Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Narrowing: How YA Lit Teaches Hard Lessons in Empathy, and Why We've Forgotten Them

We miss a train. It's annoying. Someone in front of us forgets to put their turning signal on. It's annoying. We oversleep our alarms. It's annoying AND troublesome, because now we need a different excuse besides, "Oh, it must have been my faulty apple update..."

For being well-seasoned adults, we truly have no patience. For anything. And I will not sit here as the holy exception. As for myself, my red hair practically flames when patrons gender their children's books and tastes.

Act 1: Scene 2
Youth Service Department

It is midday, and a LIBRARIAN appears to be attempting a lunch break, but a PATRON comes up to her desk. She appears slightly PALE from hunger. The PATRON tells the LIBRARIAN to reassure his daughter that comic books are for boys, and not girls.

LIBRARIAN: [calling forth the world's Zen]: Graphic novels are not just boy books, Mr. Jones.

PATRON: But comics are for boys.

LIBRARIAN: I see just as many boys taking out comics as girls. Good stories are for everyone.

PATRON: But when I was a kid...

LIBRARIAN tries to exit, wishes she was pursued by bear]

Extra patience would do us all well, but gaining empathy would perhaps work wonders. Going back to my example, more often than not, I find that patrons who believe that certain books are for either boys or girls often have this worldview shaped by their own upbringing, or their lack of a reading life. If they read, they would know that great stories truly are for everyone.

And when I get annoyed, or I am facing a difficult trial, I think of one group of people: teenagers.

And no, it's not what you are thinking. I do not find teenagers annoying. I think about them because they have to put up with the most annoyances (aka small and large life trials, depending on if you are asking Trump or Mother Teresa) than any other age group. And we often forget that time in our lives. I like young adult literature because a good young adult writer is still interested in how teenagers face those ugly growing pains. YA writers want to know how teens can empathize--often with each other-- to change difficult circumstance.

In looking back at my own life, I argue that when we are teenagers, we experience a critical change in empathy. Many older children are naturally empathetic, but it is often teenagers who are learning the hard lessons in empathy, or the difficult ways we must love in a difficult world. Well-written novels for adolescents represent that crossroad where young people must decide what they care about, and what their values are.

A well-written young adult book is not afraid to travel to the mind's caverns, especially the ugly ones that we adults would like to shrug off and forget, like an old coat.

The well-written young adult novel is prepared. It bears light and breadcrumbs into the dark woods.

Can this be said about many adult books? I'm not too sure, but perhaps the answer rests in the purpose of young adult literature: to build a---well, let's call it a "complicated sort-of of empathy."

Here are some examples.

One of my favorite young adult books, Tell the Wolves I'm Home, is told by a young adult protagonist who learns her uncle is dying from a disease her mother will not even name. This is infuriating to the narrator, as she is almost an adult.

In her sadness, the narrator describes the adult mind in this way:

"I really wondered why people were always doing what they didn't like doing. It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn't be a mother and it was likely you wouldn't become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more."

A narrowing tunnel. Probably not what we want to think our adult minds are like.

But more often than not we as adults will close off ourselves to new experiences, and block out past ones.

Take, for example, a look back at an old, high school classic.

The Catcher in the Rye protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is usually thought of as a cantankerous youth, a complainer, and an all-out-privileged whiner. Or as my friend put it, "I'd just really like to slap him."And he is annoying...for the most part. From another perspective, I remember many students in our high school English class pointing out that Holden was also a young person who is embarking on a very confusing, and difficult time in his life. Some students noted that the adults he was surrounded by either cared very little for him, or not at all. To top that off, a few students doubted the intentions of adults that were supposed to help Holden, even pointing out possible areas in which adults neglected and hurt him.

Were these our projections of our own pains at the time? Perhaps. But in a small English class, students were building empathy; albeit, a complicated type of it. Whether we thought Holden was a loser, or we felt pity for his character, we all had to listen to different opinions in our class on who Holden was, and where he was possibly going in his life.

Another young adult book that I remember that shaped my early adult life was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The novel follows a teenage boy, Christopher, as he tries to discover who could have possibly killed his neighbor's dog, which he found dead. What you learn from reading the book is that Christopher is different from many teens in that he is an individual who has autism. And this difference makes his story fascinating, his perspective eye-opening.

The way he sees the world often has an astute, intelligent humor:

“I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.” 

Christopher also has his own unique form of empathy, despite what people tell him. His autism is a part of his unique empathy. For example, here is what Christopher has to say about some of the day-to-day problems we all face:

“And when you look at the sky you know you are looking at stars which are hundreds and thousands of light-years away from you. And some of the stars don’t even exist anymore because their light has taken so long to get to us that they are already dead, or they have exploded and collapsed into red dwarfs. And that makes you seem very small, and if you have difficult things in you life it is nice to think that they are what is called negligible, which means they are so small you don’t have to take them into account when you are calculating something.” 

Well-written young adult literature brings to light a unique form of empathy that I think we all need to search for again, but as an adult. Sensitivity to other people and their differences may be harder when we enter adulthood, but seeing how other people live and think is a necessary way to help improve our own lives, and the lives of other people.

Young adult literature is an excellent portal back into that place of empathy, but the 2.0 version. This empathy enters the gnarlier incarnation of our daily lives; lives which are now composed of never getting enough sleep, the laundry never being done, and work always piling up, annoying as ever.

But this is a life where I hope we can come to our own understanding of empathy. The best young adult books not only encourage us to form empathy in complicated situations. These books also seem to have one common hope for the young adult, as they enter adulthood. And perhaps, this message is more applicable to us, as adults.

It's quite simple, really:

May our minds never narrow.