The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories.
Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:
“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”
The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets Better. In Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.” He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever. As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.
Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters. But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task. Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.
Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:
“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)
“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)
“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)
“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)
“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)
“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)
“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)
“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)
“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)
“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)
Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects. But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.
Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?