This week has been stressful: the heated discussions in von der Heyden, the onslaught of guilt-inducing emails, the awkward wall posts by old high school peers.
No, I’m not talking about the election. I’m talking about NaNoWriMo.
For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is the shorthand for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a glorious time, one in which aspiring writers buckle down and try to force 55,000 words onto a blank computer screen in thirty days. Those who complete the task win eternal fame (by which I mean a digital “I participated in NaNoWriMo” badge that you could potentially upload as your prof pic, if you really wanted to); those who don’t return to life as usual with only a few emotional scars, regretfully fantasizing about what could have been.
NaNoWriMo is not intended for the faint of heart, and, frankly, not intended for me. Here’s my confession: I’m currently writing a novel, too. Except I started mine in May and, since it’s for my senior thesis, it’s not due until sometime this spring. And I’ve only written about 45,000 words. And it’s young adult.
It’s that last part that I find difficult to divulge. In my experience, if you tell people you’re writing a novel, you immediately seem cooler than you are. People start picturing you in a smoky hole-in-the-wall cafe, scribbling in a notebook while sipping coffee (black) from a chipped earthenware mug. But if you tell people you’re writing a YA novel, you get raised eyebrows, behind-the-hand smirks, questions like “Is it about vampires?” or “Will Kristen Stewart play the lead when they make it into a movie?” No one takes you seriously. Especially on a college campus, where other students are doing their theses on Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Why not take YA seriously, though? I can honestly say that YA books have made a greater impact on my life—on the person I am today—than any “adult” books I’ve read. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t meet many people who weren’t like me, and I wasn’t exposed to many different viewpoints or cultures. It’s cliche but true: books were my education. I read about characters who seemed to have nothing in common with me, and yet they all felt emotions I felt, they all wanted things I wanted. There’s a certain power in YA books that “literary” stories often don’t have: the power of the teen voice. Growing up, that voice resonated with me in a very real, honest way; I didn’t get bogged down in wordy description or language I couldn’t understand.
That’s not to say I never read contemporary fiction, classics, nonfiction, whatever. But when I was growing up, those books didn’t speak to my experience. In sixth grade it took me about three months to read Little Women, and even now I can’t tell you anything that happens except that Jo marries an old guy. I just couldn’t relate. And yet I can tell you the smallest details about most of the YA books I read that year. I so vividly remember the scene in Walk Two Moons where Sal and her grandmother see Old Faithful that I feel like it actually happened to me. I still have nightmares about being captured by the tripods from The White Mountains series. I often find myself wondering if I should eat more onions like they do in Holes just to scare away the Duke squirrels.
Just because YA books are written for a younger audience does not mean they’re inconsequential. The YA voice helped me connect with characters and allowed me to learn from them, to feel that I wasn’t alone in the often brutal experience of growing up. Bridge to Terabithia helped me cope with my grandfather’s death. Just Listen and Speak introduced me to the importance of women’s rights and how to deal with sexual assault. I met my first homosexual character when I read Boy Meets Boy. And yes, even Twilight was important to me, not because it taught me an important life lesson, but because I could so easily identify with the main character. Bella is not a strong female protagonist, but I liked her because she was like me: awkward, clumsy, self-conscious. Katniss from The Hunger Games is a confident go-getter, but I could never relate because she was so much stronger than I imagined myself to be. (That, and she killed people.) Bella, though, was as dorky as I felt, and yet she still figured out a way to take things into her own hands and make decisions that changed the course of her life. It gave me hope, and hope should never be mocked or ridiculed. Kids need hope. Kids need to feel connected with the world, they need to feel like someone out there is just like them. They need to know they’re not alone.
Even if the writing isn’t sophisticated or eloquent, YA books have a way of speaking to kids, of helping their lives seem a little less hopeless. Books give kids a sense of identity, of self and of place. I want to write for kids because I want to give them something important: I want to give them something they can relate to and not feel so alone in the world. And I don’t think that’s something I should be ashamed of.
So I’m just going to say it. I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I’m writing a young adult novel. And I’m really, really excited about it.
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