A message to my sixteen-year-old self (and to all teens, for that matter)

I turned 26 this past week. It’s crazy to think that just ten years ago I was 16. A lot has changed since I was in high school and yet in many ways, I feel the same. Young, clueless, searching for meaning and purpose in life. Some days I feel no different than I did at 16.

But something happened to me when I was 16, and looking back on it, I think I am only just realizing now how tragic it was. For some reason, at 16, I started to read less…and less…and less. I used to be addicted to books. You’d never see my nose out of them. And then things started changing.

I was discussing this very topic with my friend Tracey the other day. She wrote a wonderful blog post about YA books and how she never read many of them as a teen. I wrote a mini essay in the comments and realized I had a lot to say on this topic…

As a child, I was very fortunate to have a mother who was both an educator and a librarian. I read mountains of YA books leading up to my mid-teenage years. I knew they existed and I got my hands on them constantly because my mother would bring home anything and everything she thought I might enjoy. Some distinct favorites that stand out in my mind are SPEAK (Anderson), STARGIRL (Spinelli), THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY (Konigsburg), AMONG THE HIDDEN (Haddix), THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Pullman), HOLES (Sachar), HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (Rowling). I still attest that I really did read HP before most people because my Mom brought it home saying that she’d read in her library journals that it was going to be big. I literally was the first date stamped on the due-date slip. Years later, when HP became ridiculously popular, I was sort of bummed. I felt like it was my special world that I’d discovered first and now everyone was invading it. Ha! But, this is not the point…

My point is that I loved reading and I went through at least a book a week. And then – I really do think it was during my sophomore year, when I turned sixteen – I decided I was too grown up for YA books. I’m not sure if I actually believed this, or if that’s what I was somehow led to believe through school curriculum. My high school focused on classic literature. And there’s nothing wrong with the classics. Because of my school’s required reading list, I discovered books that still, to this day, remain some of my favorites. These include novels like THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, 1984, and LORD OF THE FLIES. But for some reason, this holistic induction of literary classics caused me to abandon YA books. Even outside of school where I could pick up whatever I liked, I read only “adult” literature. With the exception of HARRY POTTER, I don’t think I read a single children’s book all the way through college. And as a result, I read less. Significantly less. Maybe a book every three months if I was lucky. It was so very sad. I used to devour books and I had become, at least by my definition, a near non-reader.

Several years ago I started reading YA again. And remembered why I loved it so much. The characters are always at such a critical point in their life. Everything is urgent and pressing and an emotional ride, regardless of genre. I still read adult books too, and I still thoroughly enjoy them, but the difference is I no longer feel guilty or ashamed or juvenile for picking up a YA book either. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading what you love.

And so today, I read what I love and I write what I love. I write what I wish I had never abandoned as a teen. I sometimes wonder if I would have continued to read YA all the way through high school if say, SPEAK, had been required reading. There are some amazing books in the YA sector that teens are never introduced to. And then if a teen never connects with the classics that are required reading, do we risk loosing them as readers? Forever?

If I could go back and talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I’d have a lot of things to say. But one of the most important things I’d tell her is to never stop perusing the YA shelves at the library or book store. I would tell her to read whatever she wanted and to never avoid a book simply because it was “below” her reading level. Or above it. Or a genre she didn’t often explore. I’d tell her to read whatever she had the urge to read. And I guess that is a message I’d want to tell every sixteen-year-old…

Classics are wonderful, but ultimately, at the end of the day, reading is more wonderful. No matter what you read, read. Always!

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