Trigger warnings: Difficult parental situation, alcoholism, mental illness, suicidal ideation
When I was fourteen, my mom was enthusiastically drinking herself to death and occasionally babbling about her auditory hallucinations—burglars with clamps climbing the walls. For a while, she was the sole adult in charge. One night, too drunk to stand, she hefted a table lamp and said, “Come here. I’m going to kill you.” I turned down the offer. Mom didn’t raise any fools.
When I was seventeen, my high school girlfriend, the amazing Bobbi M., would sometimes call late at night when she was searching for her dad’s handgun to shoot herself. I would try to talk her through it and give her the suicide prevention hotline number, 800-273-TALK (8255). She never found her dad’s gun, and she safely reached graduation and years beyond that.
But two of our schoolmates, Cindy (a year ahead of me) and Ralph (two years behind me), did not.
I got through my difficult teen years in part by floating through the turbulent parts on a raft of books. I read voraciously to escape and to spend time with stories where the problems could be solved, or at least the protagonists would learn something important in—and perhaps be changed by—their struggle.
Our topic this month is crossing lines in YA, and as usual, I have opinions: We can write about almost anything in young adult books, because our core readers, in high school, are dealing with deep trauma and serious, adult situations—either personally, or by proxy, in people they care about. Magical thinking (if we don’t write about bad things, those things won’t happen) won’t save young people from—or help them process—those experiences.
But because they are facing those real situations, often without good information, we also have an obligation: To do it right. To get it right. To do it as well as we can, and in the process try to do as little harm as practical. And, where appropriate, to mention that there are places teens can get help.
Those of us who have the extraordinary privilege of writing for young people have the most supportive writing community in the world—our competitors root for us and cheer us on and promote our books on social media. Our readers are more open to experimentation and genre-hopping than any other audience. Bloggers and podcasters and librarians and teachers and bookstore people are enthusiastic in getting our books to readers who might like them. But all that comes with responsibilities and a lot of (appropriately) concerned, watchful eyes. Are there hurtful stereotypes here? Dangerous misinformation? Something that would harm impressionable teens?
First, do no harm.
In my formative years, I read some books with terrible content—I still remember startling racism in a Frank Baum Oz book and science fiction from the 1970s that was so misogynistic it fails professional standards in writing. (I don’t know, guys—what if we portrayed the human females as, just spit balling here—human? You know, with realistic motivations, and real emotions? You have met a human female, right?)
So: Crossing lines. Today is my birthday, even though before today I was already my-knees-wish-I-were-younger years old. And as I type this, I keep taking breaks to get news updates on how another 19-year-old white supremacist with an AR-15 has unleashed gun violence in a Jewish temple in my home state.
Our world needs more empathy, and empathy is a byproduct of exposure to good fiction.
Most YA books end with some note of hope, and part of the magic of fiction is that—when it’s well written—we experience the journey intensely, with the characters.
As writers, we have a sacred duty to do the work to make readers' trips real and meaningful. That’s where I draw the line, anyway.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.
Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster