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.)