YA Authors Say It Better Than I Possibly Could

I really believe that YA books save people. There are so many books I’ve read in my 30s and 40s that have hit me in the gut and made me realize, tearfully in many cases, that I was never alone when I was a teenager or young adult.  I thought I was the only one who felt stupid, weird, misunderstood and unseen. I didn’t have a tragic adolescence. I had friends, boyfriends and didn’t suffer abuse. However, I felt terrible about myself and my circumstances much of the time. Even more painful, I felt alone as if nobody could understand or even wanted to. Nobody really listened to me because we were all trying so hard to be heard that we didn’t have time to listen to each other. Now that I am older and have teenage children, I’ve found YA books that say what I felt so clearly that it’s like a punch in the gut followed by a flood of appreciation from my teenage self. I find myself overwhelmed by the relief of hearing someone else say what I felt. I can feel the teenager in me relax and suffer less as I realize I was never alone.

I honestly feel that the therapeutic value of this experience is enormous.  I never went to therapy as a teen. I wanted to and my mother threatened me with it, but we never went. In the eighties, there was still a big stigma about therapy and for my family it probably wouldn’t have ever happened. My dad was a high ranking Air Force Officer and I don’t know if he’d have had the time or the desire to attend therapy or allow us to go.  Reading these books has given me book friends who understand and share my pain. It’s one of the reasons I keep reading them.

Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the best out there writing YA books. She is fantastic. Reading her book ‘Speak’ in graduate school cut me open.  I felt like someone reached inside and found my feelings and put them into this deeply moving book. It’s such an important book and gives voice to anyone who was sexually assaulted or ignored when they needed help. When she came to Politics and Prose last year to talk about her newest book ‘The Impossible Knife of Memory’, I made sure I was there. She’s a fantastic speaker and she “gets” teenagers in an honest and compassionate way. She is never condescending. I asked her to sign my copy of the new book with an inscription to my classes. She wrote, “To Ms. Lively’s Class: Because books help when life sucks.”  It’s the perfect message and it’s undeniably true.

Here’s an interview with Laurie Halse Anderson from Buzzfeed that shows her understanding of teens, YA books and the pain of adolescence better than I could.

Laurie Halse Anderson Interview :

Another Buzzfeed story (Is that what you call the content on Buzzfeed, stories?) this time featuring the undeniable power and brilliance of JK Rowling.  She interacts with her fans sparingly on twitter and other places and when she does, the power of her words, acts and of Harry Potter tend to overwhelm those with whom she interacts personally. I am in no way prepared to talk about what Harry Potter and JK Rowling have meant to me and my family and couldn’t do it justice if I tried right now, so I will leave JK Rowling and her lovely relationship with a young man speak for me and likely many others.

JK  Rowling’s Beautiful Letter to a Fan 

Keep reading Young Adult books. They can heal your teenage self by showing you that you are not now and never were alone. If you’re a teenager now reading this, just know that all of your parents and teachers were once just like you and struggling to figure out what to do with themselves. Most of us still are from time to time.



Kids, school is not real life…

Middle School and High School – just the mention of either institution is enough to bring on post-traumatic feelings for so many people.  The inescapable nature of the building itself, the fear of choosing the wrong outfit/hair/music or even the wrong lunch table is overwhelming and omnipresent.  Of course there are pressures and problems for students that make school stress even worse.

Now that I teach Middle School students, I see the pain, frustration, and confusion in their lives first hand.  Many of the students I have taught also bring enormous pain and damage from lives of poverty, abuse, and loneliness.  Since I teach remedial reading, these same teens are also facing years of failing scores on their SOL tests (Yes that’s the actual acronym for Virginia’s end of year high stakes tests).  When they reach my classroom, they bring that whole history of personal frustration and school failure that has grown in them to a full blooming sense of inevitable failure. Every time they’ve tried, they’ve failed, according to the state – for years. How can a teacher convince them otherwise? I struggle with it every day.

