In celebration of I Read YA week:
I don’t feel old in my mid-30s, but I have aged out of being able to call myself the target audience of young and also new adult. During my time as a teen in the 90s, the young adult genre was only an inkling of what it has become in recent years. In the past, I read a lot of coming of age novels, which were mostly male authored with male lead characters. A few of my favorites as a teen were Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Skipped Parts by Tim Sandlin and Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne. I was desperate to grasp onto any fictional character who could validate the mess happening in my brain in my fight to deal with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. I was dealing with thoughts and feelings that I didn’t feel safe divulging to judgemental and gossipy friends, so I turned to fictional friends as an alternative.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve obtained a more trustworthy circle and learned more about the best ways to keep my mental illness in check, some of my old fictional friends aren’t the best to go back to. Just like most toxic relationships, it’s best to cut the cord. So long Holden Caulfield. You have a spot in my heart for holding my hand through junior year, but we’re over. The genre of young adult fiction has exploded in recent years. With that, we’ve seen a slow but growing uptick in diverse authors and thus characters. Where I had to settle for literary friends at one time, I can now seek out heroines and heroes for which I don’t have to compromise. If a character is a misogynist, I can toss them aside and not fret that I may not find someone in another novel with values closer to my own.
To this day, I have to focus on recovery from the traumas and mental illness symptoms I had in my younger years. In addition, my mental illnesses are those that require constant work and treatment in order to live a happy and fulfilling life. What I have found in many current YA titles are characters who are dealing with these same symptoms. These characters are facing traumas that I faced. Not realizing others shared these experiences, I have taken to voraciously reading these novels in adulthood. I have hurts from that time in my life which still need to heal. Recently I read The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork and was absolutely blown away by the way in which he crafted the experience of depression through the main character, Vicky Cruz. Her depression had an air of guilt engulfing it. She questioned why she had suicidal ideations when she came from an upper middle class background. She could see other people had a more marginalized position in society and didn’t understand why depression could exist in her. This was something I struggled with from external sources in my teens. I was thus able to let go of the hurt I still carried from people who asked me why I was depressed when I had what appeared to be a comfortable life.
I find that the gap in my mental health treatment is slowly being closed by meeting new characters in YA fiction. Whether it’s the inspiration to continue working for the betterment of society despite PTSD from Katniss Everdeen, or persevering to fight the bad in our world when having trouble fitting in to a certain societal mold from Tris Prior. When given a fictional character that mirrors our own struggles, we can take cues in how we might heal from the past or conquer the future.