I just picked up my girl after not seeing her since Wednesday morning. She had gone with the other ninth graders in the Open program at South High to some outdoor education program thingie. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but ended up having a pretty good time, despite pretty much freezing her tail off.
As I’m walking her to the car, we walked past another freshman, shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for his mom.
“OSCAR GO INSIDE,” Ella barked at him. “YOU’RE TOO COLD.”
“I CAN’T,” he said. “ALL MY STUFF IS HERE. AND MY MOM ISN’T HERE YET.”
Freshmen, I have learned, only yell at each other. It’s cultural, as I understand it.
“FINE,” she said.
“FINE,” he said.
And we got into the car.
“Ella,” I said. “Do we need to give that boy a ride?”
“Psh,” she said. “No. That’s just Oscar. He never notices the cold. He’s an Anarchist.”
“Anarchists don’t feel cold?”
“No. It’s like a thing. The cold, or feeling cold is, apparently, a cynical construct of the Corporate State.”
“Ah,” I said. “Um. He looks cold.” The kid was wearing knock-off Chuck’s and holey jeans and had no gloves and no hat.
“He might be doing it on purpose. He does a lot of things on purpose. He’s also a self-proclaimed Communist. And my mortal enemy.”
“People still have those?”
“I do, it seems.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why is he your mortal enemy?”
“Because I hate Bronies and he hates Les Miz. The lines were drawn long ago. We do not chose our sides; we are our sides.”
“Ah,” I said.
“I’m just kidding. My friends write fake insulting and vaguely threatening notes to him signed by him and his friends send fake anti-broadway manifestos to me signed by him. It’s become a thing.”
“There are still things?”
“There will always be things.”
And truth be told, I found it vaguely comforting to know that these were being done by hand. Like, old-school note-writing. These kids today! So crazy. So odd-ball. So curious and confused and interested and bored and brave. So hopeful. So cynical. So fully and completely and wonderfully themselves.
This is why I love YA novels. Because I love teenagers. Because they are awesome.
Lately, there have been a bunch of articles and conversations floating around the various places in the media about YA novels – the novels that, when done well, explore the rocky terrain of the teenaged experience – without nostalgia. Without moralizing. Without the limitations of the Adult Gaze. The best of the genre are the books that tell the stories of teenagers experiencing their own particular stories on their own terms, in their own voices, and powered by their own steam. These books are wonderful – not as an aside, or as a lower class of literature, or as a “my goodness can you believe there is a book for teenagers that isn’t terrible – not that I read it you understand, oh god no, but I certainly heard…” sort of way.
These conversations make me cranky. Anyone who ever says, “Here are some YA books that actually aren’t too bad” needs to get dope-smacked.
Books about teenagers have a responsibility to be wonderful. They have a responsibility to be honest and incisive and brutal and brave. They have a responsibility to be just as honest and incisive and brave as the teenagers who read them. And I believe this is true, not for the sake of their readership, and not for the sake of critics, and certainly not for the pointless pontificators on the radio (yammering endlessly about books that they have never read and have no intention of reading either). Those books have a responsibility to be wonderful for the sake of their characters, of their stories. Because those stories matter.
The process of transition between youth and adulthood is confusing and scary and soul-crushing, and sometimes it’s a miracle that any of us come out of it with our bodies and souls and selves intact. There is a reason why so many of us choose to remember our teen years through the foggy lens of nostalgia – some things are too painful to relive. Sometimes it’s easier to see through our adult eyes. And the adult eye is a dim thing. And prone to self-deception.
Teenagers are amazing. Even when they’re awful, they’re amazing. And if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to spend some time with teenagers. I encourage you to get to know one or seven or a hundred.
To the teens in my life, I salute you. To the teen protagonists and side-characters in the books that have moved me, I salute you as well. I salute your struggles. I salute your journeys. I salute your love and your loss and your questioning. I salute you as you become more fully yourselves. I salute you as you seek to clarify the rules by which you will live your life. It isn’t easy.
Be well, be safe, and godspeed.
(Next up: Why I love Middle Grade books. Stay tuned.)