When these Middle School students run into mean girls, bullies, or teachers who are cruel and controlling it adds to their feeling that they can’t control their lives and they lose hope that they’ll ever be able to make their own decisions. They are convinced by the lessons of their own history that they’ll always be at the mercy of someone else, unable to escape, succeed or get what they want.

This is what I tell them when they feel that life will always be like it is at school: School is an artificial world and is different than what their “real lives” outside of school will be like. At school, they have very little choice. They can’t choose to avoid people who are in their classes or the teachers who make them feel inferior. I tell them that in my life, “You know what I do when I meet someone I don’t like? I do my best to NEVER see them. I stop going to that store, change jobs, or I could even move to a new city if it got bad enough.”  I can choose whom I sit next to, whom I work with on many projects and whom I spend my free time with on the weekends.  Some of them get quite literally wide eyed at this declaration. They don’t really think about the choices they’ll have and are usually stunned that an adult, a teacher even, would tell them that school isn’t fair and it’s not the same as real life.

I wish someone had told me these things when I was in eighth grade.  I attended Middle School a few miles from the Middle School where I teach now. I was miserable. I played french horn in the band and had some friends, but I was depressed. I hadn’t experienced any of the traumatic events that some of my students have, but I was frustrated and sad every day. The advice I received at home was to tough it out and make the best of it, as my mom was in the midst of a major depression herself and my dad worked twelve hour days and traveled frequently.

It was lonely. I had moved to the area in third grade and never felt like I found my place. I always felt that everyone else knew what they were doing – not me.

Would I have believed it if someone had told me that what I was going through was not “real life?”  I’ll never know. I do know that it has helped my students to know that they are stuck in an artificial world where they have little control, that it won’t last forever, and that it simply must be endured. All adults have lived through it and for nearly all of us – it sucked. They are not alone. I understand and I remember.

Of course, books help. For me, it was Agatha Christie books.  The order, predictability and the sure success of figuring out the murder in mystery books was always satisfying and gave me a feeling of some control. I read them all. I read them through the horrible home perms, the braces, the friends who didn’t invite me, my mom not getting out of bed for days with a headache, through everything. They reassured me that problems could be solved.

Books help my students, too. Any encounter with a character who struggles with school and it’s artificial world and then endures – helps. It gives them hope and it also gives them the gift of another human in the world who says what no other adult has said to them, “I have been there and I understand.” That gift of understanding and recognition is precious and soul saving.  Reading saves. Young adult fiction saves.

I would love to hear you thoughts. Please leave a comment.



Telling the truth is a two way street

I teach struggling Middle School readers. They are between the ages of 12 and 14. Many of them come from homes full of stress – emotional and financial.  Some don’t eat enough. Some of them are abused constantly at home.  Some of them don’t have a conversation with any adult outside of our school building. Their parents work multiple jobs, they’re alcoholics, they’re mentally ill, they don’t have the emotional energy to speak to them.  The reason doesn’t matter. Students come to school desperate for someone to listen and to feel safe, and if they don’t – they can’t learn or connect.

My students have experienced huge and real things in their lives. I don’t know how to process many of the disturbing secrets that they tell me about the horrors of their lives.  It feels completely insane for me to say that it’s hard for me to process the idea of what these kids are actually experiencing. How do they “process” it?  I don’t think I knew what the act of “rape” was when I was 13.  My students have told me stories about rapes and about being hit and about alcoholic fathers.  They live in fear of the INS, of CPS and of not ever meeting the siblings that their parents left behind in their country.  I’m not sure I could deal with those kinds of problems as a 43 year old woman, so how they are supposed to get up every morning and care about their homework when they are dealing with figuring out how to get through a day with out food?  I don’t know.  I really don’t know.

