For the past several days, there have been discussions, debates, and the whatnot all over these internets regarding an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about Young Adult novels being too dark. My favorite response, so far, happens to be on the NPR site and is called, "Seeing Teenagers As We Wish They Were: The Debate Over YA Fiction." If you want to find out more, searchTwitter for #YASaves and you will find a humungous collection of links to blogs and articles galore that have sprung up in response.
I've been reading many, many, many tweets and blogs about how YA has saved people in some way. I've already read opinions from a few authors that YA doesn't have to save to be legitimate. I find it all very interesting. No one is going to change my mind that contemporary YA isn't important or that the "dark" stuff shouldn't be written about, so I don't know why I keep devouring all this stuff. It's good to be informed (I guess?), and it's uplifting to see so many people rallying around this category of books that I love and that I also happen to write.
All the discussions got me thinking about the books I read as a teen and whether I could pin-point a dark YA novel that "saved" me. Oddly, the "edgiest" teen novel that comes to mind that I actually read as a teen is called Four on the Edge. It's a Christian-published novel by Heidi Borrink about four teens who all get up to No Good during the course of the book as they "reveal their thoughts and make choices about drugs, sex, abortion, and God."(And there are nine copies on Amazon for $0.01 cent each! You know you want one!)
This book. You guys! Oh, man. So shenanigans go on like crazy, right? It's scary that both of the girls' stories are basically about deciding whether or not to have sex and the boys' stories (these two girls' love interests) are all about coping with Pressure and Society by smoking and drinking and getting stoned.
Anyway, one of the girls gets pregnant (spoiler! It's the studious girl who is the football player's little sister who has sex ONE TIME with the stoner who also happens to be the football player's friend whom the football player's cheerleader girlfriend can't stand) and the way it all plays out makes adult me feel just TERRIBLE, particularly since the girls are punished and the boys kind of . . . aren't and it ends on the strangest note from the point of view of the stoner and I can't even.
This book was pretty racy for me at age thirteen. It's strange to realize that because I didn't even read a great many teen novels as a teen. (For reals!) I was all about stuff like Victoria Holt, Maeve Binchy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Danielle Steele, and John Grisham.
I think the fact that Four on the Edge was a book was all about teens with upbringing similar to mine made it uncomfortably . . . real. I didn't seek out many more books like it. Not because it was too dark for me to handle (please), but because I really did want to read about grown-up romances instead of "kid stuff." (I don't know why. I really don't.)
I wouldn't say that the book saved me, necessarily. But you know what it did do? It made me think. It made me put myself into each of the character's points of view and ponder what I would do in their situation. And as I got older, I did find myself in each of their situations, eventually. Sometimes, often, I was able to make smarter, better choices than they'd made. Not because of the book's preaching--because I didn't buy into most of it, even then--but because I'd seen how these scenarios had played out, I'd considered the consequences, and I'd decided what I wanted to do differently and how to go about it.
So thank you, Sonia, for losing your virginity at fifteen without considering at the time whether contraceptives should be used. You were a character with whom I could really identify, and I never wanted to make your mistakes. And thank you, Holly, for driving your boyfriend away with your shrill piousness, because damn girl, I really didn't want to grow up to be like you.
Knowledge is power, y'all.
(Side note: You know what I think really did save me in some ways? Seventeen and YM magazines. Sure, they had tons of shallow stuff about self tanner and clothes and such (which I loved to read!), but they also taught me about self esteem, boys, and especially what is NOT okay in relationships. I really credit those magazines for writing about things that I needed to read about in a style that made me want to keep reading and learning.)