Sunday Reflections: The Before and The After
One day when I saw her, she was a pregnant 14-year-old. The next day, she was not.
At 22 weeks pregnant her mother took her into the clinic while her 8-year-old sister and 5-year-old brother sat in the car with an aunt eating Cheetos and talking about whatever little kids talk about. They would go home to a house with no electricity and little food. I had taken them food from our church food pantry several times. Their mom had been let go from work. They lived in a very literal and figurative darkness. This moment was the moment that marked her The Before and The After.
I saw her a couple of years later, sitting all alone on a bench in the middle of downtown, smoking a cigarette. I parked my car and sat down beside her for a moment, asking her how she was doing. She was fine she said, happy. I drove away and watched her in my rear view mirror, thinking about how much of the ugly sides of the world she had already seen.
Another girl I know had a miscarriage at fifteen. Another became a mom at sixteen.
So when people ask me – and they do – why I think there should be sex in teen books, the answer is because some teens DO in fact have sex. Do I think that they should? Not particularly. Do I wish that they weren’t? I do. Do I think that having sex in teen books encourages teens to have sex? I don’t actually.
When I was a teenager, I read Flowers in the Attic. It never once made me think about having sex with my brother. When I was a teenager I read Forever by July Blume. I was still a virgin when I got married at the age of 22. I like to read about plagues and the apocalypse and zombies and serial killers. I have never once considered creating a plague or becoming a serial killer. But I read them because like the characters in the books, I have had my own The Before and The After.
But that girl, sitting on the park bench smoking that cigarette. She understood about The Before and The After. She understood that there are events in life that change you and there is who you were before and who you are now, after. These are not always bad events, but they often are. The first time you have your heart broken. The first time you have sex. Getting married. Having a child. Losing a child. Losing a parent. Divorce.
It’s when you learn that the world is unsafe, unfair, unreliable.
Some people learn it far too early in life. The family that is rocked by the death of a sibling. The friend that is killed in a car accident. That family that has disintegrated. The children that watch one parent abuse another.
For those who haven’t learned it yet, books are the safest way.
I once had a parent come in and tell me she only wanted her 8-year-old daughter to read the classics, like Little Women, because she wanted to make sure she gained a good vocabulary. But the thing is, books are about more than a good vocabulary. You can read a book and see things like relationships in action, decision making and the consequences, and problem solving. In books you read about The Before and The After. And in doing so, you gain a greater insight into the world around you, the people around you. And when you come to your own moment of The Before and The After, whatever it may be, you can know that you’ll get through it because you have walked with the characters in books and time and time again seen that people are resilient, they survive, they find ways to keep afloat when even the heaviest of burdens try to weigh them down.
There may be The Before and The After in your life, there may in fact be many of them, but in books we are reminded that we are not alone. Every soul walking through this life with you to your left and your right has their own moments, their own story, and that is the power of books – we are reminded that we are not alone.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
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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