Here’s what I do know.  Telling me their stories is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. Exposing their pain and revealing the horror of their lives to me is a gift. It’s a sacred moment. Reacting to their confessions is the most important thing I do in a day of teaching.  I can’t transform their lives into lives of comfort and safety and love the way I would like to – the way they deserve. I can’t bring them all home with me, which I would like to do often.  I can only listen. I can let them know that there’s one adult in this whole world who thinks that what is happening to them is wrong and should have never happened.  I can let them know that my only concern is that they are OK. That they are safe. That my door is open and I will listen and hear them any time they need me to.  I can let them know that I love and respect them – no matter what their grades are. The moment of connection when I can look them in the eyes and say, “I am so sorry that happened to you,” is one that I am so grateful to have.

So, when people out there say that we need to have “age appropriate” stories in YA, I don’t know what they’re talking about. If I can hand a kid, whose home life is a disaster and whose father drinks until he passes out every night, a copy of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” so that he can see that a kid like him lived through something just like he is going through, it may be the only “therapy” he ever gets. Sexual assault, bullying, violence, abuse, and eating disorders in YA books ain’t going to drive teenagers to any emotional or mental health crisis.  If they’re on the verge of a crisis, they won’t finish the book. If they’re suffering, a story told with respect for the characters and their struggles is a balm that can soothe a student’s suffering. Every time they recognize their own pain in the safe world of fiction, they make another critical connection in the world that says, “See? We’ve been there, too. It sucks, doesn’t it?” and maybe that means that they can get up the next morning and try again. If they feel a little bit less alone in the world, then I have given them truth in return for their trust and confessions. That’s what I do.

Kids need to read more books about real issues like racism, abuse, bullying, and homelessness, not fewer. They need to know they’re not alone. I am privileged enough to hear my students in person.  They are lucky enough to find their own lives in the books we read.


King Dork explains this blog…

I loved Frank Portman’s book King Dork. Tom Henderson, otherwise known as the title character, King Dork, has such a brilliantly cutting view of school and the world. He sees through the BS and the condescension of adults and “normal” students who torture him.  When he declared that all you need to do to ace a high school honors course is be able to make a decent collage, I knew I was in love.  It’s been a few years and The King has returned in King Dork Approximately. I have only started the book (I’m on page 73 of 332), but I didn’t want to wait to post.

King Dork is everything I look for in a Young Adult book and main character. He’s a kid who nobody is fooling. He’s facing serious problems, and is coping through a wicked and irreverent sense of humor and rich fantasy life, and taking bold actions when forced. The fact that he loves music is a fantastic bonus. In the new book, Tom picks up where he left off.

Tom’s situation and standing in his world hasn’t changed, though. He’s a thinker and has a lot of ideas about the world which he shares relentlessly. He presents his “General Theory of the Universe” on page 26. Reading it was one of those great moments for me when I wanted to jump up off my seat and shout ‘YES!’ at the top of my lungs. I refrained from that as I was in my classroom during our silent reading period. I would have not only seriously disrupted my student’s reading, but I might also have given them one more reason to think I’m nuts. Instead I did what I have done before after reading something that rings so true – I ran around school (and then home) and made everyone who happened to make eye contact with me read it. Forcible sharing it was, and I am not sorry. I now share it with you.

 Tom Henderson’s General Theory of the Universe from King Dork Approximately

“That the normal people who attack rock and roll misfits with tubas and put defenseless nerdy kids in garbage cans and throw gum in their hair and tease fat girls into suicidosity et cetera are merely the lowest foot soldiers in an integrated, extremely well-organized totalitarian social structure that extends through the student body, the school system, the city, the state, the country and its entire population and culture as well as those of the whole world, and, ultimately, to nature itself, all organized around a pseudo-Darwinian principle that may best be described as Survival of the Cruelest and the Dumbest, and just barely masked by an increasingly threadbare curtain of pretty lies, which-the curtain of lies, I mean-is most prominently exemplified by this godforsaken hellhole of a book called The Catcher in the Rye.”

