Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Letter from a School Bus Driver

thanks, moanaluapto for the pic

  Dear Story Surgeon General,
As a mother, grandmother, and someone who works on a daily basis with children and youth, I have a great interest in removing malignant tumors from their mental food. 
A junior high student left her library book on my bus one day. Curious about the title, I checked it out and found it was about a young girl who cut herself. I knew the student who had left the book, and she herself was a troubled teen. It made me sick to think of her taking those ideas into her mind. 
Where are the books that uplift and inspire? That bring hope and peace and a desire for goodness of character?



Thanks for your letter. I hope you don't mind that I edited it a bit for brevity.

It's easy to see why troubled teens turn to books like this. There is something extremely comforting to know there are other people out there with problems like ours (or even worse that ours.) I imagine that's why authors keep pumping these books out. They have an audience, and they think they are helping trouble teens everywhere to feel validated.

In the WSJ article I quoted in my first blog post, Ms. Gordon addresses this issue as well:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

My two centavos:
I think these types of books can accomplish good. They may foster sympathy for people with mental illness, help teens to feel they're not alone, and perhaps even inspire them to find light in their world.
However, the question is whether the books also skew reality and make it seem as if the destructive behavior is normal. I've read books where a person who committed suicide becomes a sort of hero victim. The dangers of glamorizing suicide are obvious. Even if the authors are trying to discourage bullying or encourage kindness at school, inevitably some teens will finish the book with the resolve to leave their own bitter legacy.
Example: Nothing makes the news faster than a school shooting. But the massive coverage gives the illusion that it's much more common than it is. Factor in the dozens of novels on the subject and suddenly it becomes an option for any student with a grudge and access to weapons. They know at the very least they'll get their name all over the news. They won't be so alone in their pain.
I see these angst books as a band-aid on a gaping wound. The pain these kids are feeling is very real, but a novel with graphic themes is not going to solve much. The real issues need to be brought out in the open and dealt with. Trouble teens need to turn to parents or other adults they can trust, rather than to a sensationalized version of their own struggles.
I suppose it's up to us to be those adults they can turn to.

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