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Thursday
Sep292011

Why I Read Young Adult Literature

One night, when I was fourteen and in eighth grade, my phone rang. By “my phone,” I don’t mean my cell phone (those didn’t really exist then for normal people) or even “the private phone line installed in my bedroom.” I mean my family’s white cordless phone, which we bought at Walmart, and which, at 11:00 pm at night, should have been nestled in its cradle on top of the microwave, and silently, like a slumbering bird.

But on this night it rang, and since the last time I could remember getting a call that late was my grandmother telling us my cousin Jonathan had been killed in a motorcycle accident, my heart sped. Surely something horrible had happened.

The first horrible thing that had happened was that this call had woken my mom, who shoved open my bedroom door and strode toward me with her arm extended. My mom wasn’t a fan of her kids spending much time on the phone; in fact, she frequently threatened to turn off the phone service to our house if my brother and I were talking when she thought we should be cleaning our rooms.

As she thrust the phone at my face, she gave me a look that shouted, “Somebody better be dying, and also, you better make this call so fast it’s like it never happened. And also, it better never happen again, or somebody will be dying, and that person will be you.”

I had still been awake, probably worrying over my algebra homework or listening — again — to Oasis’s “Wonderwall” or Bush’s “Glycerine,” which I recorded on cassette off our local alternative radio station’s “Top Nine at Eight” show.

But although I was perfectly alert, it took me a few moments to figure out who exactly was on the phone, because all I could hear were shuddering sobs. Finally I attributed them to my best girlfriend (we’ll call her Summer), but it took a while for her to calm down enough to tell me what was wrong. Because I knew things weren’t always the best at her house, I feared the worst.

“I finished the book,” she sniffed. “The one I stole from the library? The one I told you about? Well, I finished it tonight. And it doesn’t turn out okay. Nothing turns out okay. I’m afraid we’re not going to make it. One of us is not going to make it. You will. But I think I . . . I won’t.”

Wait — a book? All this — the tears, the sure-to-come-lecture from my mom, the imagined corpses — over a book? I was so relieved I laughed out loud.

But I shouldn’t have. Because in less than a week, I’d find myself up even later, again in my bedroom, having finished the book myself. And I’d be crying too, and I’d be holding the phone, though unable to bring myself to place a call, because I felt, as teenagers often do, interminably alone.

***

The book was Paul Zindel’s autobiographical The Pigman & Me, not to be confused with his earlier novels The Pigman or The Pigman’s Legacy, which have been mainstays of the English classroom since the first was published in 1968. 

It’s easy to find someone who’s read The Pigman, harder to find someone who’s read The Pigman’s Legacy, and rare to find someone who has read The Pigman & Me, which wasn’t published until 1992, only four years before my friend spied it in the library after hours, scanned the book jacket, and slipped it inside her backpack to take home.

Here’s what she read on the jacket:

Eight hundred and fifty-three horrifying things had happened to me by the time I was a teenager. That was when I met my Pigman, whose real name was Nonno Frankie.

The year Paul Zindel, his sister, Betty, and their mother lived in the town of Travis, Staten Island, New York, was the most important time of his teenage life. It was the year he and Jennifer Wolupopski were best friends. It was the year of the apple tree, the water-head baby, and Cemetery Hill. And it was the year he met Nonno Frankie Vivona, who became his Pigman.

Every word of his story is true. And The Pigman & Me has an added bonus — one crucial piece of information: the secret of life, according to the Pigman.

Once I read the book myself, I understood: that synopsis could easily have been rewritten about us. We, like Paul and Jennifer, had become best friends in what felt like the most important time of our teenage lives. We had troubled home environments, both reared mostly by our mothers. We didn’t live in Travis, NY, but we lived in Cleveland, TN, where we also feared growing into adult “zombies.” The apple tree, the water-head baby, and Cemetery Hill — these were symbols for death, for the unfairness of life, and we had our own experiences with those, too. And our “Pigman” — the one adult who came along and gave us hope, if not “the secret of life” — was our enigmatic but brilliant English teacher, Mr. Leffew.

And, yes. In the end of the book, one friend makes it out, and one doesn’t.

***

Why did we feel like we were reading a story that was about us, and not merely about kids who seemed similar to us? Why did we believe — truly believe — that their unhappy ending would be our own? Probably it had something do with the fact that middle schoolers are incredibly self-centered, which must be an evolutionary trait that helps them survive years in which their parents and siblings often wish to kill them.

