Perspectives: A Toast to Youth
A young adult author recounts a rare occasion when she did not have to defend her profession as everyone realized how brightly the past can shine on the present.
photo by Chuck Beard
At a dinner party recently, after the cheese plate was ravaged and our first round of drinks downed, the group moved into the dining room and someone asked me, “What do you do for a living, Siobhan?”
“I’m a young adult author,” I replied, tipping my wineglass to my lips as I felt the muscles in my body reflexively clench. I knew what was coming.
Young adult novels are books about teenagers existing in the moment of their youth. Plenty of adult novels feature teen protagonists, but they tend to have an older character recounting their experiences as a teen — the narrative glazed with that distance, with wisdom and reflection.
When I say that I write young adult novels, people assume that my books (or young adult books in general) aren’t sophisticated or literary or nuanced or original. They think each one is a derivative of the next. They think they take maybe, like, a week … maybe two max … to write.
Typical responses to my line of work range from curious — “Can you really make a living doing that?” — to patronizing — “Have you ever thought of writing a book for grown-ups?” — to embarrassed — “Do you put your real name on them?”
When I get questions like this, I grit my teeth and remember the words of bestselling author Jami Attenberg, who when reviewing the young adult book “Eleanor & Park” said, “I would recommend [this book] to practically anyone, except for people who describe themselves as book snobs, because there’s just no saving them from themselves.”
So for the record, yes, no and yes.
Though I detest having to defend what I write, I’ve begun to understand why this happens again and again. Part of the knee-jerk reaction to the merits of young adult literature stems from the way we, as adults, marginalize our own teenage experiences.
How could I have loved that jerk? Why did I care so much about the opinions of people who mean nothing to me now?
In the abstract, high school experiences are rendered into clichés: good girls, mean girls, cheesy romances, popular kids, nerds and contemporary buzzwords like bullying. And it’s true that lots of teen literature hangs on tropes we’ve all experienced. Falling in love for the first time, realizing the world isn’t always just and fair, discovering our parents aren’t perfect.
Adults have forgotten what it was really like to be a teenager. The potency of the feelings we felt. That every decision we made was a referendum on who we wanted to be. Every choice, a declaration of our values.
Don’t roll your eyes!
I hate to break it to your jaded, hardened heart, but your first love was the real thing. Your first kiss, fireworks. That fight with your mother, devastating. That drive away from your hometown to your college dorm, oh so terrifying and still so exhilarating.
I am often asked how, as a grown woman, I get into the minds of teenagers. The fact is that I struggle with a lot of the same issues I did then, only in different contexts. Being the “new girl” at this particular dinner party, for example. What would these people think of me? Would they like me? Respect me?
On this particular night, I’m glad to report I had nothing to fear. We all watched TV together in complete awe as teenagers across the country confronted the issue of gun violence in their schools. Their bravery, their passion, their unabashed optimism and confidence were inspirational. Seeing those kids, hearts unapologetically pinned to their sleeves, made us all want to be teenagers again.
For the entirety of that dinner party, we shared bits of who we were as teenagers. We had plenty of laughs at bad haircuts and stupid schemes, but collectively, we recognized that our feelings back then — though slightly outsized — were achingly authentic.
Collectively, we had our own “Breakfast Club” moment. It struck me on the ride home how deeply I suddenly knew these people, how brightly the past can shine on the present.
I honestly don’t remember what we ate, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
Siobhan Vivian is The New York Times best-selling author of “The List” and “The Last Boy and Girl in the World.” She teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her newest novel, “Stay Sweet,” was published in April by Simon & Schuster.