Sunday, June 5, 2011

Controversial YA topics & Why they Are Needed!

I hated to read when I was younger. Obviously that is no longer the case, but as a teenager there was nothing I despised more than being assigned a book in class. I hated to read. I hated to try and figure out the moral of the stories and the bigger meaning of what it was the author was trying to get across, simply because the books that were assigned were stories that I could not relate to.

Though, I can't for the life of me remember the name of the the first YA book that I read (and am kicking myself for it) that actually caught my interest I still remember the story. It was a story about a girl who cut herself in order to release the pain that she was feeling within. My friend, who unlike me, read a book a week had taken it out of the library and after reading the first page I borrowed it. At the time I had no idea what cutting was or that people actually took razors and other sharp objects to their skin. It didn't make me want to cut myself after reading it, however, it did make me aware that cutting was very much a part of reality. It also made it easier for me to understand why people cut and that was exactly what I needed when two years after reading the book I began dating a boy who cut.

There is nothing that can fully prepare you for when you find out the person you love has been purposely harming themselves. I still remember seeing the red jagged cuts sticking out from under the sleeve of his t-shirt and when I asked him what he did he reacted in panic, pulling his sleeve down so quickly, his facial expressions completely changing into something I had never seen on his face before. I was persistent, though, I didn't let it go until finally he lifted his sleeve only to reveal hundreds of jagged red scabs. My heart wrenched at the sight since it was so obvious it was self inflicted, but if I had never read that book that concept would never have crossed my mind, and when he finally admitted to the self mutilation I didn't need to ask the obvious questions in order to educate myself.

I guess you could say because I read that book I was prepared. I recalled why the main character of the book cut herself and tried to talk to him from that prospective as if I understood. It didn't take long for him to open up to me. He told me he never had anyone he could talk to about it and was happy he had me. He explained how he felt so much pain inside and when he cut himself and saw the blood it was as if that pain was being released. Then he showed me the box of razors he had stored for those times when he desperately needed that release. They were industrial razors, hard sturdy metal and a majority of them had dried up blood crusted to their edges. I felt sick at the thought of him feeling that using the sharp metal against his skin was all he had. I tried to take the box from him and he ripped in back to his chest faster than I could blink. I remembered the story of the girl and how she would do anything to find a place to cut and I assured myself his reaction to me wasn't about me and in that moment I realized that box was a lifeline to him. It took a long time to convince him to give me that box, but I did. I remembered how the girl felt so alone and I assured him over and over again that he wasn't alone and that if he ever felt the desire to cut he could call me.

We broke up as most fifteen year old teenagers relationships aren't meant for the long run and I'm not going to say he didn't cut again because I did find marks on his arms from time to time, but that isn't my point. My point is because I read a book I was more prepared to deal with a situation that I otherwise would have been clueless and helpless about.

Now cutting is only one of the subjects of YA books that many parents feel are not acceptable for their children to be reading. I have to take a deep breath to write that sentence because it hits a nerve deep within me. Do you know how easier middle school and high school would have been for me if I knew books like these actually existed? Parents can deny all they want that their children can not in anyway possibly be able to relate to these topics and guess what they couldn't be more wrong. Teens deal with such a wide range of issues and most are too ashamed or scared to actually let their parents in. Teens drink, they have sex, they do drugs and partake in illegal activities. Teens cheat on tests, cut class, lie about a test grade, sneak out of the house, smoke cigarettes, it's what they do and if you believe differently you are very naive. Being a teenager is about taking risks, doing things that you know you shouldn't but feeling the urge so strong that you can't resist. I know I can't speak for all teenagers because I'm sure there are teenagers who obey the rules their parents have set, but I'm speaking for my teenage self and all of the teenagers I knew and know.

Another controversial topic in YA is teen pregnancy. Gasp! And you can gasp all you want but that doesn't change the fact that it isn't something that happens. Some say shows like 16 and pregnant are the reason why so many young girls are getting pregnant. I beg to differ. When I graduated high school, 16 and pregnant didn't exist and five girls in my senior class were pregnant or had already had their child and that is not counting the underclassman. It happens from carelessness and having the mentality of thinking it'll never happen to me. Writing about these topics in YA can show girls that Yes it can happen to you. It's not as if these books glorify teen pregnancy if anything they do the exact opposite and show the dark side of having a baby when you yourself are still a child.

