The issue of being “teen”

stressI read for entertainment. There, I said it. I don’t read to educate myself, or to explore world issues, or even to learn how to ‘lose a guy in such-n-such days.’ I like to be entertained.

But there is so much more out there and it’s a shame to limit oneself. I admit that. There are so many works of fiction out in the world that paint horrifically vivid worlds of reality. They are acclaimed novels. They are NY Times bestsellers. Some are even [gasp] banned. Why? Because amidst those bold typed pages we lose ourselves in, there is a truth. And many times that truth is so ugly, so emotionally charged, so honest, and so brutal that some folks believe these book are ‘too much’ for the average teen.

I’m talking about those wonderfully real books dealing with everyday teen life; the true angst of being a teenager. No matter how parents try to shield their kids, the fact remains we live in a world of rape, murder, drugs, bullying, hatred, racism, and all around negativity.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is a critically acclaimed look into the cruel world of bullying and consequences of nonconformity to the larger group. The same with The Lord of the Flies by William Golding where teen boys compile into tribes and hunt each other, the weaker group and social deterioration. Of course, there are also books with a more humorous approach like Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney where he makes being the dork kind of cool in a humorous way.

Many, many, many [many] years ago, I read Go Ask Alice from an anonymous author. I will never forget this book. The vision of Alice literally clawing the walls until her fingernails broke and bled while on a bad trip still haunts me. Some say this book is fiction, some say it’s an actual account of an anonymous teen. Either way, it scared the bejezzus out of me.

There are also some amazing books out there that don’t have the all-up-in-your-face approach to teen issues. The entire Harry Potter series was peppered with underlying references to prejudices, racism, bullying, and some possible homosexuality. Rowlings’ crafts the books in such a way you don’t really see it at first, but it’s there.

Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series also weaves in homosexuality, underage drinking, and drug use in such a way that it doesn’t pull you out of the story. Even in her Infernal Devices series, one of our most adored characters is, in all actuality, a drug addict.

We also LOVE our bad guys in all their sinister glory. But where is the line between a glorified bully and the bad-ass villain we love to hate? Does commercial fiction make the bad guy too…awesome?

So what makes an effective work of fiction that also addresses real issues that teens not only want to read, but will get something from it? Is it best to sucker-punch readers with realistic portrayals of humanity’s demons, or is it best to weave them into a world where it’s as allusive as the Faerie Courts? Teen issues are very real, and they need to be part of teen reading, but where is the line between being too preachy and downright cheesy?

As you know, we will have a whole panel dedicated to fictionalizing teen issues. What are some topics you’d like to see discussed? Is there a ‘teen issue’ book you’ve read that spoke to you? What are some other great reads that teach, and not preach, the importance of addressing the not-so-awesomesauce part of being a teen?

D.B. Graves is a young adult writer living amidst the rolling hills 
of Middle Tennessee with her husband and young son.
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6 thoughts on “The issue of being “teen”

  1. Crystal Cattabriga has a great book about overcoming bullying that isn’t too preachy or too cheesy.You know,I’ve all TMI books and it did not occur to me about the underage drink and drug use.Like you said it is weaved in such a way that it doesn’t pull you from the story.If a teen book addresses teen issues in a subtle way or teaches them how to overcome these issues then I guess it is alright to broach the subject.I not to fond of the Crank Series,thought it shows the horror of drugs I don’t think it actually encourages them not to do it.However,my daughter did say she never wanted to touch crank after she read the book but she also said “they became like monsters on it” and nothing was really resolved by the end of the book.I wouldn’t let her read the rest of the series.The TTLY books has too much graphic sexual content plus was encouraging teens to engage in sexting,which has become a major issues and is illegal.And I know a lot of teens have sex and l read books that had that in them, but were very subtle and not very graphic in detail.That is one reason I like YA,Adult books are too graphic with that subject.By the way the issues with the Crank and TTLY books occurred in middle school where they were between 12~13(hardly even teens yet).I know my opinions may be a little strong but have a teenage daughter and seeing the issues she deal with,there are something I feel are my duty to keep her from.No, I am at no means blind-sighted or naive(as a few of you know what I have been dealing with),I know teens will still do what they want to do but I do not want to encourage her to engage in certain issues either.

    • Thank you so much for the comment! Absolutely on the need to protect our kids. I have a 3yo and I don’t want him to grow up to walk that road, but I also want him to be educated about reality. I think having brilliantly crafted books that encompass teen issues is a necessity. But it can’t be on a soap-box. There’s a delicate line between books with that ‘shake-my-finger-at-you-and-say-no-no-no” vibe and others that teach, enlighten, provoke thought and ability to make decisions.

  2. Awesome post, and so true! At the NY SCBWI conf, I overheard two people talking about how sex, drugs, cutting, etc shouldn’t be in YA books because they’ll “put ideas into kids’ heads.” Meanwhile, real teens are crying out to have their strories and experiences heard. I didn’t turn around and tell them how much I wish books like Wintergirls were around when I was struggling with my eating disorder in college. I love that YA novels find ways to address the issues that modern teens face in ways that speak directly to them and their experiences.

    • And that’s exactly what I’m talking about, Emberchyld! Thank you for the comment. We want our kids to be strong, healthy, independent adults. That includes giving them the necessary tool to make educated decisions. Many of these topics are not addressed because the teen feels alone, or shamed, or misunderstood, etc. If a teen, or any person for that matter, can find guidance from a beloved character because they ‘get them,’ shouldn’t we encourage that?

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