunk; this detail could have been spared, but it is important. Prison is not just a way to earn street cred. It is hell. It is important for Myers’s readers to see this. As with Meursault, we see how easy it is to go along with things, to end up involved in a murder by taking the easy route. Monster tells its readers to think for themselves and, more importantly, to think it through. Steve did not think about how his part in the robbery could lead to murder. Steve’s lack of forethought lead him to a living hell.

Of all of the works we have covered in Literature for Young Adults, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak may be the most important. It is important for the victims to know that speaking out is the only path to healing. It is important for young men to know what rape is and what it does. It is important for communities to understand how this crime shatters lives and how we tend to miss the signs and cries for help. I have actually seen news coverage of a Shelby County mother protesting the use of Speak in schools. She saw it as disturbing, but did not see its value because her daughter had not been raped. In truth, one in five women in America have been sexually assaulted. It is important for us all to understand so that we can fight that startling statistic and help those who are already part of it.

Ignoring our problems won’t make them go away. Fiction gives us the power to discuss real life events through a layer of removal. Fiction provides a safety net to our children so that they can learn about the evils of our world without fear of falling. Taking these works away won’t solve our problems. They did not create the problems; they are a response to our world. They are weapons and armor, tools for teenagers to equip themselves with as they prepare to face the world ahead. Stripping away these tools will only leave them vulnerable.

Why Do So Many Authors Write About High School?

Why Do So Many Authors Write About High School?

I’ve heard a few of my adult friends expressing frustration with the sheer amount of YA fiction out there right now. It’s a growing market– one of the only growing markets– and sometimes we grown-ups get frustrated with having to sift through mountains of high-school-themed work to read about adults behaving like adults. After all, we have to deal with enough adults behaving like teenagers in our daily work environments. Maturity is refreshing.

So why do so many adult authors write stories about high school students? Is it because it’s easy? I don’t think so. Is it because there’s still money there? Perhaps. Here are five solid reasons why authors are so attracted to YA fiction. It’s not as shallow as you might think.

1. It has a ready audience

I remember a conversation with a publisher back in 2008 where she told me that YA was the only growing market. Since then, eBooks have also joined the growing market club, but it is a small club. Young Adults now are more into reading than they were in my generation. I was dumbfounded when I interned in a local middle school and found myself overwhelmed with discussions about The Hunger Games. The students actually thought I was cool for recommending that they read The Graveyard Book. When I was in middle school, Harry Potter was just taking off and I was a nerd for being into it. Now reading may not be cool, but it isn’t uncool, and that’s a HUGE improvement.

The internet has made books more interactive. Teenagers can go online and share fan-art from their favorite novels. Roleplaying communities pop up on forums everywhere, allowing kids to stay immersed in the world they love on an almost 24-hour basis. They make for wonderfully passionate fans and they have enthusiasm to spare. They also have money to spare, which helps. These kids are one of the biggest markets in all general audience industries, because they have allowances and jobs, but no financial responsibilities. If Amelia puts in 20 hours a week at Target and spends $100 on car insurance and $100 on gas, that’s $440 a month in Massachusetts that she can spend on WHATEVER SHE WANTS. If you haven’t guessed, Amelia is me in High School. Why didn’t I save more of that money?

2. High school is a time of heightened drama

Do you remember your first break up? If it was in high school, chances are it felt like the end of the world. You probably didn’t behave too maturely about the whole thing, and you wondered if you would ever find love again. Looking back, most of the things that were such a big deal to us then, feel silly now. Why did I care that all the cool kids had Adidas shell-top sneakers? Why did it matter that an unfortunate-looking boy I had only kissed once, broke up with me and then took my ex-best friend to the 8th grade dance? Why did it matter that the same ex-best friend turned all my friends against me, when there was a much cooler group of people waiting one lunch table away to embrace me and my weirdness? Age, experience, and hormones. That’s it.

That said, while the dwelling in the heightened drama of high school might be a terribly tumultuous way to live, it’s great for writing characters. You don’t have to invent larger-than-life scenarios to make the stakes really high. Not having a date to a party is a minor inconvenience for an adult character. For a teenager, it’s the climax of the whole book!

Now, don’t assume I’m saying that these easy stakes are a cop-out. They’re not. They are fun, and they also serve a purpose. You see, an adult reader looking back might roll their eyes at the dreaded prom-date-plot, but to a teenage reader who still exists in those heightened times, it is enthralling and important. Important? Yes. I’ll explain that more at point 5.

3. It’s a common experience

This is really one of the simplest points to make. They say that you should write what you know. In America you have to be sixteen to legally drop out of school. Almost all American adults, therefore, have been to some high school. Of those students, only about 11% attend private schools. So it’s safe to say that at least 85% of all Americans over the age of fourteen/fifteen have been to a public high school and know what it’s like.

As for the books about private schools (such as John Green’s heartbreaking novel, Looking For Alaska, which was set at a private school based on his own in Pelham, AL), those are familiar enough, but add a sense of mystery (and a lack of parental supervision) to the familiar experience. Public or private, we all know it and we can all relate to it. It’s an easy way to make common ground with your reader.

4. Teenage impulses make great plot

In point 3 I went over the heightened consequences of everything in High School. It’s a more emotionally dramatic time, and therefore it is also less rational. I remember screaming at the TV when I watched the early seasons of Gossip Girl in my dorm. Why did Serena lie and turn so many people against her, when telling the truth would not have any real consequences? She was convinced that she had killed someone, by merely being in the room when a guy overdosed on drugs. I thought that it was the stupidest thing, to run away and hide the truth from the police and create so many more problems when she didn’t do anything except stick around when she probably should have said “you know, I’m going to go now.” The whole plot snowballed into so much unnecessary drama that I actually stopped watching the series.

But looking back, I realize that I wasn’t the intended audience and that Serena could not be expected to behave like and adult, because she wasn’t. She was a kid, and fear that she would get in trouble, not realizing that she wasn’t to blame for the actions of a stranger at a party, made sense as her motivation.

When you are writing adult characters, you have to give them a certain level of mental instability to get them to do the things you need for plot. I often find Jason Livingstone, the sane adult character in Olympia Heights, telling me “No, that’s stupid. I’m not going to do that” as I’m trying to write his story-lines. With the kids, however, all it takes is some lack of experience or knowledge or extreme emotional state and they are there.

Teenage impulses make great plot, because kids are constantly making mistakes and learning from them. They can make all of the juicy mistakes and still turn out emotionally well-adjusted in the end.

5. High school poses the most important question

One of the most important questions in philosophy is “what is the meaning of life?” Another is “what is reality?”  These questions aren’t really answerable, so fiction about them usually turns out as The Matrix.

One question that everyone can answer, however, is “who am I?” Many greats before us have asked this question (Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, and the Buddha, to name a few). The brilliant thing about YA literature, is that all teenagers really have to do is discover who they are.

I know, all they have to do is not so simple. Knowing yourself is perhaps the most difficult thing you can do. Benjamin Franklin said that only three things were hard: steel, diamonds, and knowing yourself. And I know that it’s really much harder when those pesky things like school, college, romance, peer pressure, and drugs get in the way. But really, knowledge of self is the key to all of those problems.

Now, I find that adults who don’t know who they are can make for very compelling writing. That said, depicting teens who don’t know who they are is very important. This point gets to the root of why all of these other reasons aren’t cop-outs for lazy writers. They matter. So many teenagers are searching for their identity and trying to find it in a jar of Manic Panic at Hot Topic or with a flashlight at Hollister. What if they could find it in a book? Wouldn’t that be great?