John Corey Whaley: “I Know YA Saves”

You’ve probably heard all the ruckus about #YAsaves recently (if not, we’ve got a recap here) — and while most of the buzz has started to die down, we couldn’t turn down the chance to share this fantastic response by debut author John Corey Whaley, whose book Where Things Come Back is one of our favorite new books. So without further ado, here is Corey’s guest post about how #YAsaves and why he’s so glad to be part of the YA community:

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I Know YA Saves.

Call it what you will—GurdonGate, The #YASaves Movement, Authors Strike Back!—but, over the past week, the internet (specifically twitter) has been abuzz with strong reactions toward the Wall Street Journal’s recent article slamming contemporary YA fiction as dangerous for teens everywhere.

I’m not sure anyone cares what I have to say about the matter, but I do know that as a debut YA novelist (my novel, Where Things Come Back, hit stores on May 3rd), I have been overwhelmed by the amazing community that I’ve suddenly found myself a part of. From authors to bloggers to avid readers, these past few days have proven that YA, and even literature as a whole, is still very relevant and something that many, many people hold dear to their hearts.

I’ve read several other writer’s reactions to the WSJ article, and, like so many others who retweeted this article along with me, felt that Sherman Alexie summed it all up beautifully and poignantly in his response.

But I thought I might take a different approach. All I’ve been able to do throughout all of this is think about all of the different YA novels that have meant something to me during my 27 years on the planet. So, without further ado, I want to share my thoughts on how a few of these books definitely prove that YA does, indeed, save lives, rebuilds livelihoods, and captures human nature in all of its beautiful and, yes, sometimes scary and powerful incarnations.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One will be hard-pressed to find another novel, adult or YA, which tackles the issues of racism and class warfare as elegantly as Lee’s novel. And, it all happens to be from the perspective of a scrappy young girl who has perhaps seen more than she should, but ultimately stands for the innocent-figure-waiting-to-be-corrupted-by-the-world in us all. I know YA saves because I’ve had a room full of sixteen year olds from an impoverished community tell me that this was the first novel they’d ever read all of the way through.  I know it saves because several of them starting re-reading it as soon as summer break began.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Call it stereotypical all you will, but this “YA” novel, dark in tone and heavy in cynicism, is one of the more universally-identifiable books ever written. Why? Because Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, dares to let us into his innermost thoughts, however damaged they may be, and we quickly realize that as he reveals himself, he may also be revealing parts of us. I know YA saves because I searched for years for a person like me and I found him in Holden Caulfield.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Chbosky’s epistolary novel about a troubled high school freshman in search for friends and his own identity after the suicide of his best friend is both poignant and edgy.  There is definitely some serious stuff in this novel: suicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexual exploration, sex, rape, etc.  But, in showing the world through young Charlie’s lenses, Chbosky also shows us, in many ways, that the scariest things we witness can sometimes turn out to be the things that bring us all together in the end. I know YA saves because I picked this book up when shelving it as a worker in my high school library and, after re-reading it ten years later, I realize that I still need this book as much as I needed it back then.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Alexie’s story of a Native American teenager growing up within the desperate confines of a reservation and daring to seek a way out is one that can be understood by anyone who has known what it’s like to be stuck somewhere.  Rife with alcohol abuse and poverty, the reservation that “Junior” lives on is the major antagonist in this novel.  The story also shows us how a young man can deal with death, racism, and abuse with humor and determination. I know YA saves because I see in Arnold “Junior” Spirit that child in all of us that will stop at nothing to find his/her place in the world.

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan
Levithan’s novel about several teenagers in NYC on and after the September 11th Attacks on the World Trade Center offers much more than just a beautiful, personal account of a universally tragic event. This story itself is told from several perspectives and deals with issues such as death, sexuality, grief, and the overwhelming thought of a changed world with impending war, etc.  What Levithan manages to do is show us that in our darkest of times, we can cling to each other for hope and start to make our way into a future full of uncertainties and pain. I know YA saves because everyone of us will experience loss and pain and some of us aren’t sure that what we feel is okay until we read that someone else feels that way too.

I decided to become a writer when I was eleven or twelve because I loved telling stories.  But, I decided to become a good writer when I started reading books like the ones listed above. I decided that a book is powerful in more ways than any one person can describe. And there is no rule as to what a book means to one person or the other—just that it means something.  I don’t write these things to shamelessly plug my own YA novel.  I write these things because I am proof that YA saves lives and can change the way a person looks at and interacts with the world. When I couldn’t relate to the people around me, I could always find someone in YA fiction to whom I could relate.  And through these characters and their struggles, sometimes gruesome and painful to read, and sometimes so close to home, I have been able to become the main character in my own life and know that the struggles of reality are a part of it all.

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