This past week, I presented a talk about young adult literature to the Literature Committee of my city’s Woman’s Club. Due to a scheduling snafu, my audience consisted of five women instead of the anticipated 20 or so, and two of the attendees had to leave early because they were greeters at the club’s expo for vendors!
There I was with my suitcase of sample books and a presentation I’d spent days and days preparing—all for this handful of people. So was it worth it?
Absolutely. The women who did attend were effusive and appreciative. They even took notes! Beyond the connection I made with these women, however, the process of researching YA literature reminded me of how what we do as YA writers matters.
I’m often asked about why I write for young adults instead of the adult market. I usually answer that question in terms of my personal background of working extensively with teens and being a lifelong reader and fan of YA fiction. But Michael Cart’s 2011 book, Young Adult Literature, From Romance to Realism (2011), as well as more current research on adolescents, has strengthened my perception that writing for this age group is an important way to make a positive difference in young people’s lives. And in many ways, this work has never been more vital. Drawing heavily on Cart’s work, here is some of what I said:
Our teens are coming of age at such a challenging time. Our politics are severely polarized, the specters of gun violence and global climate change weigh heavily upon them, and the gap between rich and poor is growing. It used to be that teens could count on doing better economically than their parents had, but now there is no guarantee of that. The competition to try to get ahead by attending a prestigious college, not to mention the cost of college and student loan debt, have skyrocketed. We live in anxious times, and the research on teens’ mental health reflects that. According to the Child Mind Institute, nearly one in three adolescents will develop an anxiety disorder by the age of 18. And the number of teens who’ve had a depressive episode went up 37 percent between 2005 and 2014.
Meantime, our society is growing increasingly diverse. By the year 2050, people of color will constitute more than half of the American population. In our increasingly diverse society where our teens are trying to sort out issues of identity—who they are and who they dream of being, they’re grappling with the fallout from systemic racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.
What’s going on in our schools reflects the increasing challenges of coming of age. As researcher Thomas Jacobs pointed out, in the 1940s, the top discipline problems in schools were talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, and not putting trash in the wastebaskets. By the nineties, the top discipline problem was alcohol and drug abuse, followed by pregnancy, suicide, rape, assault, arson, murder, vandalism, and gang fights.
In addition, according to the CDC, at least one in four adolescents has been victimized by an abusive dating partner.
Bullying is also a significant problem for our young people. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one-fourth of students say they have been bullied at school. And going home offers no respite, because now we have rampant cyberbullying on social media.
As evidenced by these dating violence and bullying statistics, lack of empathy among youth is a serious problem. And as young adult author Gayle Forman has termed them, YA novels are wonderful “empathy-delivery devices.” As Cart points out, unlike other media, books can take readers into the interior lives of characters in ways that television and video can’t. He notes that the best fiction offers essential opportunities for cultivating empathy, for feeling sympathy and emotional engagement with others. This is one reason why he feels that multicultural literature is so important. He argues that “it enables us not only to see ourselves in the pages of good books but also to see others, to eavesdrop on their hearts, to come to understanding” and appreciate our commonality.
In addition to fostering empathy and understanding of the struggles of others, books can offer comfort to those who are suffering. As award winning YA author Chris Crutcher notes, “I have never met a depressed person, or an anxious person, or a fearful person who was not encouraged by the knowledge that others feel the same way they do.”
In addition, it’s important to encourage our teens to read because in this age of addictive social media, research indicates they are reading less, and we know that reading is connected to success in school and life. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, in 1984, 64 percent of teens reported that they read often. In recent years, less than 20 percent of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine, or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80 percent use social media every day. Meantime, far too many of our children are unable to read at a proficient level. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1998 and 2015, reading scores for 12th graders declined. More than 60 percent were not proficient readers.
In sum, young people need good books that will encourage them to read and will foster empathy and offer comfort in hard times. It feels good to know that the work I do as a YA writer matters.
Next week, I’ll share my thoughts on choosing books for teens on your holiday list from the wide range of YA books out there. And of course, dear readers, I’d love your thoughts on finding books for the special young people in your life.