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Shining Light on the Demons of Adolescence

For the past few months I have been working on revising my novel Sliver of Light, at the request of an editor, to be more suitable for a young adult audience. She gave me some excellent tips for how to do this, and I did a little supplemental research by taking a look at some of the popular young adult novels published right now.

What I discovered is very bleak: suicide, eating disorders, fatal diseases, family tragedy, social cruelty. It gave me hope and a little reassurance, not only because Sliver of Light deals with a couple of these subjects but because it told me my own adolescence was not nearly as anomalous as it felt at the time. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Katie Rophie gives an overview of these dark books that are on young adult section shelves right now.

It brings to mind my senior year of high school, when I was a little more circumspect about sadness (I had discovered The Smiths toward the end of my junior year -- it helped), and was also an editor of the school literary journal. Needless to say, a lot of the work published was what people call "dark." My art teacher, Mr. Cory (who was also the teacher adviser for the school's Christian club) asked me, with a little of both bafflement and disapproval, why teenagers had such turns of mind, why they were drawn to the depressing. I answered something along the lines of "Because life is hard."

I think it's important to remember not to view such a statement by a seventeen-year-old who seems to have no real problems as outsized dramatics. When you're a teenager it's true: Life is hard. You're beginning to see how profoundly you can be disappointed or disappoint others yourself; you can be taken aback by cruelty, both that of others and, shockingly, that of yourself; you feel the pressure of the future as you're pressed about colleges, about majors, about extracurriculars; you begin to keep secrets about your thoughts, about what you do; and sex! my god, sex is so confusing. It's all so new, too, so of course it feels overwhelming.

What appeals to you, then, is something that seems to hold a mirror up to your experience. Rophie expresses this well in her article:
It might appear to adults casually perusing Wintergirls and Thirteen Reasons Why that the kids and experiences within their covers are fairly uncommon and overwrought. But it seems that the extreme and unsettling situations chronicled in these books are, for many teenagers, accurate and realistic depictions of their inner lives. Your whole family may not have died in a car wreck, but it sometimes feels like they have. Everyone in the school cafeteria may not be plotting to kill you with bows and arrows, or knives, or mutant killer insects, but it feels like they are. In the theater of adolescence, with all the sturm and drang of separating from parents, with the total stress of just having to be yourself in the hallway at school, perhaps these books feel, at times, like a true and reasonable representation of daily life. It may be that the feverish drama of a 15-year-olds private universe finds its natural form in these tales of destruction and death.

One thing that Rophe doesn't explore is of interest to me: Why are most of these books targeted toward teenage girls? The shelves are full of books with descendants of Esther Greenwood, but where is the Holden Caufield for the 21st century boy? (Like Mason in Cut My Hair by Jamie S. Rich?) There are so many outlets for girls' emotions -- they can run away with fantasy and barely repressed sexuality with Twilight; they can identify with difficulties of body image and depression with Wintergirls and 13 Reasons Why, but where do boys find the same models for what they're feeling? I worry about them -- that their inner lives are unexplored and unexamined, both by themselves and by adults. It seems that young adult fiction has found its market, and the market is shaped by gender roles that I find troubling, that say that girls may be contemplative but boys may not and are not.

But in all, I'm glad that young adult fiction is now embracing rather than expressing bafflement at the teenage mind, not disparaging it, not implying that it should be something different. I remember what I thought when I answered my teacher but did not say: Why are you asking me this as if teenagers are another species that you have no experience with? Haven't you been a teacher for years? Weren't you ever a teenager? Don't you remember what it was like?

A child could have been born and grown into a teenager in the time since I graduated high school, but I like to think that I remember what it was like. I no longer have my journals from that time. I destroyed them -- that's how hard it was. But I remember a drawing I had made of myself, faceless, in the inside cover of one of them. I felt hated and unrecognized -- do I want to forget that feeling? No, because it was part of my life. Right now, I feel like the best way to redeem that girl I was is to show other girls like her that they're not alone.


Originally published at Jennifer de Guzman.


( 4 messages received — Tell Me )
Jun. 28th, 2009 04:20 am (UTC)
Check out my friend Megan megancrewe on here. Her first YA book, Give up the Ghost is due out in September. She discusses writing for a young adult audience quite a bit in her journal.

Jun. 28th, 2009 05:21 am (UTC)
Apparently boys YA is in high demand by publishers because there is so little of it...or so I am told.

Somewhere I have a high-school-era self-portrait sketch that eventually ended up being the same basic model for Mason--a blonde boy crying in the rain, wearing a leather jacket. :)
Jun. 28th, 2009 03:35 pm (UTC)
Junior high school started off rough. Cultures came to a head and sometimes Mount St. Helens emotions erupted.

One incident stands out doubledigit years later.


"Nice pants," said this richboy to me day one in lunchline.

I looked at the faded brown corduroys I had on a full up and down and then at at him and the three looking-just-like-him friends he was with. At the new junior highschool I attended his type seemed to be everywhere. They were the sons of longshoremen mostly, along with those of other excellent-moneyearning waterfront workers. "What's wrong with 'em?"

"You shouldn't be wearing them, that's what," he said, as if holding nothing but blackjack. "And you shouldn't be wearing the belt and shoes you have on either."

While those eight full-of-judgment eyes grilled me over, my mind quickly backpedaled to try and remember exactly where the pants, belt, and shoes I had on came from. After what'd felt like a reverseful hour, though, I gave it up, knowing damnwell that the richboy was telling me the ninety-nine-percent truth of the matter. Nevertheless, I couldn't just agree with him. To do so would've branded me the worst kind of pathetic scavenger to've ever lived. And on day one of school at that. "If they're not mine, whose are they then?" I said to him, suddenly groaning inside for having foolishly opened a door for him.

"The city's," he said all matter-of-fact. "That's who usually gets what I've thrown into the garbage." When some sudden gasps and laughs kicked in from the side, I turned my head to see a good dozen-plus students gathered as-though-me-and-the-richboy-were-gonna-start-to-fight tight. And they all looked just like him too. That was the when the redhot shame started its push right through my face.

"What I have on," I said in a surrounded-by-the-enemy, wobblyweak voice, "my moms bought me."

"Your 'moms'," said the richboy then, "What the hell is a 'moms'?"

"Don't lie!" said some damnnear-screaming-at-me girl before I could answer him, though; a girl who I swear I'd never met or laid an eye on before. She wore these braces and had the hatefullest face you'd ever seen in your life. Possessed even. I had no idea how, not ever having met the girl, I could've offended her so bad. But I had. "I saw yhou and your mother digging through peoples' trashcans one night! You guys even took a fishtank that our nextdoorneighbor threw out. I saw you take it!"

An hour later my brandnew principal, a Mr. Cepeda, suspended me for a solid weeek-and-a=half. Not for having gotten busted sporting some trashtaken clothes to school, though, but for having clocked a fellow student while in lunchline - the student being that loudmouthed, embarrassing-me-for-no-good-reason-at-all girl.
Jul. 1st, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
In my opinion, during the teenage years most lack the experience and ability to see the big picture. High school becomes the entire world and the most important time of their lives, such that a teenager can say in all seriousness that "their life is over," when they have an embarrassing moment or they break up with a boyfriend. There are exceptions, of course.

Those YA topics imo are too often poorly handled, too easily venturing into "Mary Sue" land; perhaps it's just because they're also the topics popular among young hobby/aspiring writers. I understand why such stories are popular, and in hindsight I read some stinkers too growing up, but I hope at least teens discover the well written/handled books tackling such issues.
( 4 messages received — Tell Me )

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