Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Perfectly Imperfect, a guest post by Corey Ann Haydu

The Case for Imperfect Characters with Imperfect Feelings for Our Youngest Readers

I have always written imperfect characters with imperfect feelings in my young adult and middle grade novels. It came naturally, mostly because I kept journals in my own middle grade and young adult years, and was able to see first-hand just how complicated and tricky and not-so-nice so many of my feelings were. How not-so-nice, I was, at times. It was easy, to understand imperfection from that angle. Knowing myself rather well, I know I am not a terrible person. But I had evidence of some very hard-to-understand feelings I had about my friends and family and, perhaps most of all, myself. Imperfection is about those dueling truths: we are kind and good people, existing in the world, but the world is messy, so we also have messy feelings to go along with our kindness and goodness. Kindness and goodness are not the same as perfection. 

Still, somehow, when I started writing chapter books for a slightly younger audience, younger than my journals went, I balked at the idea that I could write similarly imperfect characters for those younger ages. Weren’t books meant to show young readers how to live in the world? Weren’t characters in books meant to be examples? Didn’t my books for younger readers have to be perfectly nice and perfectly good and perfectly kind?

What I forgot, of course, is that even if these books were meant to show something about what it is to live in the world as a kid, it wouldn’t be much help to show a perfect existence filled with nice and easy feelings. That wouldn’t tell a kid much about how to be. Or rather, it might tell them how to be, but it would set them up for failure. I speak from experience when I say that aiming for perfection is a great way to feel awful about yourself. And I do not want my books to make kids feel awful. I want my books to make kids feel seen. I also want my books to make them laugh. And cringe. And scream at the characters NO DON’T DO THAT. And wonder. And relate. And not relate, but try to understand anyway. 

In my HAND ME DOWN MAGIC series, my characters, best-friend-cousins Alma and Del feel feelings that we have been told over and over are bad. Jealousy. Fear. Loneliness. Anger. And in illustrator Luisa Uribe’s emotionally vibrant illustrations, these emotions are right there on the surface, unhidden, fraught, earnest, plaintive. Undeniably, deeply there. On the front of the cover of book three in the series, PERFECT PATCHWORK PURSE, three girls are featured. In the middle, Cassie hugs a unique patchwork purse to her chest. On one side of her, exuberant Del celebrates Cassie’s acquisition. And on the other side there is Alma. She is bereft. She is clasping her hands and frowning and leaning towards the bag with a heartbreaking longing. 

I guess it would be quite evolved for Alma to simply celebrate her friend having a cool new accessory. But it wouldn’t be authentic. At least not of the life I know, where sometimes we feel something imperfect that we wish we weren’t feeling. And I want my characters to be authentic. Not just because it’s easier to write. And certainly more fun to write. But also because if I want kids to “learn” anything from my books, I want them to learn that it’s okay to feel those feelings. I want them to learn they don’t have to hide them away or beat themselves up for having them, or try to convince the world they don’t ever get them. I want them to know that I feel those feelings too. That Alma is not alone, and neither are they. 

Sometimes, we are Del, celebrating our friends’ victories. That’s wonderful. But sometimes we are Alma, wishing those victories were our own.  And that’s okay too. Maybe even a little bit wonderful. Because it means we are alive, we are feeling, we are vulnerable and open and letting the world matter to us. Being imperfect, actually, is code for being engaged in the world around us. Being imperfect means we care. It means being full-hearted. Being imperfect means being whole. 

When I look at that illustration of Alma, I don’t feel bad for her. I feel seen. I say to myself—oh, yep, that’s how it feels sometimes. I hope my books provide that for young readers (and readers of all ages!) I hope they take what feels messy and bad and uncomfortable and wrong and make it look okay. Expected. Part of the whole being human thing. Recognizable and relatable and not so scary after all. 

I’m still working, on not needing to be perfect. It’s hard, to give up on that impossible dream. But writing Alma and Del and their messy, imperfect, big, tricky feelings helps show me the way. If I can love Alma and her sulking or Del and her fear or both girls when they have a messy fight, maybe I can love myself through sulking and fear and fighting too. And hopefully, hopefully, so can young readers. 

