Allow me to regress to a younger age for a few minutes.
I have a deep and abiding passion for young adult literature. The vast majority of the crap glutting the shelves in the YA section at Barnes and Noble isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Nobody needs to read “The In-Crowd” or “Gossipy Bitches” or whatever the hell else is selling thousands of copies in mass-market paperback. (Nobody needs to read “50 Shades of Grey,” either, but let’s not go there because I don’t want to talk about handcuffs on the Internet.)
There’s a reason that I majored in English in college, and it wasn’t a deep-seated wish to be totally unqualified for every job ever. Books were my salvation when I was a kid, and children’s literature is a downright majestic genre filled with all kinds of gems. (Mr. Popper’s Penguins! The Ramona books! Everything by Roald Dahl, except maybe Fantastic Mr. Fox, because that was kind of weird and unnecessary, but you win some, you lose some!) Children who read books learn to be adventurous and sassy and to question authority. We know all this.
But when you get to a certain age, you start to realize the inevitability of reality. “Spunky detective” is not a viable career path. You KNOW what will happen if you squeeze out a whole tube of toothpaste. There are more interesting things: boys, and science projects, and boys, and mean girls, and boys. I was once a teenage girl and if it hadn’t been for my obsessive consumption of books, I think I would have forgotten about everything except for… boys. I was no longer interested in the madcap adventures of Sally J. Freedman or Ralph S. Mouse. In fact, I was no longer interested in anything except gazing at my own navel. Such is the life of the American teenager. (Totally not referencing that ABC Family show because I’ve never seen it.)
The problem with most young adult fiction is that it caters to the mentality of teenage girls who only want to think about boys and popularity. (And it’s as heteronormative as I’m making it sound. There are as few books about teenage lesbians as there are about, like, teenage computer geniuses. I actually own a book about teenage lesbians, even though I wasn’t one, just because I was so committed to the cause of supporting counterculture teen lit. It wasn’t even that good, but HELLO, IT WASN’T ABOUT BOYS.)
The best young adult authors are still writing about love and sex and popularity and the social strata of high school. (I, personally, could never relate to this, which is why I want to write a young adult book about a high school like mine one day. The most popular kids are the most popular because they get the most stage time!) But they take it to a higher level, exploring the intensity of teenagers’ feelings, transforming the flights of their imagination into art, and leaving us with some kind of realistic moral, some reminder of how teenagers can become better people.
Gossip Girl and all that crap is designed to give teenagers who are unhappy with their lives a glimpse into the lifestyle they think they want. Quality young adult literature teaches teenagers who are unhappy with their lives (which is, let’s be real, all of them) that they are surrounded by beauty and adventure, even at, like, the lunch table in the corner or wherever it is that the uncool kids sit in real high schools. (At LVA, we had dance-offs on the quad and people wore cat ears. I’m not kidding when I say that I don’t understand the “popularity” thing.) John Green, Sarah Dessen, and Meg Cabot, etc., etc., write about teenagers changing their OWN perspectives on their lives.
I think it’s so valuable to teach teenagers that their feelings have merit and how to deal with them healthily. I’ve kept a journal since I was young and it is the ONLY reason that I’m still here and kicking today — not being facetious. (I probably could have also taken up boxing, but nobody presented that as an option…) It’s so easy when you’re young and hormonal and miserable to convince yourself that you’re drowning in your own emotion and that there is no way out and that there WILL be no way out. To read a book where someone else is feeling THE SAME THING and then DOESN’T COLLAPSE IN A PILE OF DESPAIR is to know that you, too, will be okay.
Escapism is valuable, but learning to extract the beauty and joy and meaning from your own life is priceless.
Also, none of those escapist teen authors can write worth a damn. Go escape into something like “Gone With the Wind” or Artemis Fowl or something wherein the author is actually capable of crafting an elegant sentence. Learn about prose while rotting your brain!
This originally started out as a post about how bummed out I was about the trailer for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Emma Watson’s horrible American accent! (I LOVE Emma Watson. She is a phenomenal British pixie-cut diva and I totally would not have taken covert cell phone pictures of her had I gone to Brown.) The indiscriminate changing of verb tenses! (We ARE infinite? We WERE infinite. Nobody thinks about being infinite while feeling infinite.) So stay tuned in the future for a diatribe about how much I hate it when books that aren’t “The Devil Wears Prada” are turned into movies. (It was okay with “The Devil Wears Prada” because that book is an insult to the written word, and Meryl Streep is a goddess.)
Also, I’d like to take this moment to thank my high school dance teacher, Jeneane Gallo Huggins, for teaching me that teenagers are valuable contributors to society when you let them speak.