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Take 5: 5 Thoughts I Had While Reading BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican, reflections of a teen librarian

When author Eric Devine recommended Brutal Youth to me for our #SVYALit Project chat on the topic of hazing (which will happen on January 28th at Noon Eastern), I hadn’t heard of it before. In large part probably because it’s not published as YA. Brutal Youth is published as adult, though it features as many teen voices as it does adult and really is a crossover novel. The thing is, it’s a really good one. The amount of stuff packed into this novel is profound. So for today’s post I’m going to share with you 5 things I loved about Brutal Youth.

1. This quote:

“So now she was trying her best to make conversation, but a parent can’t leave a child alone for so long and expect the occasional nicety to count for much. Those bonds break away much more quickly and permanently than most people would like to believe.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

Time and time again I have watched as parents mistakenly withdraw from their teenage children under the mistaken belief that teens don’t need much active parenting. I get it; parenting is hard and exhausting and after 13, 14 and 15 years it’s easy to take a breath and think finally you can take a moment to yourself. The truth is, teens need parents. Teens need active, involved parents who are willing and able to be real and engaged. I thought this quote towards the end of the book was so completely profound because I have worked with these kids. I have known these kids who had these parents and I have seen how hard it is to try and pick up the pieces, sometimes after it is too late. Teens need adults that care, be that adult. That’s what makes us good YA librarians, choosing to be that adult.

2. This quote:

“Yeah, kids who trash bathrooms. Maybe those kids matter more than even the good little ones who sit in the front row and try to answer every question.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

The kids that are hardest to love are often the ones who need it the most. Not always, but often. It’s just that they are stuck in this negative cycle where they pretend that they don’t need love and affirmation so they actively push others away. You see, it’s easier to put up defenses and pretend that you don’t need love and affirmation then it is to constantly allow yourself to be vulnerable and allow yourself to say you have that need and then watch as the people around you fail you by not choosing to fill it. Those tough, hard to love teens have been taught by life that they aren’t going to get love, so somewhere along the way the start pretending that they don’t need it. As someone who works with teens, it’s our job to be patient and kind and to know that for most teens, this rough exterior is just a bullshit act meant to protect. It’s our job to understand enough about adolescent development to know that quite often the kids we fear the most, the kids that push our buttons, the kids that challenge us every step of the way – those kids are often the kids who need us the most. Choose to rise to the challenge.

3. This quote:

“Maybe it’s the way you talk, or the color of your skin, or the color of your underwear, or whether you’ve got a clip-on around your neck. Assholes will find a reason to fuck with you.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

There will always be bullies. They will always find a reason to bully others. It doesn’t matter what a kid may look like, what they may wear, where they may live or how much money they may or may not have. Bullying is not really about the victim, it is about the person doing the bullying. It is about the need for power and control. It is often about the need to build oneself up on the backs of others. Our job is to stand up against bullying. To use story to enlighten and educate, to open eyes and build compassion. Our job is stand up to bullies and say that this is not acceptable.

4. This quote:

“Your problem is that you don’t know how to be happy with unhappiness.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

My timeline is often full of pithy quotes that seem to want to remind others that no matter how bad your life may be, someone somewhere else has it so much worse so you should be grateful for what you do have. We seem to want to deny others the right to feel what they are feeling in the midst of wherever they are in life. The other problem with this is that these ideas are used to allow us to turn our backs on very real problems that need addressing in our society. Take, for example, the idea of poverty, which is what a lot of recent quotes I have seen have to deal with. Yes, a good education can help you turn your life around. The problem is, that those born into areas of poverty don’t often have access to those educations. Kids born into areas of poverty are sent to barely surviving schools on basically empty stomachs without the same resources or curriculums that you would find at schools with more money. What we often suggest is that these students, these barely surviving students, shouldn’t feel rage and fear; we want them to be grateful and happy for what they do have instead of demanding more. But the thing is, we should all be demanding more. We should be demanding more because our humanity requires it of us. We should be demanding more because we know that poverty, in the long run, effects us all. Poverty affects us all because it affects health outcomes, it affects education, it affects what type of working adults we will have in the future when we want to turn to these new adults to take care of the society that we live in. We need the kids of today to be successful so that they will be the successful adults of tomorrow.

5. And finally, this quote:

“Surprise, surprise—the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes, they’re lucky if they just get to keep on being the good guys.”
Anthony Breznican, Brutal Youth

Life can really knock you around. In Brutal Youth, Breznican presents a world in which brutality is institutionalized and codified.  It seems like it might be an exaggeration, but I have lived enough life to know that this is sadly true in a lot of ways and in a lot of places. There are people and places that embrace and relish this type of brutality. The thing is, it changes you. In order to survive you often find yourself changing the core of who you are. As adults, we can’t allow these type of scenarios to persist because we should want to raise good people. Moral people. Compassionate people. The types of people who make the hard decisions because they are the right decisions. I don’t know what kind of world you want to live in, but I want to live in one where people care about one another. How we treat kids today helps form what types of adults will be running our world tomorrow.

Brutal Youth was a profound reading experience for me. I saw in the pages of this book so much that I see wrong with this world and it reminded me of what life can be like for our teens – and our adults. These were painfully flawed characters, often barely surviving. At one point, a young woman is brutally beaten by a parent and then later, when she awakens from being knocked out, she goes and places a blanket over the sleeping mother that has just beaten her. This young woman has to chose to create a type of peace in her home time and time again because it is the only home she has. This young woman broke my heart because I know far too many teens living in the same types of environments. Our teens are living with the very scenarios that I kept reading in Brutal Youth.

There are also some very profound moments that discuss the abuse of police authority that really resonate with the discussions we are having across the U.S. in light of recent events. Here we see the police fabricating evidence to manipulate events, to steer them in the directions they want them to go. Yes, there are good police. But we also do a huge disservice to ourselves and our communities if we turn a blind idea to the discussions happening about the abuse of power that can happen in our local police forces. And that’s a lot of what Brutal Youth is about, the abuse of power and the many and various ways that can happen. Sometimes, it is the police. Sometimes, it is teachers and school administrators. Sometimes it is the clergy. Sometimes it is your peers. In Brutal Youth, it is often all of the above, as it can be in life.

Rumors, gossip, fear, power, faith and lack of faith . . . there is so much tucked into the stories of the many characters here. Some of them try to do the right things but end up really screwing things up anyways. Some of them have no intentions of doing the right thing. Whatever their reasons, the story is fascinating. It is discussable. It stays with you.

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