Why I Read (and Write) YA Fiction

Earlier this week I was conversing with a good friend, another author, who commented that she had difficulty reading YA Fiction.  Her life has long since moved past the phase of first relationships, snotty teen rivalries, and other issues our kids deal with.  I, on the other hand, love young adult fiction.  I just “get it.”  I understand their struggles and realize that, while this is just a short blip on the radar of their lives, what teens experience is real and sometimes painful.  Not only that, but how they respond to those challenges can sometimes shape the adults they will eventually become.

I once recommended the Harry Potter series to a friend.  His response was that he was insulted.  “Why would your recommend to me a kids’ book?”  he asked.

Why indeed.  Because “kids’ books” aren’t just for kids.  They’re for all of us.  They teach us about ourselves by presenting us with realistic challenges, and give us the opportunity to internalize how we might respond to those challenges.

I’ve often wondered where I’d be today without Judy Blume.  It didn’t seem to matter what phase of adolescence I was in, she always had a book that addressed my thoughts and feelings.  Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret opened my eyes to the changes in my body and answered the questions that were too embarrassing to address with my mother.  Blubber hit home because I always struggled with my weight.  Who can forget Forever?  It was my first introduction to sex in a novel.  And even before that, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing addressed the ever-present struggle of being the older sibling with the obnoxiously cute younger brother or sister.  Judy Blume completely “got” me.  She crawled inside my head and, in many ways, she remains there today.

Let’s not forget the young men.  There can be no doubt that millions of teens count The Catcher in the Rye among the best book they ever read.  Personally, I don’t get it; the main character annoys me.  But how can you not acknowledge the greatness of a book that touches so many?  Salinger clearly captured the angst of a young man navigating his way in the world, and kids responded to it.  Salinger understood them!

Oh!  I almost forgot!  The Bridge to Terabithia.  Even just typing the title brings tears to my eyes.  This book brought death to the forefront as nothing ever did before.  It opened my eyes and made me realize that life is precious and that none of us is immortal.

Though some may argue with me, I consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be a young adult novel.  More than anything I’ve ever read, this book profoundly changed my life and made me the person I am today.  It taught me to consider every situation from the other person’s standpoint, and it’s a lesson that I’ve carried with me into adulthood.  Every day, I practice these lessons.  When my kids are injured on the playground by another child’s carelessness (or even meanness), I try to handle the situation in the way I’d hope the other parent would handle it if our roles were reversed.  When dealing with difficult people, I mentally “crawl inside their skin” and wonder what hardship motivates their behavior.  Most importantly, the way I see race and gender preferences are directed by the lessons of Harper Lee.

These days young adult fiction is more mature, yet they all hold one common theme:  the end of innocence and the growth into adulthood.  The Fault in Our Stars….Eleanor and Park…Thirteen Reasons Why…Divergent…The Hunger Games...all of these maintain the common thread addressing some aspect of growing up.

So why do I read and write YA fiction?  Because it’s real and it’s important.  It almost always attaches to a key issue that our children struggle with and give them tools for overcoming.  It makes our kids better people. It makes all of us better people.

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