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 or The BFG. Of all of these, no set of books I remember more than those by Mildred D. Taylor, whose series includes Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; 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 1980s, and which mostly follow the story of the Logans, an African-American family living in southern Mississippi during the Great Depression.
Cassie Logan, the young protagonist in most of Taylor’s work, is 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 not have received so overtly as a white child going to school every day in a mostly homogeneous suburb of Detroit. And, although as a child I would not be tuned to the nuanced ways—both overt and subtle—in which power and privilege stratify our society, these books were 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 Myers’ Monster, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for example, 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 doors to these other selves, writing YA can be considered a practice of critical social importance. And even if the book contains paranormal tropes—werewolves, vampires, or ghosts—these tales are often imbued with ideas around discrimination or fitting in. In fact, my guiltiest guilty pleasure in middle school—the Sweet Valley books—took me into a world I 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, more importantly, show empathy and apologize to people they’ve hurt.
Ready to write your own YA novel? Check out Denise Santomauro’s class, Crafting YA Characters.