June 16, 2014
Coming Out of the YA Closet: Part One
With all the shenanigans surrounding the Slate article that majorly dissed YA lit and YA readers (no, I’m not linking to it), I decided it was time to come out of the YA closet. This is the first of two posts about things we in the YA community either don’t talk about or feel like we can’t talk about and why I feel like this hurts us as a community and in the eyes of the larger reading world.
First: I LOVE THE YA COMMUNITY. I love my readers, my fellow writers, the bloggers, and everyone who works tirelessly to spread the love of YA, whether they’re passionate editors or the stars of #TeaTime. But as I get closer to officially receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in just a few short weeks, I’ve decided it’s time to reflect, to wax philosophical. Who am I kidding? I’ve decided to get on my soapbox.
Today I’m talking about Twilight.
You see, I’m always going on and on about how no one talks about all the great YA lit out there—Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere, and dozens of other gorgeous titles that are deserving of articles upon articles written about them. There is excellent YA lit out there. Lots of it. I won’t pretend to like all of it—there are some shitty books out there. But there are some shitty adult books too, and you don’t hear people saying we should stop reading all adult books. Not everything is good and I won’t pretend it is. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today (I’ll talk about that later this week). This post is a confession—long overdue and with my apologies in advance to Stephanie Meyer, who I really should have written a letter to when I got my first advance for my first book to say THANK YOU because...
I, Heather Demetrios, loved the Twilight books.
I devoured them. If they’d had blood I would have sucked them dry. Those books were the first time I’d ever made myself sick reading: I couldn’t put them down. My husband called them crack and they were—I literally lost weight reading them because I couldn’t eat and read at the same time without making a mess, so I opted not to eat. I was in my mid-twenties at the time. Not a teenager. I was a well-informed married woman who had traveled the world and graduated cum laude from one of the best universities in the country. I’d heard all the arguments against Twilight. And yet.
While a freshman in college, Harry Potter had already done the work of reigniting the joy I’d had as a child reader. I’d spent so much of high school going through AP Comp books and “smart” books and weird Christian self-help books (long story, don’t ask) that I’d forgotten what it was like to want to stay up all night reading something just because it was good. And, of course, this reminded me that I wanted to write fiction. I wanted to write the stuff that people would lose sleep over. I imagined little kids reading my middle grade books under the covers with a flashlight and that gave me warm fuzzies. I thought that was my sweet spot.
But then Twilight went and changed my life.
It was the first paranormal book I’d ever read, the first teen romance that wasn’t L.M. Montgomery. It was the first time I majorly crushed on a male YA character that wasn’t Laurie from Little Women (and, yeah, I freakin’ loved Edward Cullen, I don’t care that he’s creepy (and he is)…I still wanted him). I was so mad at myself. I wanted to hate the books for all the reasons people said I should…but I just couldn’t. I had such a visceral response to them. They’d imprinted themselves on me (yeah, I went there).
You see, my confession is a long time coming because despite the sparkly goodwill of theYA community--which I think we sometimes have too much of—there is still a bit of reader shaming that happens when it comes to the Twilight books. They seem to be the only YA books whereit's generally acceptable to openly criticize them. Nearly everyone assumes you don’t like the books and trash-talking about them happens almost as a matter of course. Sometimes I've been brave enough to confess how much I liked them, but the truth is that I’ve never been honest about the fact that as soon as I finished the last pages of Breaking Dawn, I decided to write YA.
Hell yeah, I’m that girl.
Part of it was the result of a major book hangover—I didn’t have a term for that at the time and wasn’t part of the YA community yet, so I just felt ashamed that I’d liked a book so much. I felt like I’d had a sordid affair while my husband was in the other room. I knew the books weren’t the kind of books so-called “smart” people read. I’d never read popular fiction before. As a kid, I’d never snuck a peek at my grandma’s Harlequin romances, I’d never read mass market paperbacks, unless they were versions of classics. And yet, here I was mooning over a sparkly vampire.
Now, I’m not going to get into craft issues about this book. Or why it has several harmful messages to teen girls. Stephanie Meyer has had to drink enough haterade for a lifetime. All I will say is that these books made me want to write. Whatever the reason—good or bad, pure or impure—they made me decide to be brave. To write the words in my heart. To tell the stories I whispered to myself as I fell asleep at night. Fours years later I won a PEN award for my debut young adult novel, Something Real. If that’s not evidence of why we shouldn’t shame people’s reading choices or disregard an entire genre with a few keystrokes, then I don’t know what is.
When I think of who I am as a reader and a writer, I’m reminded of something my man Walt Whitman once said: I contain multitudes.
War and Peace is one of my favorite books. And I’m not one of those people who pretends to have read it. I read every word—even the French ones—and I’m Team Prince Andrei all the way. But you know who makes me swoon just as much as that debonair Russian? Etienne from Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss and Cricket Bell from Lola and the Boy Next Door.
So to readers who are ashamed about their reading choices: don’t be, or at least don’t make shame your default. You’re reading, that makes you freakin’ awesome in my book. You never know how the words in front of you will change your life. Now, that doesn’t mean throw all discernment out the window—I’ll be posting about that later this week—but it does mean to stop giving yourself a constant guilt trip. And if you do feel guilty, you need to examine where that guilt is coming from - or WHO it's coming from. The truth is, sometimes the books we need the most are the ones that may seem worth the least.
To everyone who’s been quick to judge YA, to the writer of that Slate article, and to every writer who has written misinformed, shoddily researched articles about my genre, I say: it’s not too late to wizen up.
You’d love to classify me or write me off—I know you would. Too bad: you’ll have to find some other pastime to fill your sad, gray hours. How about picking up one of these fantastic novels?
Take two and call me in the morning.
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