Also — and here, I think, is the root of the matter — we weren’t reading anything else that was about people like us. We were reading what was assigned to us, and what was assigned to us in middle and high school were great books about people whose lives were not like our own. We read Shakespeare, Dickens, Wuthering Heights, Les Miserables, Death of a Salesman, and classic short stories like “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” as well as lots of Greek and Roman mythology. This school reading was mixed, of course, with steady church-administered doses of the King James Version of the Bible. I cringe to remember a post-breakup poem I wrote titled, “Balm in Gilead.”

The language we were taking in, of course, was wonderful. And the themes, universal. But the details? The gaggles of girls checking their makeup in locker mirrors between classes made the story of Narcissus seem not-so-outlandish, but if in reality one of them were to turn into a flower, some guy at our school would figure out a way to dry her out and smoke her. Or, ahem, de-flower her.

***

Recently a friend asked why I read so much Young Adult literature now as an adult.

One reason is probably because I read so much adult literature when I was a teen.

But also, I think, it is because when I began to read contemporary books written for young adults, I found a wealth of well-written, sensitive, imaginative, bold stories about individuals who are navigating a crucial, difficult time in their lives.

A time in which they are awakening to the fact that the world is not as safe as it may have seemed during childhood, in which they are developing identities outside their family units, in which they are having sexual awakenings, making best friends, losing best friends, falling in love, and — almost invariably — wondering if they are going to survive to experience something better.

And the best of these (among my personal favorites are Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, any of Sara Zarr’s novels, and — still — The Pigman and Me) are unsparingly honest, and go beyond the travails of family and school to get at what it feels like to question everything — even the goodness of God, even the existence of goodness — and what it means to make decisions that will define us.

The need for these kinds of stories isn’t something that goes away when we graduate with our advanced degrees, or start paying our own rent, or when there’s no one around to care how late our friends call.

At least, it didn’t for me. But while some things haven’t changed — questions about God and goodness, for instance, or about whether I can survive the present to reach a more stable future — some have. Here’s a big one: as I read such stories now from an ever-broadening web of voices, I hardly ever feel interminably alone.


Dyana Herron is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University's MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Southeast Tennessee, she now lives in Philadelphia.

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Reader Comments (6)

Dyanna, thank you.

I love that you address reading classics, but also needing to read books with which the young adult can identify as a teen. What you have listed here is a good, healthy mixture. I think I need to go back and do some YA reading myself now.

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Eddings-Roeser

This is such a fantastic article, Dyana. Thank you.

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTyler McCabe

What a real and true explanation as to why you read YA lit. I feel you have spoken on my behalf! I am also excited to see that someone else loves Marcelo in the Real World. I discovered that book almost two years ago now and loved it. I wish I could talk it over with you! I've yet to cross paths with someone else who's read it. Some of my thoughts on it are here:
http://rebarit.blogspot.com/2010/01/good-stuff.html

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Martin

I love YA literature and I'm well into my thirties. And I think you are right - we read so much "adult" literature as teens, the essence of what we wanted to read about escaped our grasp. While I appreciate the classics I was exposed to, the language of Shakespeare, and the depth of Dostoevsky sometimes I just wanted to read a story. Now, as a master of my own book choices, I can. I, too, love Sara Zarr - easily one of my favorite book authors (she did a presentation at the high school I teach at and was such an inspiration to me, I now dabble in YA writing) - and her simple stories about everyday life. Sweethearts is a book I will always cherish. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCresta McGowan

Thank you for this fantastic post (which I found through @sarazarr 's Twitter feed). Young Adult Literature is the main thing I am drawn to these days. Part of it is because I am writing it as well, but also because like you said: you found a wealth of well-written stories about people who are navigating a crucial, difficult time in their lives. I'm still navigating. I still feel like a teenager, especially as I am attempting to help my own teenagers with their own navigating. YA feeds my soul like nothing else does, and I thank you for the books you mention that I haven't read yet.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJM Randolph

I love YA books, for all the reasons you list here - and for another important reason: they nearly always offer hope. And no matter how old you are, hopeful stories (even if they don't have traditionally "happy" endings) are a necessity of life. I'm convinced.

Great essay.

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