From about twelve to almost sixteen, through middle school and the first two years of high school, I mostly sat in the back of class, constantly reading science fiction and spy novels, cleverly* concealed behind my textbooks.
*They weren’t all that cleverly concealed. When I was a student, I thought I was basically invisible, just one jeans-clad skinny wildebeest amidst a great indistinguishable herd. Since then, in teaching and giving presentations, I’ve realized that audience members’ attention and distraction are completely obvious to the person in the front of the room. Oops.
At the time, though, it was the best I could manage: My mom was drinking herself to death, my parents were getting a divorce, and the first couple of those years I was going through an undiagnosed depressive episode, with no clue why I couldn’t get the homework done. Every six weeks, I’d forge my dad’s signature on the near-failure notices sent home before the end of the grading period, then everyone would be surprised and dismayed when I came home with an ugly puddle of Ds on my report card.
It was actually fine. I was a scary-smart boy in a family of scary-smart brothers, and reading an endless collection of novels—a couple a day—was a pretty good education, even if it did lead to a larger vocabulary than the number of words I could correctly pronounce. For example, from spy novels, I’d learned that Soviet agents, while exchanging gunfire with the hero, always shouted, “Take that, bourgeois pig!” (Yeah. They were that kind of cold war spy novels.) Until I was a freshman in college, I thought “bourgeois” was pronounced “bore-geeyoyce”, not “boorshwah.”
Take that, bore-geeyoyce pig!
Ahem. I may have said it a lot of times before learning the correct pronunciation, but most people probably thought I was trying to be funny.
This appears to be a bourgeois pig. Note the unnecessary hat and glasses, symbolizing middle-class consumerism.
But I learned a lot more from that vast four-year pile of books than just mispronounced words shouted by stock characters. I learned about astrophysics and astronomy and chemistry and geopolitics and lots of other things.
Even more important, I essentially rewired my brain. In those stories, protagonists grappled with terrible problems and emerged triumphant or with a deeper understanding, or both. I was essentially programming myself for resilience in the face of setbacks and creating a mindset of working to overcome obstacles. ‘
My life eventually got better, and I got through the hardest part of adolescence by floating past it on a raft of stories. Stories that cumulatively changed my mind.
That’s one of the reasons I write YA—as a teen, books meant so much to me, and most YA stories end with at least some note of hope. I love stories with hope at the end.
Read enough of them and they will literally change your mind.
Happy pride month all, and fill your heads with wonderful books.
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, where he just live-blogged two days of presidential debates. He is very tired now: @deangloster