YES!!!! This. This is why YA books with real and self aware characters hit me in the gut. The cruelest and the dumbest don’t just go away afte high school.  They go on to be our bosses or co-workers or political leaders and any confrontation with them can go terribly wrong. However, those who recognize the machine and help themselves and others to throw monkey wrenches into it – via rock and roll, protests and demonstrations, and daringly honest criticism of the powers that be – are helping all of us misfits and righting wrongs. Nobody has full constitutional rights as a minor and even less so within the walls of a school building. If we don’t let that crush our spirits, we can keep fighting to disrupt the totalitarian structure and give other misfits hope.

If that rings true to you, then you should sit by me, join the conversation here and run away with the circus — this here blog.

Welcome Tom Henderson to our circus. Freaks like you are our kind of people. You give us hope and let us know that we’re not alone.


Reading YA to find my tribe…

Like a lot of people I found solace in books growing up.  I try to explain to my students today that when I attended Washington Irving Middle School down the street from the Middle School where I teach today, there really weren’t YA books. That just wasn’t really a thing. They do not get this concept at all or grasp the gravity of what they have access to today. My middle school reading was Judy Blume (Forever terrified me) and Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die made me sob into my pillow for many nights. I had read all of the Madeline L’Engle that existed and I had loved everything Katherine Patterson wrote. I felt that I had run out of books to read and I didn’t want to go back and read the kid chapter books that were being released.  There weren’t books out there, that I knew about anyway, written about people my age who were going through what I was – even in general – school, romance, puberty and general confusion and angst.

I still read. For me, the intermediate step in reading was the magnificent Agatha Christie. I had read really fun mystery books by E. W. Hildick when I was younger. They now seem to be out of print, which makes me sad. They ignited my love of mysteries.  Instead of neighborhood puzzles of missing bikes and turtles, my new sleuthing turned to murder.

There was very good news for me in Agatha Christie’s books. First of all, there were tons of them to read.  That was important. I needed companionship. Second, the sleuths were weird and didn’t take steps to hide their freaky obsession with crime and murder or their talent in reading people.  Both Miss Marple and Poirot were outsiders who were held in some suspicion whenever they showed up. Another trait they shared was that they listened to no one and followed rules only when they served their purposes.  This disregard for the rules or what has always been done is a part of them that I’ve always loved. They not only didn’t listen to local police officers or anyone else who got in their way, they simply charged ahead without regard for warnings or scoldings to follow procedures.

The books I read as a teenager were decidedly adult. I wasn’t into comic books so much and there just didn’t seem to be much else out there. So, I turned to the books we had to read for school. I was assigned to read three books during the summer before my freshman year of high school.  We moved from Springfield, Virginia to Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, my dad was assigned to attend Air War College with military people from all over the world. My brothers, who were in sixth and first grade, attended the base elementary school.  They were in classes with children from Sweeden, Saudi Arabia, and countries all over the world. In stark contrast, I attended Saint James School. Saint James is a private school. When we moved to Montgomery, my parents were told that the public schools there held dozens of pregnant girls, knife fights in the hallways and all manner of depravity. Of course, these schools were attended by mostly black students, so racist parents had told my parents these fairy tales. Since my mom had a zillion things to consider on the move and since we would only be in Mongomery for a grand total of 11 months, she made the easiest decision and sent me to the school that most other kids on base would attend.

As it turned out, Saint James School that was a dodge for desegregation. Basically, if you could afford to send your white child to Saint James, you could be sure that they would never be forced to encounter a black student, teacher or any black person of any sort. It was horrible.

The reading I had to do that summer was typical for the time, I think. We had to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and Billy Budd by Herman Melville. I spat on the floor when I wrote Billy Budd just now. I have a deep abiding hatred for that book. I think everyone has one of those books that someone tried to make them read that haunts them with its arcane language and stupid characters and insufferable plot. For me, that book is Billy Budd *spit*.  The damned thing is only 116 pages, but I could not force myself to read it. It sucked. I can’t even remember why I hated it so much. I have erased it from my mind and experience. I’ve expunged it from my psyche. I loved the other two books. I really enjoyed reading them. The end of A Tale of Two Cities was so beautifully romantic and tragic. I cried and felt like a better and braver person.  I understood the lessons from both books and hoped to be the type of person who would look beyond beauty and fight for the less fortunate.  Billy Budd could kiss my ass.

