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2012 Printz Award Winner John Corey Whaley remembers . . .

In honor of the anniversary of 9/11, we are re-running a piece written by the 2012 Printz Award Winner John Corey Whaley on the book Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan.  This piece originally appeared on April 18, 2012 as part of our Why YA? series.

I’ll make a confession: I read YA books. You know what else I read? I read newspaper articles, blogposts, essays, poetry, and . . . . wait for it . . . . adult literary fiction. It’s possible to read them all and experience them all respectively. But, to be quite honest, YA books have the most special place in my heart. They are the titles I remember instantly when asked “What’s your favorite book?” YA books are the ones we keep with us for years and years, lifetimes even.

So I was asked to write about a YA book that means something to me, but there are so many that I’ve had a hard time choosing just one. I could go with the literary masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which would most assuredly be classified as YA were it to be newly published today. Or, I could choose a more recent work like Sherman Alexie’s heartfelt, painful, and gorgeous The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. What about Frank Portman’s hilarious King Dork or Stephen Chbosky’s ode to teenage sexual/emotional confusion and angst, The Perks of Being a Wallflower? I could go on and on about these titles and why they transcend the adult-teenager literary divide. But, some of these I read as a teenager and I thought, to play fair, I’d discuss a YA book that I discovered as an adult.

In the few months prior to the release of my own YA book, I decided to read several titles that I’d had on my radar for years. The one that has stuck with me most from that period of time (and will always stick with me) was David Leviathan’s Love is the Higher Law. This beautiful sincere novel told from the multiple perspectives of New York City teenagers in the wake of the September 11th attacks meant more to me than most books I’ve ever read in my life. I think there are several reasons why this is true and why I would never be ashamed to be caught reading this title in a public place (thank you, Mr. Stein).

One reason is the beauty and courage with which Levithan approaches his characters as they experience, together and respectively, a rapidly changing world in which they suddenly learn they have very little control. Their conversations, relationships, and emotions (and lack there of, sometimes) spoke to me on a personal level.

You see, I was seventeen on September 11, 2001. Mind you, I was all the way down in Louisiana, far away from the actual events of the day, but I felt it just as I think most of us did. I felt a physical change in the world that I had no idea how to respond to mentally or emotionally. When I read this book, ten years later, I realized how I wasn’t alone with that feeling as a seventeen year old. I read about Claire, Peter, and Jasper and how they were just as lost as I was, as a lot of us were, I think.

Levithan found a way to capture something that I think, as a writer of any genre, is nearly impossible. He captured perfectly that universal haunting feeling that one gets when he or she realizes that nothing in the world makes a damn bit of sense anymore. And he did this in a YA book. Go figure.

Speaking of “universal experiences,” I want to end by saying this: we were all teenagers. It’s one of the very few things that every single adult on this planet has in common. We have different faiths, different careers, different types of families, different geographic locations, and even different eating habits. But one thing we all have is the memory of being a teenager. We remember how it felt, how awesome it was sometimes and how much it sucked other times. We remember discovering things for ourselves and making mistakes we knew better than to make in the first place. We all share so few things, but being a teenager and knowing what it means to be one is a damn important one. I write YA books because I choose to tell stories about growing up and about being a teenager and about discovering the world and the way its people work. I do this not because I am too dumb to write adult books (in fact, I’m working on one now), but because teenagers are just us a few years ago. They’re just waiting to grow up and become more bruised and cynical by the ways of the world. I write YA because teenagers read with open eyes and, you know what? Maybe more adults should do the same. Now, excuse me while I go proudly wave my YA books in public places.

John Corey Whaley is the 2012 Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris Award winner for his debut novel, Where Things Come Back. He was also named a 2011 5 Under 35 Author by the National Book Foundation. Find out more at his webpage and follow him on Twitter (@corey_whaley). Where Things Comes Back is the moving tale of Cullen Witter and his life in a small town with a missing brother, a missionary who is lost in other ways, and the strange reappearance of the extinct Lazarus Woodpecker. “Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.” – from Goodreads.com “This extraordinary tale from a rare literary voice finds wonder in the ordinary and illuminates the hope of second chances.” – Amazon.com

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