Adolescence Sucks, Which Is Why YA Rocks

When I was in high school, my father told me, “Be happy, this is the best time of your life.”

Later, when I reminded him that he said this, he laughed, then said, “I was lying. I hated high school.”

Being a kid bites. Adolescence sucks.

The other day, the Wall Street Journal shat in its own mouth in declaring Young Adult fiction too dark and too ugly for kids. One assumes that’s because when we hear the word “kids” we receive with it various associations: lollipops, ponies, pigtails, carousels, squealing giggles as children play in a twilit meadow whose golden wheat sways and where everything is cast behind the gauzy Vaseline smear of youth.

Except, the reality is, the associations that come part and parcel with adolescence aren’t like that. Or, at the very least, it comes with some far grimmer associations standing in stark opposition.

Consider, then, these associations: rape, suicide, drugs, bullying, domestic abuse, homelessness, abortion, failure, self-loathing, cutting, peer pressure, gangs, and so on, and so forth.

Adolescence is fucked up.

Let me say that again, but with more letters and syllables for emphasis.

Adolescence is fuuuuuu-huuuuuuuuh-uuuuuuuuuuucked up.

All that shit hits like a perfect storm. That’s life in the high school, kids. The depredations of the real world have been hanging above your head for years, just out of sight. You reach a certain age, that’s it. The string snaps. The sword comes plunging down. And there’s not much you can damn well do about it.

People say, “Oh, the news on TV is so terrible, with the terrorism and what-not.” Well, yeah, it is, but that’s not the problem. The news is out there. But what goes on with adolescents isn’t out there, but rather, right here. Smack dab in front of them. Complex, troubling issues are suddenly flung in the face of human beings whose brain chemistry isn’t yet fully developed, whose hormones are tossed about in a storm-swept cauldron, whose emotions aren’t yet ripe on the vine.

Here, then, is why Young Adult (YA) fiction is awesome: because it takes all that hard, nasty, awful stuff and it never looks away. It doesn’t flinch. It doesn’t bullshit anybody — and if there’s anybody who can smell bullshit, it’s a teenager. It has the courage and compassion to not treat teens like coddled pinheads and instead gives them fiction that represents them. These aren’t protagonists who are unfamiliar to young readers. These aren’t stories and situations that seem alien. This is shit that’s happening to them, their friends, their acquaintances online — but here, the fiction allows them to see it, hold it, deal with it both at the ground level and from a sky’s eye view. They see protagonists who are able to suffer the slings and arrows of youth — and Sweet Jesus are those some poisonous arrows — and who are then capable of rising beyond and above, persevering and above all else, surviving.

Because that’s what adolescents need to know: that they can survive this time of their life, a time that could easily be noted as the “Dark Ages” of one’s own personal history.

Like I said yesterday on the Twitters, YA is the fiction-born equivalent of the “It Gets Better” phenomenon. It brings meaning and context to the most troubling time of one’s life.

Do we really believe that teens don’t embrace darkness to make sense of darkness? To see the power that comes from mastering it?

When I was a very young child, I had a dream with old classic movie monsters that scared the piss out of me — but eventually, I learned to control the dream and master the monsters and in doing so, stole the power away. The dream then ceased to be scary. Why would we want to rob teens (or pre-teens, or adults, or anybody) the chance to look into darkness to understand and master it? Why does WSJ pretend that the issues and “ugliness” put forth by YA fiction aren’t the same things that teenagers are thinking about, worrying about, talking about, and above all else dealing with day to day? To take that away, to give them sanitized, bleach-washed fiction that fails to speak truth would be a true crime, and would represent a far more serious danger. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with escapist entertainment, I just don’t know that adolescents always want an escape. I think they’d rather find a way to understand.

At least, that’s how I was when I was that age. When I was a teenager I left my “reading level” behind and read scads of horror, thriller, and crime books. Because it felt more real. Now, the “reading level” has caught up with the expectations of the age, which sounds to me like a great thing. A brave thing, even.

