As a reader, I know that story has the power to change lives. From the moment I read It by Stephen King in the 6th grade, I knew that I wanted to be THAT type of friend. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I knew I wanted to be THAT type of a person. You can, in fact, read about a couple of my life changing experiences as a reader here and here.
As a librarian, as someone who cares about teens, who cares about the future of the world, I count on the fact that story has the power to change lives. I put books in the hands of teens every day and hope that they will have their Pandemonium or Ask the Passengers moment.
As a girl, I understand that story has the power to help us understand who we are, how we think, and how we can be so much more than the world sometimes seems destined to let us be. I imagine that is also the case for boys, but have less personal insight into it. But that is why there is such tremendous value in authors like Judy Blume and Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr and yes, in the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.
You see for me, the heart of Pretty Amy is the story that most girls have within them: we are struggling to be at peace in our own skin, we are struggling to find a group of people that we can be It level friends with. We want to find a way to hold our head up high and feel pretty - not on the outside pretty, but inside valuable to the world no matter what pretty. And this is the heart that beats in the core of Pretty Amy.
However, before Amy can get to the climb towards self acceptance, she must - like so many of us must - realizes that she needs to take that journey of self discovery. In Pretty Amy, that moment comes when she is arrested on prom night for drug possession (marijuana) and intent to sell. Yesterday, author Lisa Burstein tweeted that a magazine had decided not to publish a review of her book Pretty Amy because it had teens using drugs in it.
Let's take a side step for a moment, shall we? You may have heard that there is a mega hot selling book out right now called 50 Shades of Grey. I have not read this book, but it is my understanding that many people consider it to be a model of unhealthy relationships. There are articles about this book on every major news outlet and you can see commercials for it on TV. You can not escape the phenom that is 50 Shades. So, while we are busy being told time and time again that these types of relationships - and trust me, 50 Shades is not the only example out there, I have even discussed before my concerns about the way unhealthy relationships are portrayed in teen fiction and, in this case, adult fiction (trust me, teens are reading it too) - are okay, we are going to sweep Pretty Amy under the rug because a teen does drugs. Please note: drug use is in no way glorified or condoned in this book, in fact, it is the impetus for Amy's journey to a healthy sense of self which means she must move away from these activities. What's the take away teen readers get here? Reading about unhealthy romantic relationships good and titillating, reading about non glorified drug use is bad. Let's unpack that a little further shall we: it is your role to subjugate yourself in unhealthy ways to a man to find fulfillment as a woman, but we can't let you read about a teenage girl smoking pot, being punished for it and finding ACTUAL healthy self-fulfillment.
So while Bella must surrender her soul and become a member of the immortal undead to find her true love and we accept that, we can't let teens grapple with a very real life scenario and come to a sense of understanding that some of the choices that we make are unhealthy and unwise but we can fix them. They don't have to define us as we can move forward and make different choices. Please note Bella can never make a different choice - she has surrendered her soul - but Amy most definitely can.
That is part of the value of realistic fiction. It allows us as readers to step into someone else's shoes, to live another person's life, and learn from it. We may learn compassion for others. We may learn to make different choices. We may learn to act, think or feel differently - but we learn. The question we must ask ourselves is this: how do we want our teens to learn? Do we want them to learn in the safety of their rooms in the pages of a book? Or do we want to shelter them to such an extreme that they don't understand the dangers of the world they live in and are forced to learn in very real ways? I personally vote safety of a book, but that's just crazy talk.
I have known teens and have watched them disintegrate before my eyes because they have fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs. It is such a horrible sight to witness, drugs are a powerful force. Abuse, drugs, crime - literature, the power of story, can help teen readers figure out how to live in the world without making very painful and sometimes irreversible mistakes. If we want our teens to be critical thinkers who can make good decisions for self and future, then we must be willing to let them enter into the pages of a book and examine the story critically.
Amy becomes pretty, pretty on the inside pretty, because she learns to love herself. Her story can teach teen girls everywhere to do the same. I wish that we would understand that our teens are on those crucial steps toward adulthood and we need to allow them to make safe steps on that journey by allowing them the opportunity to think and feel and interact with the real world. And let's not forget, some of our teens are already living those lives that we are trying to protect other teens from, we devalue them and their story when we censor their truth. Just because you want to pretend something isn't there doesn't really make it go away. I think the question we have to ask ourselves is how to we learn about the lives of our teens, give them voice, and have meaningful conversations with teens and each other about the lives of teens. And the answer is found in the pages of books like Pretty Amy.
Read my previous thoughts on censorship:
Banned Books Week Primer
Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .
Here is my review of Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein
And read more about the power of YA literature by clicking on the Why YA? link