On Monday I discussed the #YASaves phenomenon of last week, mostly showcasing the many things other people have said about Young Adult fiction and how it can help people — both those who struggle with darkness and those who know nothing of it. What I didn’t talk about what how YA affected me.
I lived a very privileged life when I was young. We lived comfortably in the suburbs of Toronto, with a big house and big yard, swimming pool, some good friends. My parents are happily married and love each other, no one in the house suffered from alcoholism or drug problems, I wasn’t abused or raped. The worst it ever got, for the most part, was arguments with my brother over whose turn it was to play the SNES. I was, overall, extremely sheltered as a kid.
I know people now who dealt with a lot of shit in high school. Alcoholism and drugs, abusive relationships and abusive parents, suicidal depression and cutting. Even people who went to the same high school as me in stepford suburbia. Even close friends. But up until the end of high school, I never even saw most of it.
I read a lot as a kid — my mom certainly made sure of that, reading to me before bed for years. I read of lot of the classic YA — the Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter.
I think my mom always tried to make sure I read books that dealt with some of those darker issues, even though they weren’t ones I had to deal with. I think she wanted to make sure I understood that some people did go through them, what some people had to deal with. And I definitely think that was good for me — it prevented me from being completely sheltered. But I also always thought of them as things that happened to Other People. It wasn’t until late high school that I started to see that they happened to people I knew.
But by the time I was actually within the typical YA range (~13-18) I had already moved on to “adult” books (mostly genre fiction). But that was when I really needed YA.
Because meanwhile, I was going through a very different internal journey. Part of it was, of course, the process of coming out. But connected to that was something more. I was slow to really come into my own, to come out of my shell, and I was slow to really sexually mature, in a lot of ways.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I came out of the closet and came out of my shell around the same time. I dealt with a lot of stuff in my head during the process of coming out that had prevented me from developing socially as well. When you can’t talk about the majority of what you’re thinking about because you don’t fully understand it yourself, you turn inward because it’s all you have that makes you comfortable.
Though I also don’t think I can discount other aspects of my character — I was a total geek/nerd throughout school, one of the smarter people in what was already a gifted class; I was somewhat overweight; I was very shy except to my close friends; and while I wasn’t very emotionally mature, I was extremely mature in other ways, able to connect with adults more easily than kids my age a lot of the time, and so I was friends with a lot of my teachers — and I was bullied for all of these things. So that didn’t help my social development either.
But most of all, I think being gay but not really understanding that for a long time, and being in a place where there weren’t a lot of out gay people around me, and that there was certainly a homophobic atmosphere (despite the fact that the majority of people directly around me — parents, friends, classmates, teachers — professed acceptance; we couldn’t escape the heteronormativity of the suburbs, nor the conservative influence around us), all greatly influenced my personal development.
I didn’t come out until the very end of grade 11. I never dated in high school. And frankly, I didn’t know a lot about sex — I mean, I knew the essential mechanics, of course, but I didn’t really know a lot about it. I hadn’t been exposed to it to nearly the degree of other people, and of my peers. (And I don’t think it’s that I wasn’t ready for it; certainly my adolescent body and mind seemed ready for it.)
So while the books I did read helped me see a little bit beyond my bubble world, I think there are a lot of YA books that, had I read them in high school, would have helped me immensely — to gain a better understanding of my sexuality and to accept it, to see that there were teenagers out there that were dealing with this stuff and coming out (even if there were so very few of them around me). Maybe it would have helped me be a little braver in meeting other gay teens at the time, or at least helped me be a little braver in doing so once I got to university (when suddenly I didn’t know anyone, had to go through the coming out process all over again it seemed, and became pretty shy once more).
I needed to be exposed to sexuality much more directly, in a way that I could relate to. I’ve read a lot of YA books since that could have done that for me.
So in a lot of ways, I feel like I’m still in that young adult period of my life — despite having graduated university, being moderately successful in my professional life so far, and generally being ahead of the game in a lot of other ways. I only started dating in my third year of university, so though I have matured a lot and probably have some very different outlooks on life and dating than most people in high school do (or at least perhaps a slightly more realistic view of the future, since in high school it always feels like That Is It, those are the biggest moments of your life), my emotional and sexual experiences are still very much those of many kids in high school.
And that’s one reason I love YA fiction. I don’t feel like it’s something I’m past. I’m still there, in many ways. In many ways, YA books allow me to relive my actual adolescence vicariously. It’s a different kind of escapism in books — not to be in a fantastical world like in Harry Potter, but to have had different experiences earlier in life.
And now, I write it. I write it because I still feel like I’m there in a lot of ways — the issues YA deals with, especially sexuality and emotional development, are still extremely important to me.
And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons — in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.
He also says:
I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.
I couldn’t agree more. I write YA fiction because if I can reach someone like me, someone who needs to read it, if I can find that person that I was in high school and help them, even in the smallest way, it will all be worth it.
I write what I needed to read. I write for my past self, and for all my past selves still out there. I write because YA saves.