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As a novelist, I am not particularly in the business of solutions, but rather in the business of questions. I’m interested not in writing books with messages but in saying things I can’t articulate in a simpler way. I always write morally gray characters, and in my new book, Genuine Fraud, I have written a morally dark one. And yet still, when I say that my job is “YA author,” people ask me what lesson I am peddling. “Tell us your message for young people today!”
Back in 2002, the third book I published was a novel for adults that was read by pretty few people. Those who read it liked the babysitter character best. She was confused and horny and lax about her responsibilities. She wasn’t very important to the story, but a number of people told me they’d like to read more about her. One of those was an editor I had already worked with, Donna Bray, now of Harper/Balzer+Bray. Would I want to write for young adults, she asked?
No, thank you. I didn’t. I had a stupid idea about YA literature back then. I thought all young adult novels were problem novels. Even though I like problem novels as a reader, and had benefited from reading them as a teenager, I knew I was incapable of writing one. I’m still incapable. My brain is a messier, sillier, angrier kind of brain.
At the time, I was thinking of a certain set of books I’d read as a kid. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a 1964 novel by Hannah Green about a girl diagnosed with schizophrenia. I read it in eighth grade, and it sent me reeling from the armchair experience of being incarcerated in a mental institution. Deenie, by Judy Blume, is a 1973 novel about a girl with scoliosis and the journey toward self-acceptance she goes on when she has to wear a back brace to school. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress, also 1973, is about a boy’s descent into heroin addiction and his hope for recovery. These YA books showed me other people’s pain. They taught me empathy and bravery. They were the antecedents for books like Walter Dean Myers’ Monster (1999), Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999), An Na’s A Step from Heaven (2001), Coe Booth’s Tyrell (2006), Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2011), and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012). All of them feature an enormous, heart-wrenching problem—and a protagonist who must wrestle with it.
In 2002, I could not see past this model. I mention this idiotic notion of mine because “problem novels” are still the dominant lens through which many people view young adult fiction and its history and because I (like so many other readers) persisted in this stupid view, even though the evidence of my own reading didn’t support it. I believed it only because the stereotype that was out there in the ether, perpetuated by ill-researched magazine and newspaper articles and supported perhaps by the moody teenage faces on the covers of certain books. I clung to that wrongheaded notion despite the evidence on my own bookshelves.
I read M. T. Anderson’s Thirsty in 1997. Therefore, I knew that YA could be bloody and funny at once. I read Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries in 2000, so I knew that YA could be silly, romantic, and feminist at once. I read Melvin Burgess’ Lady: My Life as a Bitch in 2001, so I knew that YA could be dirty, amoral, and sensitive at once. But it wasn’t until at least a year later that I let go of the problem-novel stereotype enough to be able to see my way into writing YA, given my own limitations and strengths.
A different editor, Marissa Walsh, at Random, said she’d like to see a book proposal from me. I was broke, and I figured I should give it a try, so I went to Books of Wonder in New York City and bought a stack of YA novels that included Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison (1999), and Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn (2002). There were lots of others, but those were the two most influential. As I read them, a light went on. Rennison and Cohn didn’t take themselves too seriously. They were playful. Georgia and Cyd, their protagonists, were ridiculous and stylized and badly behaved. They were only earnest occasionally. They had problems—but not enormous ones. Rather than offering solutions, Rennison and Cohn wrote what I’d call interrogations—that is, explorations of sexuality, friendship, family, without answers.
And they messed around with slang, which I really adore them for, creating highly amusing idiolects for their teenage characters.
Those Rennison and Cohn idiolects—though of course they have roots in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), among others—felt hugely fresh to me. They made me see YA literature as a space for joy as well as pain; as a space for validating the teenage voice by laying claim to a specific mode of unconventional speech. By extension, it became a space for moral grays and the articulation of complex feelings and thoughts that couldn’t be spoken simply.
The point is that I suddenly saw YA for what it had been all along. My own teenage reading had actually been more various than my absorption of stereotypes about the genre led me to believe. I had read My Darling, My Hamburger, a 1969 novel by Paul Zindel about pregnancy and abortion that left me—as did all Zindel’s books—with a deep sense of malaise, consequent to having read something exquisitely honest. I had read Fifteen, by Beverly Cleary, published in 1956, which was frothy and sweet as a milkshake, a delightful comfort read. I had read most of M. E. Kerr, Paula Danzinger, S. E. Hinton, Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Duncan—and all those authors wrote with moral complexity and many with a sense of play and joy (L’Engle and the dolphins in A Ring of Endless Light, for example). They wrote characters who behaved badly (some of Duncan’s were gloriously compromised) and messed around with slang.
I just forgot that I read all that.
And yet, I didn’t forget. Not really.
The more current novels I mentioned earlier—those that have their antecedents in problem novels—have most of these qualities, too. A Step from Heaven follows Young Ju from a childhood rendered almost in verse to a complicated near-adult perspective. It’s the coolest transformation of voice I’ve seen in a novel. The Fault in Our Stars is funny as hell and in fact does not solve the problem of terminal cancer so much as sit with it, accepting it and raging against it simultaneously. Monster is written partly as a film script! And in some places is playful to the point of goofiness in terms of typography. Tyrell creates an idiolect that lets us see the protagonist as much more than just his problem of homelessness, and Booth explores his moral grayness, leaving us not so much with a message of hope as with a validation of the complexity of lived experience. I could go on about the others, but there isn’t room.
Oh, I love you, YA literature. Let’s make out.
E. Lockhart is the author of many books for young adults, including Genuine Fraud and We Were Liars.
E. LOCKHART’S HONOR ROLL
Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison (1999)
Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang (2013)
Ms. Marvel: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (2014)
The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, by Jaclyn Moriarty (2006)
Tyrell, by Coe Booth (2006)
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