Let’s be honest. There is both a wrong time and a right time to read something, and it can be impossible to know the difference until you start reading. When I was 11, I tried to read 1984. It didn’t work. I found it boring and dry and I only got 50 pages in. I shocked a teacher by saying it was the most boring book ever. I was eventually able to read it though, when I was 15, but only after reading Animal Farm and a whole bunch of other things. I was amazed to find the book so different. It was intense and dark and terrifying, a beautiful nightmare.
There are books you need to read in certain ways, at certain times, so that they can touch your heart, save your life, change your mind or move you forward so that you can read that next thing that will mean the world to you. There were books I read, like The Chocolate War and Huckleberry Finn, that I read because other people didn’t want me to. I had found the ALA list of most challenged books and decided to read as many of these as I could. Part of the power of these books came from the fact that someone out there thought that I shouldn’t read them.
Where does YA fit in to this? Everywhere.
Going back to 1984, I needed certain books to move me forward to the point where I could admire it. I needed to read other dystopias, as well as other completely different books. I also needed other books that referenced it to pique my interest once again. A lot of YA makes allusions to other “greater” works, or raised my consciousness about issues that had never crossed my mind before. It made me want to read further, to find out more. YA can be a stepping stone to other works, but it can also be a good unto itself.
And then there’s The Chocolate War. Right now I’m working on a presentation on a challenged book, and I found myself returning to this one. When I first read it, I was a pretty typical teen. I was a mystery to myself. I didn’t understand what I was feeling or why I was acting the way I was, and no one else seemed to understand me either. It didn’t help that I’ve never liked to talk about my problems and there was some bullying going on. I’ve mentioned this before, but this book meant a lot to me back then; however, I don’t ever want to read it again. In the novel, bad things happened to good people and evil triumphed… or did it? Maybe life wasn’t that simple. Maybe there were other options. It was comforting to hear about the dark things, things that sounded like part of my life and not have it banished from the story.
I was sad when Robert Cormier died and when Monica Hughes died and when Madeline L’Engle died. I'll be sad when other authors die too. These people mattered to me because they helped give me an emotional vocabulary. Maybe not new words, but new stories, new phrases that helped me recognize myself and others. Sometimes you need to be shown that what you feel is real, that you are not alone in feeling this way, that other people have it worse, and that you should help them if you can. Maybe today sucks, and maybe tomorrow will too, but that doesn’t mean that something better won’t show up someday and you have a role to play in that. Yes, adolescence is a time for melodrama (and oh what melodrama!), but that doesn’t mean that the feelings aren’t real. And sometimes a book can help you figure it out.