I just finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I plucked it from the shelf as a way to lighten my reading a bit. Per usual, I’m reading a few books right now, including The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, So You Want to Talk About Race, and Convenient Amnesia. (And in the time it took me to start and publish this post, I started and finished The Book of Unknown Americans.) It’s all really good stuff. And pretty deep stuff. Between that and the news, I needed a little levity. Enter YA.
I say that knowing full well that young adult (YA) literature is not for the faint of heart. Just like all literature, conflict is central to the story, and teens and tweens (especially teens and tweens) experience challenges too. Did I cry reading Wonder? Yes. Is it exactly what I needed right now? Yes.
In fact, I think we all need to read YA literature.
I know we’ve all “been there before.” I also know the surest way to get a teen to tune out is to utter the phrase, “When I was your age…” Yeah, they don’t care. And why should they, really? How do our experiences as teenagers — during that ancient time before everyone had a computer in their pocket — even begin to compare to theirs? Sure there are some universal struggles. But have you ever dealt with, say, hormones and social media? Yeah, they didn’t think so.
Life is kinda crazy for teenagers these days. Ask them. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you, but it’s much more likely that they’ll shrug and say, “Fine,” or “Good,” or roll their eyes and say, “Whatever” because they’re teens and some things (cough, ANGST, cough cough) don’t change all that much. As much as we think we know what’s going on, it’s a very different view from the outside looking in.
You may or may not be lucky enough to get a glimpse from the teens you love. You can definitely get a really good look, though, through YA literature.
Wonder, for example, is told through the perspectives of six different characters, ranging in age from 10 to 14. There’s some overlap in the storytelling so we get a chance to see how different people perceive the circumstances. Different young people, that is. And you know what the “old” people (parents) are doing in the book? Worrying. Doing their best, of course, and also…worrying.
Worrying is why some of the best YA selections get banned. Sure, people say it’s because of the content, but it’s really about the complainant’s concern (worry) about kids’ ability to handle the content. It’s not that this worry is unjustifiable; it’s inherent to parenting and nurturing. It’s also uncalled for. At least, as taken to the extreme of censorship.
Kids can handle tough stuff. I see it every day at school, quite often at home, and every time I open a YA book. It might be nice to think we can shield kids from tough stuff, but we’ve all lived some life so we all know…that’s impossible. We’d be much better off helping kids deal with the tough stuff. Which, again, gets us back to YA literature.
“People who read more fiction [are] better at empathy and understanding others,” according to a study conducted by cognitive psychologist Keith Oakley. Oakley writes, “…reading a work of fiction can be thought of as taking in a piece of consciousness.” Read that last line again. Seriously, folks. Where else can you get a piece of consciousness?? That’s some magical stuff right there. And it’s all there for the borrowing at your local public library.
Look, I’m not here to lecture. After reading Wonder, I was just thinking that:
- kids are amazing,
- books are amazing, and
- kids’ books are amazing.