Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why YA must Speak

In my last post, I started to outline my views on the WSJ's Young-Adult-fiction-is-too-dark debacle.

I have a second point about it, but I wanted this one to stand alone.

Recently, I found the book that I needed to read as a teenager. It was Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I didn't share most of the difficult and painful experiences of the protagonist. I was never traumatised, but as a young teenager, I was deeply unhappy at school. Like Melinda, I played silly and childish mental games to cope with it. Like Melinda, I found an outlet in creative art (since I can't draw a stick-man, I wrote. Badly.). Like Melinda, more than anything, I wanted someone to hear me, to see me, to know me. Finding someone who might like me wasn't even as important as finding someone who might understand me.

I wasn't an unusual kid. Looking back, I think a lot of people felt like I did. Natalie Goldberg writes brilliantly - as usual - in her memoir, Long Quiet Highway, about being an invisible kid in high school, of wanting someone to see, and to know.

Guess what, kids? Laurie Halse Anderson saw. And she knew. And she understood.

I found her book twelve years after my life changed and I no longer felt like Melinda. I enjoyed the book, because it was so well-written (and the award for Understatement of the Day goes to Ellen Brickley . . .). It still felt wonderful to know that someone understood - that there was a writer somewhere, thousands of miles from me, who would have smiled at the terrified and troubled kid that I once was and said 'I get it.' Even as a 27 year old woman, finding the empathy I needed half a lifetime ago moved me almost to tears. Happy ones, because there was someone out there who got what kids needed, whose book could give hope to the next wave of scared kids trying to fight their way to adulthood unscathed.

And I didn't have it half as rough as a lot of kids do. I had two parents. I had a house. I had enough to eat and enough money to be comfortable.

If I had found Speak as a teenager (if it had in fact been written then, which it wasn't), it would have made a real difference to my life.

There are YA books that deal with violence, rape, murder, bereavement, self-harm. That's because there are teenagers who deal with violence, rape, murder, bereavement and self-harm. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a poem about the responses she received from readers of Speak and it's worth listening to. Those teens need books to speak to them. They need to know they are not alone, and that someone, somewhere, understands.

Who are the WSJ to decide that the experience of those children is too distasteful to be the stuff of literature? That the privileged among us have the right to remove that empathy from the lives of troubled kids because it is upsetting?

Which is more important - that a child reaching for a razor blade every night finds a book that speaks to her and comforts her, or that her happy and contented classmate not feel a few minutes of discomfort after she rejects a paperback she doesn't wish to read and moves on to the next shelf?

Heinrich Heine wrote "Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings." What he didn't say, but I am sure he knew, was that when we reject books, when we censor books, we are rejecting and censoring human beings. We are designating human experiences as unworthy of our attention.

And I will never be OK with that.

9 comments:

  1. This is so lovely!! Thanks for sharing--hugs!

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  2. Thanks for reading :D this is one of those posts I just *had* to write.

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  3. Amazing and insightful post, Ellen - I totally concur with everything you've said.

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  4. 'There are YA books that deal with violence, rape, murder, bereavement, self-harm. That's because there are teenagers who deal with violence, rape, murder, bereavement and self-harm.'

    That's one of the best things I've read in a long time Ellen, thank you.

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  5. Glad you both enjoyed it. Like half the internet, I felt I had to say something!

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  6. "Which is more important - that a child reaching for a razor blade every night finds a book that speaks to her and comforts her, or that her happy and contented classmate not feel a few minutes of discomfort after she rejects a paperback she doesn't wish to read and moves on to the next shelf?"

    Wonderfully put. I'm also a proud member of Half the Internet; that article made my blood boil enough to actually blog about it! It's good to know that YA readers/ writers/ researchers are such a vocal bunch. :-)

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  7. Very well said, Ellen. I've got to find that book. It's surprising, that we can find ourselves drawn so much to books as adults that would have made an even greater impact on us earlier on in our lives.

    I've only heard about this WSJ controversy coming online, but it sounds like the writer's touched off a storm...

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  8. Rock on, Ellen! People should fight the causes of pain and suffering, not attack books and writers for discussing them. I think my blog post tomorrow will be talking about this as well.

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  9. writing contest.....My blog "Amish stories" is having a "Witness farm tour contest". What i'm looking for is readers to write their own sequel to the movie "Witness". I'm not looking for the entire movie script, just about 300 words or less so it would be a concept for another movie. The winner will win 2 tickets to tour the actual farm where the movie was filmed, plus the winner will tour Lancaster county and will see most of the locations that was used in the movie . The farm where the movie "Witness" was filmed is now owned by an Amish Family, so the family is giving permission for maybe the last time for this tour. The winner will also receive a small gift which will be provided in the tour. 1st prize winners will also receive 2 tickets for Jacob's Choice. There will also be a 2nd prize for 2 tickets for the Amish Homestead. This contest starts today(Monday) with a deadline set for saturday. The contest is sponsored by The Amish Experience in Bird in hand, pennsylvania. Please go to www.Amishstorys.com to enter this contest. Richard from Lebanon county's Amish community.

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