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.
Invite others to join the circus!