When I think of when I was the same age as my readers, I cringe.
I was on the debate team. I plastered my hair with Dippity Do, then rolled it in empty juice cartons. And in the summer, I sat in the sun, slathered in baby oil, reading every book in the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse series.
And while it’s tempting to make fun of Cherry Ames, I realized not that long ago that those books probably had a profound impact on me. As an awkward and restless kid stuck in the suburbs, those books at least presented the possibility of life beyond the cul-de-sac. They featured a young woman living away from home and pursuing her dream career. Based in England during WWII, she evacuated wounded soldiers; as a public health nurse, she cared for poor rural patients in Iowa; and on a temporary assignment at a ski chalet in Switzerland, she found intrigue – and a handsome ski instructor.
By today’s standards these plots may sound silly. But they were probably precisely what I needed as I struggled with my identity as good girl, raised in a strict Catholic family, yearning to break out of the confines of my family and my home town.
When I visit classrooms now as part of Behind the Book, the books we discuss deal with much bigger, much darker issues. But the kids and their struggles are, in many ways the same.
When we discuss My Brother’s Keeper, it’s amazing how many kids step forward and talk about the substance abuse in their homes and neighborhoods. And when we read Purple Heart, I’m always struck by how many boys are struggling with how to define themselves as young men and how many girls are wrestling with secrets they keep to protect someone they love. Their honesty in sharing these issues with their classmates is downright inspiring.
But what really moves me is the reaction they get from their classmates. The compassion, the understanding, the comfort and the maturity that these kids show is always astonishing. Their teachers deserve a lot of the credit; they introduce books and creative writing in a safe and supportive environment. But I think what sets these school visits apart for me is how fiction can bring out the best in these students.
By looking at the plight of some fictional kid, they gain the distance to look at their own lives – but without the harsh judgment they often heap on themselves and others. By hearing that other students are struggling with the same problems, they feel less alone. And by being able to express their feelings – first in discussion, then in writing – they invariably open up a way to solutions.
Sometimes the solutions are vengeful or fanciful – I’m often stunned by the violence in their writing – but I believe that written catharsis lets off steam that might otherwise come out in less healthy ways. Just as often, though, they conjure up scenarios – for themselves or for their fictional stand-ins – that are breathtaking in their creativity, hope and joy.
It’s a far cry from Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. But being with teenagers in New York in 2011 somehow takes me right back to those awful – and awesome years.
It was a magical time, when all things seemed possible. It was also an excruciating time, when nothing about me seemed right. It’s a time of life that stokes and feeds my fiction. And with such wonderful company, I dive back into all the torment, all the possibility of being a teenager.