21st century young adult (YA) literature is not your mom’s or grandma’s YA, though the classics of their eras remain great. Today’s YA novel routinely deals with topics such as sex, drugs, alcoholism, bullying and other forms of abuse, depression, and eating disorders. YA dialogue is typically realistic, which includes an extraordinary number of vulgar expressions on the pages of many YA novels. You don’t have to like it–I certainly don’t–but it IS the way lots of kids talk.
The recently published “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan, is not only one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read but one of the best books, period. The authors wrote the novel in alternating chapters, each writing from the point of view of one of the two main protagonists, each of whom is named Will Grayson. One WG is straight, the other gay. Straight WG’s best friend is a gay classmate, Tiny Cooper, who writes, directs, and produces a musical that starts out being about himself and ends up, like “WG, WG” itself, as a wonderful story of love and friendship.
The change in YA lit mirrors an evolution in society, which, in turn, leads to evolution in the law. Fifty years ago in this country, a book such as “WG, WG,” with principal characters who are gay, frank depictions of teens coming to terms with their sexuality, and LOTS of vulgar language, would have been kept behind the desk in my hometown library if the library even purchased it at all. Today, it’s reviewed and praised on literary programs around the world, including a discussion with New Zealand children’s writer Kate de Goldi on the April 17 edition of Radio New Zealand’s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill,” and I’d guess and hope it’s a serious contender for a National Book Award and/or a Pulitzer Prize. And less than fifty years ago, homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder. Not only has the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but many states, including Illinois, have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage is legal in a few states and many countries. In fact, Iceland’s prime minister recently wed her partner under that country’s new marriage law, apparently amid no hoopla and not even any blinking on the part of Icelanders.
Please run, do not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and get “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” to read. The book, incidentally, takes place in Chicago and its suburbs; straight WG goes to Evanston Township High School, gay WG goes to Naperville.