It’s why I wish we saw more bravery in terms of Hollywood. Films sanitize where (at present) fiction reveals. One pretends the scab isn’t there; the other rips it off and lets it bleed fresh blood.

Right now, some of the strongest, strangest material being done right now in fiction is being done in the realms of YA. It’s good to get outside that comfort zone, because trust me, teenagers have no comfort zone.

I don’t think they’re afforded that luxury.

So you can suck it, WSJ.

(Be advised, normally I don’t do a Sunday post and instead post on Mondays — let’s just pretend this is Monday’s post that has ended up traveling backward in time and posting on Sunday. Shut up.)

46 comments

  • *joins in the applause*

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve worked on my own YA novel over the past 5 years, and you expressed exactly how I feel about this subject as a reader that was not so long ago in those adolescent dark ages, and how I approach it as a writer. Represent the truth of the world in writing, which is not lollipops, fluffy bunnys or chim-chattering chipmunks just singing along to quote that facetious song from that Lemony Snickett movie. :) Awesome post as usual, Wendig.

  • Damn, Chuck. You hit it.

    You know, I wrote about half a page of agreement and rant, and decided I should just take most of that over to my own blog.

  • Abso-friggin-lutely.

    Not only did WSJ step in it, big time, but the article is blatantly lacking in that one component journalism is supposed to exemplify – truth. I’m not talking about the writer or that particular mom’s opinions of YA lit in general. Those are there’s to hold however they want, but to imply that there are NO YA books in an ENTIRE BARNES & NOBLE BOOK STORE that don’t involve vampires, cutting, or other “dark” elements is ridiculous. There are several, current, series of novels aimed at kids who want something lighter or funnier, or who like to mix-it-up with a variety of titles.

    (I love Ally Carter’s Tweets questioning whether or not she and Meg Cabot have imagined their entire careers.)

    The other thing that article did, besides drawing the collective wrath of people whose entire though process revolves around finding the right words to say to fit any situation, is that it allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of Twitterers to prove that they had greater eloquence and sense of self with 140 characters than that found in a full length article.

    Someone tweeted this earlier – it’s a slideshow of some of the retweets from last night’s #YAsaves, if your’e interested.

    http://storify.com/wsj/yasaves/slideshow/

  • I simultaneously agree and totally disagree. Because as a teenager, I wanted to protect myself (still do today, MUCH later). All I ask is one thing: ratings.

    Some of my friends were sexually assaulted when we were teenagers, so when I read about sexual assault in a book it is like watching what they went through. I can’t deal with that.

    I want to be able to look at a cover and CHOOSE whether to have fun or to walk in the dark for a while. Both paths have value. But I don’t want to get jumped and emotionally beaten up by a book that looked like it was all fun and sunshine.

    Louise Curtis

  • @Louise Curtis

    I definitely understand where you’re coming from. Ratings would be–interesting hehe. I have had my own experience, and just recently lost my best friend as a result of a series of events spawned from the act of some asshole raping her. The subject always hit me hard before, as I’m sure it does with many women, but doubly so now whenever i see something like that on TV or in a book. At the same time I am gladdened whenever I see the truth–the horror of it represented honestly, Definitely not something that should in my opinion ever be sanitized. Last thing this world needs is a public desensitized to that as well. It should be heart and gut-wrenching.

  • With ratings you’d end up with an arbitrary group deciding what qualified as which rating. I CAN absolutely understand a “trigger” warning for books that have content likely to cause flashbacks or panic attacks in people who have experienced violent situations themselves.

    I don’t think there’s a single YA author out there who writes difficult / dark / edgy / whatever else you want to call it with the intention of blindsiding someone who’s already lived through it.

  • @ Louise Curtis:

    I’m going to come right out and say: ratings on YA lit are a BAD idea. Not only will you have an arbitrary group (and really, who is qualified for the job? Parents? Teachers? Librarians? I see no way to accomplish this without bias leaking in) using an arbitrary set of parameters, but it will only serve to increase the stigma against certain books. Big retailers already refuse to carry movies, games, and music based on rating. I know for a fact that Walmart already doesn’t carry certain books on heresay alone. While this is perfectly within their rights as a corporate entity, it ultimately punishes the author in sales and further limits audience access to these books.