I know I'm jumping from topic to topic, but I'm trying to get everything in  so just bare with me. Another topic that seems to be in many YA books is the death of a friend and/or classmate. Again a topic that is controversial because according to some people this rarely happens. Again they would be wrong. My senior year we lost a boy who was a friend to everyone. He was as many called "popular" yet he didn't restrict himself to that single group. I still remember walking into school that morning and seeing the tear stained cheeks of my fellow classmates as well as many of my teachers. He wasn't the last person to die that year nor was he the first to die in that school district. My high school seemed to have a curse and I still remember my teacher saying as she mourned the loss of another student, "I can't do this anymore. Every year I lose a student. I just can't do it anymore." The culprit of these deaths usually were car accidents or drug overdoses, though, when a student would die of a drug overdose the school refused to memorialize them over the loud speaker as they would if the student had passed in a car accident.

In middle school I had a best friend. From the minute we met in sixth grade we were inseparable. He was pale, with freckles and only came up to my chest. It was obvious he was an easy target for bullies. I spent my entire years in middle school defending him against guys who insisted he was gay. He would call me crying at night and I would comfort him in the only way I knew how, saying that I knew he wasn't gay and so did all of his other friends and that is all that mattered. Now if I had read a book at the time about a character who was struggling with their sexuality I would have realized while the bullies were wrong in what they were doing they were right in what they were saying. I denied, denied, denied for so long because I hated seeing the tears in his eyes, but I never stopped to think that maybe he was and that was what was hurting him more. We lost contact after high school but recently I found out that he is doing very well and is happily engaged to his boyfriend. And while I couldn't be happier for him it still makes me sad because he spent a majority of his life denying who he really was.

When I was younger, very young, I lied, I cheated, I drank, I smoked and I even sneaked out in the middle of the night to meet up with friends. My parents weren't dumb. For the most part they knew what was going on. However, I think they did the right thing. They didn't try to mold me into what they thought a perfect teenager should be. They accepted me for who I was and when I got caught I got grounded. When I didn't get caught and they suspected something they asked questions in a way that made me know that they knew which was enough to scare me. They didn't threaten me or try to tell me what it was I had to do. They let me be a teenager and guided me the best they could. Now back then I know for a fact that there were some people aka parents who did not approve of their children hanging out with me because lets face it I was a bad influence. However, unlike my parents they threatened their children and I'm happy to say that most of those children are now adults with dead end jobs, drinking/drug problems and still living at home. Me the bad seed who they didn't want their children hanging out with, has her own apartment, worked a full-time job while going to school full time to get my bachelor's degree in marketing and am now actively trying to get published.

Now this is my main point. Books are meant to entertain and a good book will even help you when you can relate to a character, however, they are not parents. Parents need to stop blaming books and lets add to that movies and television shows, for their child's behavior. You are the parent! It is your responsibility to teach your child what is right and what is wrong. It is not the job of a writer to do so. Writers simply write, they tell the dark truths that many are too scared to admit to and if you were a good parent you would realize that these books are the perfect platform to be able to speak to your children about topics that you otherwise may not have been able to. Stop denying! Your child isn't perfect and by thinking so you are only doing damage to them. Instead pick up one of these books with the controversial topic and read it then give it to your child to read. Once you both have read it sit down and discuss it. Start your own book club and learn about what it is that your child is really feeling and stop blaming everyone else for your crappy parenting skills. Books you may want to read:
DreamlandSpeak: 10th Anniversary EditionCutThe DUFF: (Designated Ugly Fat Friend)Willow

Now these are just a few out of the so many great YA books. Would love for suggestions as well so please post in the comments a YA book that you think every teen should read. And if you know the name of the book that I read so many years ago please post that in the comments as well. I thought it was Cut, but it's not. I'm desperately trying to remember what the book was called.

*Though, I have not read all of the above titles I have friends who have raved about them and have recommended them to me. The ones I have not read are currently on my to read list. Look for my feedback on future blogposts.


  1. A very thorough post, thank you for sharing your experiences. You touch on a lot of great topics and make some good points. No, it's not the job of a writer to teach a kid -- but you know what we really admire? The fact that ALL YA WRITERS understand the impact they might have, and they take it seriously. They are not out there glorifying negative behaviors. We cannot think of a SINGLE book that ENCOURAGES the "depravity" that the WSJ piece worries about. All the YA books we know of show the real life situations and the CONSEQUENCES. They show how hard it can be to get through those things, but how important it is to persevere, to have hope, to try.

    In terms of other books we'd recommend... IF I STAY by Gayle Forman comes to mind right away.

  2. Thank you for your comment, especially the part about what YA writers admire because I agree with that 100%. Also thank you for your recommendation I do have IF I STAY on my book shelf and will be reading very soon.