We’ve been talking about young adult literature. I’m curious about your experience. I love the stories some of you have shared about a book that made a lasting impression on you early in life. (And early in life is getting later and later the older we get, right?) Let’s be real here, some of us are having a hard time remembering what we read in high school. So those of you still there or around there, help us out, OK?

So, please let us know:
  • What was your favorite assigned book from high school?
  • What was your least favorite/most detested/one you burned in the fire pit just as soon as you finished the final exam on that puppy?
  • And what book did you discover later in life that you learned to love or wished you had discovered earlier?
The more input we get the more fun I’m going to have, at least, reading through to see what has affected other people.
I’ll share mine later.

kick me, please

I am working on a marketing plan for a novel. Not so long ago, I would not have shared that information in public. One, I don’t talk about my work much. Two, I don’t like to sound remotely presumptuous. Three, I know that if I say it people are going to ask me about it. And then I’m stuck actually doing it. And I really hate accountability.

Yet I have learned not only to accept it but need it. I’ve never been good with criticism or correction. I like to play Lone Ranger a lot. I never outgrew the two-year-old mantra, “I can do it myself.” But one thing getting older does for you is teach you a couple things, one of which is, no, I can’t. The other is, if I want to do it myself and actually get it done, it helps a lot to have someone around to kick me in the butt.
Now, I prefer to choose those people myself. The position is still not open for anyone to apply. Folks who like to randomly correct others should generally just, not.

My kids hold me accountable. “Mom, you really shouldn’t have said that.” And that’s OK. They’re usually right. Since they possess quite a bit of their mother in them, however, plus the commonality of teenagerdom, this is not a reciprocal arrangement. I am not allowed to make them aware of their own mistakes. They do not, obviously, make any.
My husband, honestly, not so much. I prefer to keep that relationship more lover/friend than teacher/parent. The latter does not work for me. And he gets reminded of that every so often.
Real friends–the kind who are not perfect themselves and therefore will never say to me, “Well, how many times have you done that now?” qualify. My pastor can keep me accountable. My colleagues. And that’s pretty much the short list.
Why now? Because it’s way more important to me now that the things I want to do, the dreams I have not realized, the growth I’d like to flourish, really happen than that I preserve my pride. So, I’m working on a proposal. And you can hold me to it.
As to the twenty pounds I’m working on . . . well, you might want to tread lightly there. The list is even shorter.
What helps you get that kick you need every so often?

oh no, not the turtle again

I promised, so I’m coming back to this literature thing. Some of you are scared off right there. The word “literature” has terrified you since since Mrs. Finley in 10th grade stared at you through her little nose-perched glasses and asked, “What is the symbolism of the turtle in Grapes of Wrath? And you thought, “I have no clue, but I do know he took an awful dang long time to cross that stupid road, and I took that as a hint at how boring the other 345 pages would be, so I never got past page 36, and please stop staring at me!”

But I am not Mrs. Finley. And the question on the table was, what makes a book a classic worth asking young people to read despite (or because of) the sad elements in it, and what makes a book simply depressing without a lot of redeeming value in assigning it to kids who have enough garbage in their lives to deal with?

The above example is actually a pretty good one, for me. I have to admit right off, this English teacher despised Steinbeck in high school. Too depressing and too vulgar. I’m still not a huge fan, but I did a 180 and taught Of Mice and Men later because could go back and see the incredible value in the lessons of that book and the mastery in its writing. So, sad and harsh isn’t always bad.

Then there were the things we had to read because teachers were trying too hard to be “relevant.” I know I’ll step on toes here, because people love these books, but I hated, hated, hated reading things like The Outsiders. To quote a review, “This book forever changed the way that Young Adult fiction was written (and) also changed the way that teenagers read, enabling a generation to demand stories that reflected their actuality.”

And my feeling at 14 was that what it did was talk down to teenagers and tell us that teachers knew all we cared about was our own issues and feelings, and therefore we would now be fed a steady diet of books written about our “reality,” which they were only guessing at as far as I could tell and embellishing quite a lot at that. And I sat there thinking, “I am not a stupid selfish high school kid who can’t see past these four years and four walls, and will you please treat me like someone who can do better?” And that’s the way I feel when I look at my daughter’s summer reading list that is full of depressing novels written about “teen reality.” Where are the books written about life’s reality and rising above it?

What would your criteria be? How would you decide between what makes something a classic and what is simply depressing and unnecessary? I think I’d at least start with the question–Does the book offer a redemptive solution at the end, so that the sadness isn’t all there is?

Shakespeare, for all his tragedy, at least tells us how to avoid the same fate if we take notice. Though, were I to tell the tale of Romeo and Juliet, I’d probably offer the moral that girls who get married after knowing a guy for ten minutes might deserve what they get. Not to mention considering stalkers at their windows perfectly acceptable.

What else? Please chime in.

do you still hate your high school english teacher?

OK, now you’ve done it, my friends. Hit two of my hot buttons at the same time. I’m talking about a facebook conversation about literature in high school that I just had to jump into. Even though I know the possibility of confining myself to a facebook word count when discussing teenagers, literature, and teen depression is about as likely as me cliff diving in Mexico. And it’s way bigger than one blog post, so I imagine there may be several.

So, I’m the mother of three teenage girls, a former high school English teacher, and a writer, currently working on my first young adult novel. I care passionately about what kids read. And too often, I’m really discouraged by it.

You might think I mean the books they choose to read for themselves, but I don’t. I mean the ones their teachers/administrators require them to read. The list reads like a Who’s Who and What’s What of everything that could possibly go bad with the world and, specifically, their lives. By the end of freshman year, most kids should, according to their literature books, have suffered the death, imprisonment, abuse, or addiction of at least one parent; war-related trauma; rape; a car accident that killed their best friend and/or sister; and probably an end-of-the-world cannibal scenario thrown in as well. The fact that most kids don’t seems to have escaped the purview of literature teachers everywhere.

My youngest daughter’s summer freshman reading list last year was a good case in point. I do not recall one book on the list that wasn’t flat out depressing. And having talked with teens and lived through a lot of teenage depression, this does more than annoy me. It alarms me. At an age when kids are so prone to doomsday thinking anyway (Something bad happened to me today. Therefore, my life sucks. I guess everyone’s life sucks. Is there anything worth getting up for tomorrow?), why do we feel the need to fan the flame? Shouldn’t we consider maybe putting books in their paths that send the message, “Life is beautiful, even if you have to hang on a while to get there?” For whatever reason, we think feeding them “reality” means feeding endless messages about how ugly the world is, instead.

I’m not unrealistic. My own mother died while I was in high school. So did my sister. A very dear friend killed himself. I get that bad things happen to kids. The question is, is that all we want them to know? Do we really want to spend four years affirming their fears? “Yep, you’re right. Life sucks. Now graduate and get out there!”?

What do you think? It would be great to generate some opinions and even some reading alternatives. Back to this later!