_

Corey Ann Haydu is the author of the Hand-Me-Down Magic series, EventownThe Someday Suitcase, and Rules for Stealing Stars and four acclaimed books for teens. She grew up in the Boston area, earned her MFA at the New School, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her dog Oscar. Find out more at www.coreyannhaydu.com

Book Review: Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu

Use this mascara for longer, fuller lashes. Use this cream to reduce wrinkles and fine lines. Use this cream to fade your dark spots. Use this hair dye to cover your gray. Use this lipstick for fuller. more kissable lips. Wear this type of dress/shirt/pants/skirt/top to look slimmer/bustier/more appealing to men. And here are the things women do that men hate . . . These are just a few of the constant messages that women start receiving at an incredibly young age, messages that tell us that we have to look a certain way to be confident and attract the opposite sex. Messages that tell us we have to do more, be more, and suffer more in order to be “desirable”. This is a huge part of what MAKING PRETTY by Corey Ann Haydu is about – how we teach girls from a very young age to hate the way they look, thus hating themselves.

Sometimes a book so moves me that I feel like I have to write a letter to the author. Sometimes I have done that publicly, but MAKING PRETTY led me to write a very private one to Corey Ann Hyadu. You see, I have never been comfortable in my own skin. I have never felt good enough or pretty enough, and in some ways I know the reasons for that. Part of it is culture and part of it is the things that have been said and done to me and around me in my home and in my personal life. I related all too well with the girls we meet in MAKING PRETTY. I have been these girls. I am these girls. And I have worked with these girls for 20 years now. Corey Ann Haydu captures so much of these girls in pitch perfect ways I was moved to compassion for myself and every girl like me that has to weather the storm that is being a girl in contemporary society. It’s so hard to love yourself in a world that constantly tells you that you have no reason to.

Cultural messaging can be a harmful beast.  The institutionalized and internalized image issues that get handed down to us in subtle and often unconscious ways can really mess with your head. It’s the photoshopped images in magazines. The way we talk about girls weight to them and in front of them in ways that we don’t with men. It’s the way we sit around and watch award shows just to pick apart the way the women look in ways that we often don’t with men. It’s the constant barrage of ads aimed at women about make-up and fine lines and wrinkles and beauty creams and hair dye. We are constantly being told if we buy this and do that then it might make us more worthy, more loveable. There is an entire industry that is bankrolled on the backs of women’s insecurities, people grow rich telling us the lie that if we just did x, y or z then we might finally be worthy of love and acceptance.

The stories I could tell you. That I want to. The girls I have seen hurting. And before anyone leaves me a comment saying but what about the men, I will readily admit that men can and do struggle with body image issues, we have even written about that here at TLT. But it also feels like they aren’t targeted as much as women. For every male baldness or Bowflex ad I see it seems like I see 10 ads for women’s beauty products. Entire industries are built on making women hate themselves.

In addition to the way Haydu perfectly captures the brokenness that we often inflict upon our girls with our unreasonable beauty standards and messaging, MAKING PRETTY is also just amazingly well written; it’s a good, well written story. There are so many perfectly written and emotive sentences that I am going to go back and write in my quote journal. There are so many girls and parents I want to hand this to and say here, read this. To the girls I want to say you are enough. And to the parents and our culture I want to say stop making our girls feel like they aren’t enough. This book is a great tool to help do that. It’s a good story with poignant insight. We’re so busy trying worrying about “making pretty” we forget to worry about “making whole”.

Everyone – every man, woman, and teen – should read this book. I highly recommend it.

I love this book. Thank you for writing it.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Montana and her sister, Arizona, are named after the mountainous states their mother left them for. But Montana is a New York City girl through and through, and as the city heats up, she’s stepping into the most intense summer of her life.

With Arizona wrapped up in her college world and their father distracted by yet another divorce, Montana’s been immersing herself in an intoxicating new friendship with a girl from her acting class. Karissa is bold, imperfectly beautiful, and unafraid of being vulnerable. She’s everything Montana would like to become. But the friendship with Karissa is driving a wedge between Montana and her sister, and the more of her own secrets Karissa reveals, the more Montana has to wonder if Karissa’s someone she can really trust.

In the midst of her uncertainty, Montana finds a heady distraction in Bernardo. He’s serious and spontaneous, and he looks at Montana in the way she wants to be seen. For the first time, Montana understands how you can become both lost and found in somebody else. But when that love becomes everything, where does it leave the rest of her imperfect life?

Coming May 12th, 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books. ISBN: 9780062294081

Ally Watkins sent me a copy of her ARC to read.

Body Image and Eating Disorders