(Originally blogged 2011/11/23 and worth revisiting)
It all started, I think, with a snarky article in the Wall Street Journal, bemoaning the bleak and violent content of Young Adult literature. The response was, among other things, a Twitter campaign called “#YA Saves”. Thousands of Tweets, hundreds of blogs, and commenters galore rallied to the support of dark YA books.
I posted last year about why I think kids like dystopian books, and I think this answer extends to why kids are drawn to all types of dark, bleak books. Disenfranchisement, let’s call it. But the #YA Saves campaign takes it further than that. The premise of #YA Saves is literally that READING SAVES LIVES and many comments enumerate books that helped a young person get through a difficult time.
So let’s get this straight – books save my life everyday. If it wasn’t for books I would be drooling in a padded room somewhere, unable to stop the constant cacophony of nonsense in my brain. Books sooth me and relax me, and quite literally, drown out the crowds of people vying for attention in my head. What can I tell you? Growing up, I thought everyone lived like this. Now I know that when someone has a vacant look, they are often just that – vacant, something I can never hope to be. But reading helps. Thus I read almost everyday. I should be able to claim my books back from my health insurance.
When I was a teen, it was the same, and I read widely and often. I loved to read books over and over. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle was one of my favorites, and one which I frequently read in one sitting. I also loved the Narnia series well into my teens along with other middle grade books I had enjoyed when I was younger. I was an advanced reader though. At some point, possibly in grade six, I remember reading Roots.
Three books stand out as books that powerfully affected my life, beyond just keeping me out of the loony bin. The first, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, was Go Ask Alice. I bought this falsity, hook line and sinker. Rereading again as an adult I had to laugh at some of the preposterous plot points and characters. But I do think the book made me think carefully about using drugs. I used them anyway, don’t get me wrong, but at least I stopped and thought about it.
The second is actually a series, by Lucy Maude Montgomery. No, not Anne of Green Gables, Emily of of New Moon (No, not THAT New Moon!). Compared to the bleak and realistic historical fiction being written today, this series is quite tame. But there was one horrifying (at least to me) scene that I will never forget. You see, Emily is a novelist, and when she finishes her first novel, she tries repeatedly to get it published. I can’t remember all the details of why she does this SPOILER ALERT but at one point she is so discouraged and despondent about her writing that she throws her only manuscript into the fire! Then, blinded with tears, she runs down the stairs and steps on a pair of scissors, which causes her to get nearly fatal blood poisoning.
Well you can imagine the effect this had on me as an aspiring writer. I identified so much with Emily in that scene and was captivated by the Gothic romance of nearly dying of blood poisoning, which was really just an analogy for giving up. Sigh, Emily…
Finally, not a YA book, but one I often recommend to advanced readers over sixteen is The World According to Garp. This is a very dark book, and much of it is taken up with Garp’s childhood and teen years. This book changed my life simply because, like Emily, Garp is a writer. I have read Garp so many times that I quote from it, the way some people quote from the Bible. This is one of my favorites:
“If you are careful,’ Garp wrote, ‘if you use good ingredients, and you don’t take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”
― John Irving, The World According to Garp
A strange trilogy, I admit, but I was a strange young woman. In the end is doesn’t really matter what I read as a teen, or what any teen reads. Just that they read something.