Several months ago, I was asked to give a speech on the importance of young adult literature. I found myself asking why I started The Passed Note. What was it that burned within me as the ultimate reason to begin a magazine for teens?
Below, I’ve included my speech. If you’d like, you can even watch me give the speech (eep!) here.
Show of hands: does anyone remember being dramatic as a teenager? Making questionable, unwise decisions? Being emotional all the time? Not only saying “This is the worst thing ever”, but feeling like it was the worst thing that you’d experienced in your life?
Well, all of that was true. Your emotional self was being authentic to its experience because your prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is in charge of processing and judgement, doesn’t finish growing until at least twenty-five. So all of the frustrations of being a teen like crushes, teen angst, loss of friends, loss of virginities, cliques, eating disorders, drugs, peer pressure, friends talking behind your back–ALL of that is exemplified by having a brain that can’t yet handle processing and planning the same way an adult brain can.
I want to be clear here and state: I’m not saying teens are dumb. I feel young adults are genius in ways that even adults aren’t. What I am saying is, teens need someone who care about their frustrations. Someone who isn’t their parents (because parents totally don’t get it) but who has been there.
That is where books come in. Let me tell you a story. When I was 15, my parents gathered all four of us kids up one day and told us that, that July, we were moving from our home of Southern California 2,507 miles away to Orlando, Florida… where I knew no one.
You guys, I left behind everything. I left behind my high school, my theatre group, my bedroom that I had just painted the perfect shade of blue. But hardest, I left behind friends.
So when I came to Florida, literally, all I had were my family and my books. And since, as I’ve stated, parents totally don’t get it, I turned to books. Mostly YA. Mostly, this book.
Now, a few things. Perks of being a Wallflower was set in the 1990s, and I went to high school in the mid 2000s. The protagonist, Charlie, is a guy, I’m… not. The plot centers on being sexually abused by family members. That’s, thankfully, not true of my life. But teen angsty me didn’t care about all the ways Perks wasn’t my story. Perks was my story because of the way that Charlie thinks, talks, and, most importantly, the way he felt: depressed and alone. Just the way I did. Charlie GOT it. Right then, I just needed someone to say, “Me too.”
And I needed someone to say, “it’s going to be okay to be mad” and that’s where this book came in. Crown Duel couldn’t be more different than Perks. It’s set in a magical version of 17th century France. But. One, the main character is redheaded, which is very important. And two, she’s a bad ass who wins a war in her region by totally beasting it at sword fighting and a secret fan language, which is so cool. But most of all, she fights for her homeland. And I got that. I got wanting to fight for your right to have a home.
After two years of working in YA publishing, I know I’m not the only one for whom Young Adult literature is life changing. Most people I’ve talked to have at least that one book they recall from high school English class. Often, they’re classics, or something that brought a different perspective: going crazy, exploring new worlds, losing a beloved friend… Or even trying to escape the clutches of an oddly complexed overlord. Some of us know something about that. But in all seriousness, we need books that make all teens have a feeling of “Someone understands me.”
There’s a movement going on right now within the publishing world called “We Need Diverse Books.” A clarion call by writers, librarians, teachers, parents, to publish more books for queer teens, teens of color, teens of different ability–teens who desperately, desperately need someone to tell them: “Hey, I see you. It’s going to be okay. I promise.” We need diverse books because everyone needs to see themselves in literature. Teens of color need to know they aren’t just a sidekick.Teen girls need to understand that they are more than a love interest or a manic pixie dream girl. Queer teens hunger to hear that they are not just a sassy best friend with great fashion sense. Books are the way for young adults to see they aren’t just a trope.
In 2011, YA authors stormed twitter to share on the hashtag YAsaves how they’d received thousands of letters from readers, all saying the same thing: “Your book saved my life.” Readers discussed how these books helped them through self-confidence issues, abusive home lives, rape recovery. These are issues that teens face.They are not as innocent or as safe as adults would like to believe.
Our teens need books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a YA retelling of the black lives matter movement through the eyes of a young black girl. It’s been the number 1 NYTimes Bestseller since it came out. All because of the truth that it tells about racial violence in our country.
We need Benjamin Alire Saenz’ award winning novel to show teens there is life after coming out of the closet. Like YA Saves, the author said he’s received so many stories from teens about how his book helped them have the courage to come out.
YA needs diversity of topics and characters to help teens feel identified with and heard and not alone. Lastly, if you want proof that YA Saves Lives, I’m here. YA saved my life.