I read off and on for years after that. I loved Madame Bovary and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I found Albert Camus’ The Stranger thought provoking and disturbing. I fought not to run away from home the minute I finished reading On The Road and wished I had friends and a life like Jack Kerouac. I read all of those books that many teenagers dislike reading both then and now. I was a huge literature nerd and went on to study more books and writers in college.

In my late thirties, I was in graduate school when I discovered Young Adult literature. I took a summer class at George Mason University about Multicultural Young Adult Literature. It changed my life and my reading life.

I had an unhappy, if not tragic, adolescence. My parents and I did not get along. I was a great student and I had a group of great, mostly male friends. I loved my teachers and enjoyed myself at Hampton High School.  It was a great school full of amazing people. The school was in my memory about 55% black and 45% white. I don’t remember racial problems. I befriended whomever I wanted to and am friends with many of those same great people today. Being at home was horrible and I was grounded all the time. My mother once threatened me with family therapy and I was so excited that I think I screamed, “Fantastic, when!”  She never made good on that threat. I suffered clinical depression, though nobody knew it then and I still do. I had what can only be described as a major depression/nervous breakdown during my sophomore year in college and took six months off from school. It was tumultuous. I spent the next fifteen years getting my mental health in order, getting married and starting a family.

In that grad school class I found some of the best therapy I could have found. It was amazing. Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes changed everything. I had never read anything like it. For those of you who haven’t read it, please stop reading this right now and go find it. NOW.  It’s the story of Eric and Sarah Byrnes. They’re both circus freaks at their school. Eric is fat and everyone calls him Moby. Sarah Byrnes in the cruelest twist of fate has a horribly disfigured face from horrible burns.  Eric has started training on the swim team and is slimming down and becoming less freakish. He and Sarah fear that their friendship won’t survive his change in status and he does his best to stay fat.

It was the first book I had ever read that treated teenagers as full human beings with fully valid feelings, opinions and problems.  The kids in the book were real and genuine and flawed and needed to be listened to. All of them.  Every time somebody reached out, found a way to really get heard, or decided to defy the controlling people in their lives, it felt like a small piece of me was healed. That may sound like too much, but it really is true. Chris Crutcher gets people and he really gets teenagers. They are people. They feel things deeply and need the space to feel, make mistakes and to help each other. Sarah Byrnes and Moby are amazing. There are fantastic well meaning adults, too. Ms. Lemry made me want to go hug a random teenager and make them feel better. I don’t want to give you a plot summary as you can find them in lots of other places. Reading that book was a huge moment and revelation for me. I had always loved teenagers and thought they never got the respect or credit they deserved. Here was someone who felt the same way about Moby and Sarah and about my badly bruised and unheard teen self.

I couldn’t believe it. I met Chris Crutcher unexpectedly at the NCTE conference this year. When I saw him at a session, I knew who he was immediately. I made my way to him and when I got to speak I said, “Thank you so much for Sarah Byrnes,” and immediately burst into tears. I explained that the book was just so important to me and I was just so grateful. When I told my 17 year old daughter the story when I got home, she shook her head and told me that I am, indeed, a mess.  Fortunately, I was able to talk with Mr. Crutcher the next day before a session and apologized for my blubbering and then had a normal tear free conversation with him.

So, that was my introduction into the tribe of what I’ve come to think of as ‘real’ teens in Young Adult fiction. I’ve met many more of them over the years, but Sarah Byrnes and Moby really were the first members of ‘The Tribe’ of weirdos that made me feel less alone. If they could help each other and love each other through their missteps and through the cruelty and judgment that they had each encountered at school and at home, there was hope for so many more of us.