I read a Facebook post yesterday by a teacher friend who found hundreds of YA titles being “weeded” out of his public library collection — recent books, some of them even award-winners from the past year. He was giddy, because he’s adding fifty-five of them to his classroom library and distributing the rest to other teachers. And I’m happy for him and all the young readers who will benefit.
But what do you think it feels like for YA authors to have our books yanked like weeds? What was the point of writing them, to be so fast uprooted? What is the motivation for us to continue to produce unappreciated work? And how long will YA books even continue to be published if they are not being read?
We do not write books for a “season” — to be stamped “discarded” (such a heinous word!) after a year.
Most of us cannot make a living although we pour our hearts and energies into our work, torturing ourselves in a way that seems absurd given the lack of respect we yield from society, let alone reward.
Here are some problems YA authors face:
Success seems more and more hinged not on the quality of the work but on the diversity of our characters. The thing is, were are all diverse. Every one of us has our own unique personality and circumstances. We are all human, we all bleed. I have done many FREE high school visits in the poorest NYC neighborhoods and guess what? African-American and Latino students love my books about white teens. Why? Because the human condition is universal. We are all in pain. And the point of literature is not to find someone who is just like you in an exterior way — but inside. This is how we find relief — to know that we are not alone in our suffering. Or, our joys. This is also how we unite, as we learn that people in other circumstances are in fact the same as us inside.
It is no service to youth to segregate books. To say, “Look, this one’s for you.” They should all be for “you.” It’s not about reading books that mirror your skin. It’s about reading books that mirror your heart. Books are not Barbie dolls.
What really needs to be conveyed in our books is the truth. And each author has his own truth to tell. And that truth will then encounter and affect each reader in his own unique way. And this is how we ensure the continuation of a thoughtful, empathetic society.
(Don’t attack me please, I’m not against any books being published. I’m for all good books being published, and noticed. Let’s take away all labels and agendas except getting teens reading compelling, well-written, provocative literature.)
I am reminded of when I used to go to the Unitarian church, and they wanted me to wear a pin for a week. It was the symbol Hitler made gays wear in the concentration camps. The concept was to contrive conversations about what the pin meant, and then report back. I refused to wear it. At the gathering the next week, I was condemned by the members of my “all welcoming” church.They refused to accept the reason that I didn’t perform the task, and even accused me of not liking gays. If you know me, you know that’s absurd. Race and sexuality are non-issues to me. I just don’t see people through those lenses. What I don’t like are labels. I think we are better served to rally together as humans. If we concentrate on differences, we will continue to be divided.
If you think I’m wrong, take a look at what’s going on in our society. The hate is on the rise. Opposition breeds opposition.
Books are a way to bring us together. To enlighten, and lighten. But to do this, they must be read.
Just as in Hollywood, certain names become “big” and “bankable.” What causes some authors to skyrocket in popularity? Are these writers so much better than the rest of us? Or did do they get more exposure and backing? Did they just get lucky and “hit?’ Is there room for all of us to somehow thrive?
(I will not even get into the pressure to “produce” our manuscripts — as though we just crank them out effortlessly. There’s no room for gestation. There’s no more resting on laurels. JD Salinger and Harper Lee would never have survived in this climate. You’re only as good as this year’s book.)
Problem #3 — THE ROOT
All of the above does not even get to the root of the problem: so many teens are not reading. And why do they not like to read? Because, as a teacher friend of mine said to me yesterday, they have been tested on everything they’ve read since they were little. And so reading is not fun. Reading is work, and worry. It’s stress.
Our teens are the victims of aversion therapy.
So how do we solve these problems? I don’t know. I have to go fill out my BOCES Art-in-Education forms. I used to do visits for free because I wanted to help and inspire kids, but I can no longer afford to give myself away.
I love the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror.” It’s a musical version of Gandhi’s mantra: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I’m being the change as much as I possibly can.
It’s time for each of us to look in that mirror:
“Take a look at yourself and make that change.”