    And really, it is the intended audience of these books that matter the most. For survivors these books are more often than not a source of healing – a realization you’re not alone and a way to cope along with the characters. I myself can’t begin express how much Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak helped me process my own sexual assaults and finally come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t my fault.

    Yes, there are some books where the content comes from nowhere. I read a book earlier this year where an attempted rape came out of nowhere (and frankly, did nothing for the plot – and I hate it when authors use this to dredge up sympathy. It never works. Stop doing it.) and was quite triggering. But there was no way for the author to know when she wrote that scene that I’d have a bad reaction. Hell, there was no way for me to know since I don’t always react badly.

    Frankly, there are plenty of resources out there to help the reader (or the parent for that matter) look into the content of a book before they decide to read it. Synopsis on Kirkus and Booklist are a good place to start. Synopsis and reviews on GoodReads (especially the tagged shelves) and Amazon will often give you an even better idea as to a book’s content. Then there are the hundreds of review sites out there dedicated to YA alone – many of which focus on spotlighting “clean reads”.

    It is so easy and takes minimal effort to research a book. There’s really no excuse not to take five minutes and do a Google search.

    So why would we add yet another roadblock to book access to make just a few people comfortable?

  • “When I was a teenager I left my “reading level” behind and read scads of horror, thriller, and crime books. Because it felt more real.”

    That right there sums up my adolescence.

  • Exactly. This is why I spent my teen years reading Stephen King and existentialist fiction (Camus, Dostoevsky, etc.). We didn’t have relevant YA at the time.

    • Thanks, @Benjamin!

      We named our son after you.

      Okay, not really, but his name is Benjamin. So, we can all pretend, is what I’m saying.

      And thanks, all.

      On the subject of warnings/ratings — I dunno, I’m hesitant to get behind that idea. I understand the nature of triggers is a troubling one, but I’m not sure slapping warnings on the covers is the way to go. I’ve always been very happy that books remain the last bastion of uncensored, unlabeled media. Well, besides everything on the Internet, ever.

      — c.

  • I didn’t catch that about the name, though I’ve been enjoying the pictures. Jealous, too. That first few weeks holing up after a baby, that’s my favorite thing in the world. Congratulations.

  • I’m so glad there are some people who take us teenagers seriously. Sometimes I wonder if these oversensitive beings who write anti-YA articles ran face first into a wall a few too many times as a kid.

  • Well said, sir. My voraciously reading YA daughter left a note on my laptop that said: “If you have time, read this ridiculous piece in the Wall Street Journal.”

    Ridiculous, indeed. When rock ‘n roll was new, it was destroying America’s youth. when TV was new, it was destroying American’s youth. When video games were new …. uh, yeah. I’m just happy READING is even available as a method of destruction.

  • Well put. The problem with YA isn’t that it’s ‘too dark’ or any such nonsense. The problem with YA is that it’s written for and respectful of its actual audience, when many adult busybodies would prefer that it be written to their ideas about what ought to be, and what’s appropriate.

    The trouble with rating YA books, I suspect, is that any such rating will inevitably be used by the wrong people to deny access. I realize that probably sounds like scaremongering, but libraries, for instance, already get all sorts of grief from amateur book-burners. Why make that even easier by putting a book on a YA shelf with a Warning: Thar Be Sex label?

  • Nice work, Chuck. I think a lot of young people (and young men in particular) are still on the lookout for books that speak to them directly, hit them where they live, reassure them that things might suck now but will get better. That means they need to be dark, or at least start that way. We are writers – we use our lies to tell the truth.

  • That’s exactly what I did as a youth as well, Chuck, suckle at the teat of horror and sci-fi…which is cool, but, man, did I ever wish there was something “real” written for my age group. Right on!

