2012 Printz Award Winner John Corey Whaley remembers . . .
So I was asked to write about a YA book that means something to me, but there are so many that I’ve had a hard time choosing just one. I could go with the literary masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which would most assuredly be classified as YA were it to be newly published today. Or, I could choose a more recent work like Sherman Alexie’s heartfelt, painful, and gorgeous The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. What about Frank Portman’s hilarious King Dork or Stephen Chbosky’s ode to teenage sexual/emotional confusion and angst, The Perks of Being a Wallflower? I could go on and on about these titles and why they transcend the adult-teenager literary divide. But, some of these I read as a teenager and I thought, to play fair, I’d discuss a YA book that I discovered as an adult.
In the few months prior to the release of my own YA book, I decided to read several titles that I’d had on my radar for years. The one that has stuck with me most from that period of time (and will always stick with me) was David Leviathan’s Love is the Higher Law. This beautiful sincere novel told from the multiple perspectives of New York City teenagers in the wake of the September 11th attacks meant more to me than most books I’ve ever read in my life. I think there are several reasons why this is true and why I would never be ashamed to be caught reading this title in a public place (thank you, Mr. Stein).
One reason is the beauty and courage with which Levithan approaches his characters as they experience, together and respectively, a rapidly changing world in which they suddenly learn they have very little control. Their conversations, relationships, and emotions (and lack there of, sometimes) spoke to me on a personal level.
You see, I was seventeen on September 11, 2001. Mind you, I was all the way down in Louisiana, far away from the actual events of the day, but I felt it just as I think most of us did. I felt a physical change in the world that I had no idea how to respond to mentally or emotionally. When I read this book, ten years later, I realized how I wasn’t alone with that feeling as a seventeen year old. I read about Claire, Peter, and Jasper and how they were just as lost as I was, as a lot of us were, I think.
Levithan found a way to capture something that I think, as a writer of any genre, is nearly impossible. He captured perfectly that universal haunting feeling that one gets when he or she realizes that nothing in the world makes a damn bit of sense anymore. And he did this in a YA book. Go figure.
Speaking of “universal experiences,” I want to end by saying this: we were all teenagers. It’s one of the very few things that every single adult on this planet has in common. We have different faiths, different careers, different types of families, different geographic locations, and even different eating habits. But one thing we all have is the memory of being a teenager. We remember how it felt, how awesome it was sometimes and how much it sucked other times. We remember discovering things for ourselves and making mistakes we knew better than to make in the first place. We all share so few things, but being a teenager and knowing what it means to be one is a damn important one. I write YA books because I choose to tell stories about growing up and about being a teenager and about discovering the world and the way its people work. I do this not because I am too dumb to write adult books (in fact, I’m working on one now), but because teenagers are just us a few years ago. They’re just waiting to grow up and become more bruised and cynical by the ways of the world. I write YA because teenagers read with open eyes and, you know what? Maybe more adults should do the same. Now, excuse me while I go proudly wave my YA books in public places.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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