I think this is one of those blogs that should have Chicken Soul Soup on it – though technically, it’s not – nah, it is. It’s a re-orientation of perspective, so it’s chickeny and soulful, and thus we shall make soup.
Chicken Soul Soup: Those Cancer People
A long-time student (now on her way to high school) just finished reading The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. She was rather enthralled by Bridgit, who goes to sunny Baja and plays soccer with her perfect, athletic body and falls in love with a hot guy (student’s words, not mine). The student was not amused by Tibby, a wannabe emo who makes friends with a young cancer patient.
Odd. I would have predicted that she’d like Tibby.
Turns out it wasn’t Tibby she disliked so much as the cancer. Said student had recently seen The Fault in Our Stars, and she wanted to know why authors of YA books were spending so much time on “those cancer people”.
I suggested that she think.
What it came down to, she decided, was that YA authors were trying to make their readers feel extreme emotions.
“You don’t feel anything extreme when it comes to cancer?” I asked.
“No. I have no experience with it.” She played with the ends of her hair. “Now if it were about suicide, then I’d be interested.”
A thousand and one years ago, dear reader, your favourite blogger wrote a play. It was about suicide. It won a competition at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Three other teenagers also wrote plays that won the competition. Only one of the plays was not about suicide: it was about alcoholism, and someone still died.
There were lots of articles in the newspapers that went on and on and freakin’ on about how adolescents were obsessed with death.
No shit. We could have told you that. In fact, I think we did (we wrote a lot of plays about it).
So, with my adolescence oozing in from the back of my mind, I asked my student why suicide was better than cancer.
“People don’t always die from cancer.”
Oh. Right. That’s what thirty years does: it changes the face of death. Cancer isn’t as threatening as it was when I—and the current YA writers—were teenagers, and it wasn’t even all that threatening then.
My students want a controlled death. It’s not worth thinking about unless it’s guaranteed.
If you’re writing YA books, bring on the sex; bring on the death. Don’t bother with threats, because teenagers receive a constant flow of “If you don’t, then ________” and so threats carry no weight anymore. Put the bloody head on the polished silver platter and have the scantily-dressed slut serve it on up. They’ll love you for it.
A no-longer-Young-Adult-young-adult friend would like to make this point: “I figure the emotional reaction people get out of books such as TFiOS is more because the death is tragic. The kids are living (relatively) good lives and that’s torn away from them. With suicide, I suppose there’s more of a desire. Yes, those around the person are still struck with tragic woes, but with cancer, the person who dies is ALSO suffering.”
Thirteen-year-olds don’t really care much about other people. When you start thinking about other people, you get to remove those capitals from Young Adult. Think of it as a milestone.
Adults can certainly read YA books (unlike certain journalists, I have no problem with reading outside of the suggested age-range), but the reaction will be different. Authors need to be aware of this, too.