And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that’s how you see it? Well, now, I must remember that. –Ray Bradbury
Night after night when I was a child, my mother read aloud to me. As she sat at the edge of my bed, she’d grant me one chapter a night from another world, whether The Phantom Tollbooth or Little House on the Prairie. Of all of these, no set of books I remember more than those by Mildred T. Taylor, which includes Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Song of the Trees and Let the Circle Be Unbroken. We ended up going through the entire Taylor catalog that existed at that time, in the late ’80s; most of which followed the story of the Logans, an African-American family in southern Mississippi during the Great Depression. Cassie Logan, the young protagonist in most of Taylor’s work, was funny and fierce and loyal, and I loved her.
Her family’s experience with discrimination and violence was my entry as a young child into a recognition of racism—along with an un-whitewashed history—that I would likely not have received so overtly as a white child going to school every day in a mostly homogenous suburb of Detroit. And although as a child I would of course not be tuned to the nuanced ways—both overt and subtle—in which power and privilege stratify our society, those books were such an important catalyst for me to question social norms, and have forever changed me.
This is what good literature does, no matter the intended audience. It provides a glimpse into a world outside of our immediate one, challenges our perceptions or environment, and, by teaching us to consider our and other people’s feelings, builds empathy.
Young adult literature, as a category of books, is notable in this. Perhaps it’s because adolescence and young adulthood are heightened emotional times in which we experiment with and cast off various identities, each experience carrying with it a sense of newness and potency and pain. In this, it is good to have refuge in books, and to recognize that our brand of aloneness is in fact part of a wider human experience. It also gets us outside our own heads. With Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we experience the isolation of being a social outcast silenced by sexual assault; we are thrown in juvenile detention, awaiting trial; and we are the new kid, the poor kid, the only indigenous student at a wealthy white school.
Because it opens these doors to other selves, writing YA can be fairly considered a practice of critical social importance. Even if it contains werewolves, or vampires, or ghosts—aren’t these escapes equally important, and also often imbued with ideas around discrimination or cultural values? Even my guiltiest guilty pleasure in middle school—the Sweet Valley books—took me into a world I’d have never had access to, and showed me that even the most annoyingly beautiful, blonde California twin sisters can make, and learn from, their mistakes. And, importantly, apologize to people they’ve hurt.
–Want to help get some of these books to men who are incarcerated? Check out the Free Minds Book Club’s wish list.
–Ready to write your own YA novels? Check out Denise Santomauro’s class, Crafting YA Characters.
–What was your favorite book as a young adult? Send us a note on Facebook or Twitter!