This is my response to the Wall Street Journal article here.
My first moment of finding a character like me in a book came long before the YA years. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary in second grade to be exact.
My second grade teacher assigned this book to me when our class was reading Beverly Cleary. I didn’t want to read this book because 1. It had a boy on the cover. 2. I wanted to read a Ramona book.
But on the pages of this book I found what I needed. Leigh Botts and I had a lot of the same problem. Divorce. Wondering when we’d see Dad, being mad when Dad forgot to send the child support check. Reading about Leigh gave me the roadmap I needed to navigate my own parent’s divorce.
Other books would provide valuable tools for dealing with my parent’s divorce like the Divorce Express by Paula Danzinger.
In my Catholic grade school class of 25 kids I can pretty safely tell you that none of the other kids had parents who were getting divorced. Books helped me immensely. I'm not sure what my life would have been without those books.
Even if my teen years seem to lack the “darkness” that the WSJ article talks about it doesn’t mean I didn’t encounter these things. I’m one of the people Laurie Halse Anderson talks about in her post. I was the kid who encountered these kids.
The books I read gave me the tools to be a good friend because I knew kids who were dealing with bigger things than I was in my school, church and even in my own family.
I have to thank my mom for not censoring my reading. My mom used her parenting powers to make sure I wasn’t reading Cosmo before I was in college and that I didn’t get to see The Bodyguard until I was seventeen. She let me know which Danielle Steele novels I was allowed to read. But as far as the teen section in the library goes she trusted that what I was reading was safe and that if I encountered something I wasn’t ready for I wouldn’t read the book.
My mom wasn’t good with the tough subjects and she spent her teen years at boarding school so maybe it was easier to hope I’d find the answers in books. I think my mom knew that the books I was reading were fiction. I think she figured it was better to have me reading about some of these things than out there experiencing them first hand.
I think she'd seen me take good ideas from books- trying to start a babysitting club or starting a school newspaper with my friends in fifth grade so we could be like Elizabeth Wakefield or being kind to spiders. But I think she knew I wasn't going to start smoking or raid the liquor cabinet because I'd read about it in a book.
See the thing is things like smoking, drinking, drugs, cutting or eating disorders don't always turn out so great for the characters in teen fiction. The characters have to journey back from those dark places. Most kids don't finish a book about these subjects and think they should try that for themselves. Reading about it is enough. But reading about it can give insight when they have a friend or family member go through something similar.
I think reading and writing gave me my voice. I read and wrote a lot. I was pretty confident in my voice by the time I entered my teen years. I spent my high school years on the debate team and school newspaper. I was no stranger to using my voice for something I believed in.
I saw friends and even family members deal with tough issues straight out of teen fiction. I spent a lot of time wondering What kept me safe? What made set me apart? Why them and not me? A few years ago I realized the answer was my voice. Sometimes #YASaves by giving kids the voice to keep themselves safe in the world in the first place.