  • This made me cheer. Considering I was molested, bullied and turned to self-injury when I was growing up, I am among those comforted by seeing that in YA. And I didn’t read YA when I was a kid…I was reading Dean Koontz (rape, drugs, gore and malevolent bouganvilla). I read YA as an adult and it helped me to reconcile some of the shit I went through then.

    The people who think like this WSJ writer have blinders on to what childhood/puberty is like. Especially now. The shit I went through then was bad enough. But at least I had a safe place to go home to. I had peace in my life outside of school. Now? Now there’s goddamn Facebook, cell phones … it’s CONSTANTLY there for these kids. They need an outlet and they need hope. YA books give them those things.

    Thank you, Chuck.

  • For @Louise –I get ya’, covers can be misleading, but kids books kind of are rated–they are broken down into age ranges. (If you look, some of them have it on the back, some of them have it on the inside in the first few pages.) And while I’m not super big on actually post a rating like we do for movies on there, there are many wonderful bloggers and librarians the world over who use their precious time to write reviews that tell you what kind of content is in the book.

    I’m all for diversity in YA–dark, light, humor, mopey emo-ness, what have you, so that readers of all kinds in the teen world can have their choices like we lucky grown ups get to.

    I think people get confused too when they see YA and think it starts at 12. Most YA books, especially the dark ones, are actually rated for 15+ and some publishers now consider YA to be for 15-early twenties.

  • I feel that your post, while excellent, fell short in two key areas. First, I think that teenagers deal with quite a bit of angst and darkness without having to go all the way to the bogeymen of abuse, assault, etc. Those things certainly do exist, but a lot of teens are dealing with darkness that is both more nebulous and more pervasive. The sense of being different. The knowledge that there are some things that parents simply can’t fix. The growing awareness that choices have consequences, and those consequences will eventually lead you to the grave, one way or the other. The feeling that there is a massive world of choices out there, and it is excruciatingly vital that you make the right choices (not necessarily the “correct” choices, but the choices that will allow you to tread that fine line between regretting what you’ve done and regretting what you’ve never done). There is plenty of the darkness of chaos in every teenager’s life, even those of us who never experienced the sharper pains.

    Much more importantly, though, is that you failed to use the uber-awesome G. K. Chesterton quote: “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

    • @Lugh:

      I certainly agree. My point in bringing up those elements of darkness is that those are the elements on the table in the WSJ article for being “too dark.” In my experience, teenagers — even back when I was one — didn’t always directly confront the darkest of the dark, but we always knew it was in our orbit (we knew someone who was raped, bullied, had an abortion, etc). From what I can tell, this is only more true now, which is why fiction can help reflect, dissect, and rebuild that reality.

      — c.

  • When my little brother was 12, he was reading at the dining room table while I was writing and he looked up from his book and said, “Did you know vampire bites cause orgasms?” My first reaction, as an overprotective big sister was to mentally go, “What? He shouldn’t even know what an orgasm is” – thankfully, before I had time to make an idiot of myself by acting all shocked and disgusted, my higher brain kicked in and said, “Um, he’s a 12 year old boy. Of course he should” and I was able to respond in a very matter of fact, “No, I wasn’t aware of that,” kind of way.

    Before that, I actually hadn’t given any thought to YA fiction, because I hadn’t really been interested in reading it since I was 11 (relevant YA fiction didn’t seem to exist when I was a teenager either). But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of this more explicit YA fiction. For one thing, because although kids aren’t likely to be faced by vampires during their lives, sudden physical changes and sensations are a reality at that age, and (perhaps more importantly) because my 12 year old brother, who had at least 3 game systems and his own TV in his bedroom, was *reading* in our defacto family room, and was interested in discussing what he read. So yes, it made me a tad uncomfortable, as an adult, but I think the fear of youth growing up too fast sometimes presents itself, even when there really isn’t a reason for it.

    I could go on at length, but at the risk of teal deering, I think I’d better cut it short.

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