Other People’s Words: How YA Helped Me

Photo by James Stamler on Unsplash

Some words stay with you. Over the years, you will learn to measure yourself by how they’ve shaped you, how you’ve grown into the skin they have crafted. When I lost my grandmother, I found that I had run out of my own words and I had to borrow someone else’s. Patrick Ness’, to be exact, spoken to me out of A Monster Calls, which I read only a few weeks after she passed away. I had taken an indefinite leave from work to move away from the city and care of her as her condition deteriorated, but after a while the solitude and mundaneness chafed. We found ourselves in some medical limbo—she was frail but alive, and I had no clue whether my indefinite leave would mean six days or six months. I was eager to go back to the life I had left behind, and in those very human moments, it didn’t matter to me if that limbo ended in recovery or worse. I eventually told her that my boss could no longer hold the position open for me and I had to return to the city. One of my uncles was coming to relieve me of my duties anyway, and what was the two weeks that she was in the care of people outside of family? So I left.

And then she died.

To this day, I had never known guilt the way I did after she died. It was a very ugly thing that gnawed at me and left me empty. I tried to fill that emptiness with books. I was looking for something—an escape, a distraction—but I did not expect to find something akin to forgiveness. “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary,” Ness writes, and it was like someone had answered all the questions I never had the courage to ask. I took his words to bed, wrapped myself in their blanket, repeated them over and over like a mantra. I was twenty-eight and heartbroken, and nothing could comfort me as much as that YA book did.

When people ask me why adults still read YA, I am quick to answer. I think YA literature reminds us of the times when we were at our most vulnerable. And I’ve always felt that we are at our most vulnerable as young adults.

Sure, little kids aren’t strong. But our physical weaknesses as children are counterbalanced by an innocence that shields us from the world’s pains, and we were marked by a fearlessness that did not know any consequence. As young adults though, we begin to lose that shield. We start to think for ourselves. We act. We feel. We understand consequence but we go for it anyway. And for a few years before the cynicism of the world hardens our backbones or our fists—or worse, our hearts—we are entirely vulnerable, souls laid bare. That’s what YA captures for me.

It is ironic that I read most of my YA books when I wasn’t a young adult. I was in the third grade when I discovered my friend’s copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and offered to trade it for another book. After that, I tore through our school library’s collection of Cynthia Voigt and Judy Blume and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I read every Newbery Award winner I could get my hands on. I went old school. While my appetite for YA petered out in high school, I found it again after college, marveling at the number of titles and sub-genres that I had missed out on. It is such a disservice to YA authors and readers to dismiss these books as lighter fare. They can be as textured and as nuanced as any other genre. Just because their protagonists can’t legally order alcohol doesn’t make them less credible sources of the human experience. To me, YA books are a source of strength, empathy, and affirmation at any age.

In a way, YA defined me. More importantly, it gave me a language that I could define myself by. English is not my mother tongue. You will catch it in my unguarded moments–the accent that slips past the studied flatness, the turn of phrase that sounds just slightly off. But through my YA books, I discovered words that were not originally my own, and I found that I could make them mine. I mastered a language and learned stories that made my world bigger and richer. I filled my empty spaces—am still filling them—with other people’s words. Words that, on closer scrutiny, turn out to be not much different from my own.


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