Saturday, October 31, 2015

Difficult stories: Edgy teen fiction

Sometimes it seems silly or weird to decide to read fiction knowing it will make you feel angry, sad, outraged, or horrified. As a teen librarian, I have had more than one parent or teacher confront me to ask, "Why don't you ever publish any book lists with fun, lighthearted, happy books in them? And why is so much of teen fiction dedicated to dystopias, or dark faeries, or vampires, or edgy stuff in which the characters use bad language and make worse decisions?"

One answer I give them is that it's a good way for teens whose lives are not so traumatic to find out how many different kinds of people and stories are out there. For those whose life experiences are "normal" (if there is such a thing), books like these remind them that there are others who lead more difficult lives. Books like these can teach teens to experience empathy, to put themselves in others' shoes and to develop compassion and understanding. They can also operate as a warning system, alerting teens to signs of abuse, mental illness, and suicide in those around them.

Parents seem surprised sometimes that their teens actually want to read about these kinds of issues. One thing they may not realize is that teens for whom these are exotic experiences want to live vicariously through the protagonists' problems without having to endure them personally. And for those teens for whom these are everyday events, it can help them to know that they are not alone, that others have had these traumas in their lives and still survived; the books can even give them either courage or a good idea about how to get out of the situation they're in. So despite the difficulty of reading some of them, I say bravo to those teen authors who approach these issues from a genuine, visceral place and make them come to life.

A few titles we have recently read, either individually or in book club, from what Anarda calls the "I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay" list:

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

We read this in 10-12 Book Club. Melissa is reviewing.

It's Leonard Peacock's birthday, and it also looks like it's going to be his death day. He can't stand his life any longer, and he's decided to check out, but first he's going to kill his former best friend with his grandfather's contraband Nazi pistol. Before he makes these two extreme statements, however, he has some people to whom he needs to say goodbye, and some gifts or words he wants to give them. So we follow him as he visits in turn with his Bogart-obsessed, elderly neighbor, Walter; his classmate, Baback, who is not his friend but who plays violin for him every day; his sort-of crush, the homeschooled Christian proselytizer, Lauren; and his professor, Herr Silverman; and we learn more about Leonard and why he is who he is and feels he needs to commit this drastic act.

This book was intriguing and well done, with good pacing and an honest personal feel to the narrative. I liked the gradual divulging of information, and the snippets of story that Leonard wrote about his future. People in book club started out reluctant to read it, but within about 25 pages most of them couldn't put it down. (Two of them quit reading because it was too overwhelming, but the others urged them to go back and finish it.) It was super-depressing, and yet the hopeful element always came through.

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

Anarda read this last week, and brings up other edgy books we have read, by way of comparison:

Challenger Deep is about a 15-year-old boy navigating the waters of his mental illness, and it was a difficult read for me. I found it a bit slow going at first, as I tried to piece together the various story lines, but once I was about a third of the way through it, ouch, it became an insightful look at a mind that is gradually becoming lost in delusions and paranoia. Remembering The Butterfly Clues [by Kate Ellison, another book we read in club], and how difficult it was for the teens to "hang out" in the protagonist's OCD brain, I actually think that this book might be worse. I didn't truly understand what was going on for for the first portion of the book, until I realized that it was the same delusional mind in two separate times providing the dual narration--Caden's voice in the near future is telling an improbable sea-faring adventure, while the other voice is narrating Caden's current day-to-day life as he grows ever more unstable--and only then do you begin to understand the way the two story lines intersect. (Something similar occurs in Andrew Smith's The Alex Crow--there appears to be two completely separate story lines depicting an individual or a society's losing grip with reality, but in Smith's story the destructive delusions are passed on from one generation to the next.) The horror of being in Caden's disintegrating mind, the incredible tragedy of being in that mind, will make it a difficult read for many teens, and a terrible read for parents and adults who dread the diagnosis of mental illness. But I found it a compelling — and important — story.

A Work of Art, by Melody Maysonet

This is Melissa's review:

As the book opens, Tera and her father are sitting together selecting art—his and hers—to be featured in an article in an art magazine, and she's so happy that they are getting this joint attention. She has spent her life trying to show her charismatic father that she can make something of herself as an artist as well. Finally, her hard work is paying off: She has won a scholarship to an art school in Paris in the fall, and money saved from her job plus an unexpectedly generous gift from her dad is going to take care of room and board.

Her mother is, as usual, wigging out in the other room, because that's what her mother does, both when she's on her meds and when she's off them. Then there's a knock at the door, and the police barge in to search the house, confiscate the computers, then arrest Tera's father for a hideous crime. Tera realizes that her own mother called the police on her dad, and she's convinced that it's all a crazy-mom-generated mistake and that her father didn't do what they're saying. But then she starts putting together things from her childhood: odd clues, forgotten memories, current insecurities...and she wonders...

I chose this one mostly because it was about art and artists, but that's not the main focus. This book was particularly intense, and shows how the product of a traumatic childhood is bad decision-making later on. Don't read this if you're not prepared for an edgy, explicit, difficult story. It's really well done: evocative (almost too much so), graphic, engaging. It's a quick read, because you can't stop once you've started. It's such a horrifying family dynamic, which explains all the rest, but it's hard to experience, even on the page. Explicit scenes, explicit language, recommended for mature teens only.

* * *
If you are a teen in need of perspective about a weird family dynamic, or are undergoing abuse of any kind (verbal, mental, physical), or are considering doing something drastic, either to yourself or others: Go to an adult you can trust, and tell them. If they don't get it, make them listen! Don't give up until you are heard. If you are the friend of one of those teens, get them help, and don't be put off. If you want to understand teens like these better, read these and other books that deal with the truly difficult subjects. Yes, also judge them as fiction and as art, but realize that they are valuable tools as well. Recommend them to teens who need them and teens who want to understand from an outsider's perspective as well.

Parents, don't be too quick to conclude that books like these contain nothing of merit, or should be boycotted because of the bad language or the sex or drugs or bad behavior. Realize that these portrayals are most likely more familiar to your teens than you know, and if they aren't yet they probably will be. Embrace them as a vicarious way for your teens to see and experience these behaviors without actively participating in them, and say thank you to the authors who wrote them.

[climbs down off soapbox, goes home and reads a nice fantasy about dragons]

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