Sunday, June 5, 2011

Balancing Light and Dark

Ever since this unfortunate Wall Street Journal article appeared, Twitter has exploded with countless posts using the #yasaves hash tag describing how young-adult (YA) books have been a lifeline for people. How those suffering from self-injury, eating disorders, bullying, and abuse of all kinds have found they have a voice through these books, which speak for them even if they can't speak for themselves. As I read these posts, I came across this picture, which to me says it all: 

Dear @wsj, #yasaves on Twitpic

The interesting thing is that some look at this picture and think it means that the books are promoting all the crap on the wall. My interpretation is this:

Kids know where they've started; books help them see where they might go.

It's a concept very much like the It Gets Better project, which was started to help gay teens see that high school is about as bad as it gets, and if you just hang on and don't kill yourself, you're probably in for a much better time. The people contributing videos to the It Gets Better project are sharing their own stories of how they were rejected, bullied, misunderstood, teased, and generally made to feel less than human at a time when the most important thing in the world is to fit in. Are those videos teaching bullies new ways to torture their gay classmates? Of course not. The videos act as a lighthouse, giving teens the hope they need to get through a horribly difficult time.

The irony of high school, you see, is that so often we're told by well-meaning adults that it's the best time of your life. That you don't have a care in the world, you just get to play with your friends and go to parties and have a great time, and just wait until you have to start working full-time. For a kid who is struggling with the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in and self-loathing and isn't getting invited to those supposedly wonderful parties, what kind of message is that? Adults think that by trying to paint a rosy picture of the teen's life, they'll somehow make it more rosy, and that by acknowledging that the ages of 13 through 18 are usually the very worst time of a person's life, they're somehow making it more miserable.

But kids aren't stupid. I knew what I was experiencing in high school, and nobody was going to convince me that my suffering wasn't real. Luckily, I was able to listen past the rhetoric and had an inkling of the freedom that being an adult would bring me. And to this day, even when I'm tearing my hair out with stress at my job or slogging through my taxes, I am so grateful that at least I make my own money and don't have to remind my employer every week that they're supposed to pay me. That I have a home with nobody telling me about what is acceptable under "their" roof. That my friends love me even when I'm fat, don't sneer at my clothes, and don't turn their back on me because of the sexual choices I made the night before. That I don't have to ask for permission and money every time I want to buy a pair of jeans, or depend on the whim of an adult to decide whether I get to have a social life that weekend. That as an adult, I get to be part of this democratic society I was forced to learn so much about in high school, when my reality was much more along the lines of totalitarian rule.

Kids know where they come from. They know that the pain they're experiencing is real, and what they need more than anything else is to hear that a) they're not the only one experiencing this, and b) there's hope of a future beyond their current misery, whether that misery consists of not getting into the "in" crowd or being abused by the people who are supposed to be protecting you. This is why there is a whole range of books in YA fiction--to say that they're all violent and perverse is ridiculous.

If you're still unconvinced that teens need to read about the dark side of life, ask yourself this: when is the last time you read a book about a perfect, happy workplace? Or a marriage with no arguments? Did bosses become pointy-haired because they started reading Dilbert? Did spouses start cheating when they read books about the misery that it causes? Of course not. The reason these books are popular is because like it or not, life is full of good and bad, light and dark, and we need to talk about all of it. Ironically, I think a lot of adult fiction is way too obsessed with the dark side--I often say that the best way to have a New York Times best seller is to make sure your plot includes raping children and killing pets. But there's a big difference between gratuitous use of these subjects and exploring the interplay of the dark and light side of life and all the shades of grey in between. We need to talk about our experiences, and we need to read about the similar experiences of others. It's what connects us, and it's what gives us hope.

So instead of bashing young-adult fiction across the board, and bemoaning the fact that Barnes & Noble didn't do a good enough job of picking books for you and your children, do your own research. Read the YA blogs with your kids to find out what sounds appealing and appropriate. (To expand your options, I recommend reading blogs that review self-published books as well as those traditionally published.) And then, here's the revolutionary part: after you've bought the books, read them. Pass them back and forth with your teens, and then discuss the stories. Find out what they thought of it (seek to listen first; don't jump into preaching mode!) and how it made them feel. Was there anything they could relate to? Anything that brought up their own fears and anxieties? You'll be astonished by how much kids will share within this context, because they feel that if the character in the story could talk about it, then maybe they can, too. And then you can share your own experiences from when you were a teen (watch their eyes get wide as they realize you existed before they were born).

But a word of caution: when you tell your stories, be sure to share a balance of the light and the dark. Because just like with good fiction, you need both to be truly authentic.