Room for Reality

Last fall I was on a panel discussing trends in YA. One author talked about the need for more fantasy and the view that YA readers want to escape reality. As an author and vivid reader and mostly as a human, I agree that people need an escape sometimes. We need a mental vacation from the monotony of daily life and from the stressors and tragedies that plague our world.

We all need a little sip of Netflix now and then. A giant gulp of a sweeping fantasy where a character just might have magical powers that make anything seem possible.

But what happens when the book is closed, when the movie is over?

Is there room for reality in YA?

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We all live in a real world. If Shakespeare was right, if “All the world’s a stage,” then some people get better parts in better plays, and others…well…others, through no fault of their own, end up in in horrific plays, in the role of tortured people.

Then all the more reason to escape, right?

All the more reason to curl up, alone, with a good fantasy.

It’s the ‘alone’ part that bothers me. Teens, like all humans, have to deal with reality. They have to live in it, and no matter how good a book is, if you’re locked in a lower cabin on the Titanic, reading that fantasy might not give you much comfort.

Okay, if you’re about to drown in icy, dark waters, nothing might bring you comfort, but given the choice, I think I’d prefer to read something about another person, another soul speaking to me from another doomed ship. “You’re not alone,” the words would read. “I’ve been where you are. I’ve felt what you feel. You are not alone.”


As a psychologist, I have been humbled so many times by what people endure, kids especially. People can be unimaginably cruel. The world can be unimaginably cruel. Whether today’s challenges are extreme or benign, the one thing we all desire is to not be alone. To be understood.

Reality in books lets readers know that they’re not alone — that there are others out there like them. Others fighting to get through each day, others fighting to keep their rage at bay, their fears hidden, and their tears confined to their pillows.

Realty in YA gives voices to real teens who may feel as though they have no voice, or who fear that using their voice will result in more pain, not less.

It reminds them that they are not alone. It tells them that they are understood, and if others are reading the same book, about the same difficult issues, then maybe, just maybe, a dialogue can be started. Other voices can be heard and things can get better.


I’m always telling my students not to escape from reality. If there’s something you don’t like, something stressing you out, making your life more difficult, change it. But you can’t change something you’re constantly running from, hiding from, escaping from.

Yes, give me a good fantasy,  a good science fiction story, a good romance. Let me step out of myself for a while, away from work and school and dishes. But once that story is over, let me not be alone. Let me read about others who struggle too. Others who have seen what I’ve seen, who know what I know. Others who have been in the dark, whose voices can sound in my head when I am there again and can tell me what I most need to hear.

You are not alone.

Is there room for reality in YA?

Of course there is. Reality is what life is made of.


Why is Literature Important?

A few weeks ago, I gave my literature students the review sheet for their final exam. It had the usual terms over poetry and drama and the list of poems, plays and stories we’d read that they should be familiar with. Then last week, I told them to take out their study guides and tear them up.

I told them that their final would be to answer one question: Why is literature important? At first, they were relieved, but then when I explained that the required essay would involve in depth soul-searching, they started to panic.

So, what happened?

With Star Wars being released, several students touched on the fact that good books mean good movies. Others commented on how they hated literature in high school but found a new appreciation for it in their current college course, (sucking up, I know, but still, I’ll take what I can get).

What I loved the most was when their writing about writing became passionate. When they were able to discuss how amazing it was to read the poetry of Iraq veterans and how seeing war through poetic imagery had not only given them a glimpse into the horrors of war, but had allowed them to peek into the souls of men and women who had experienced things that no person should ever have to experience.

ranger stands with arms and looks forward

They talked about vicariously experiencing freezing to death in the Yukon, about walking in the woods with the devil, stoning a neighbor to death and cutting an old man with a “vulture” eye up and hiding him under the floorboards.

They talked about how disturbing a story about a young man turning into a giant, repulsive bug is, and yet how the story of Gregor Samsa helped them to understand what it must feel like to have people shun you just because you’re different or you’re sick or you’re poor.

They talked about the amazing poetry of Shane Koyczan, and how they’d hated poetry but how he brought it to life for them. They talked out how   it made them feel things from their childhoods that they thought had been swept away but, as it turns out, had only been waiting in some corner of their minds for some light to be shed on the still painful names they were called and the shame of being picked last, or not at all.

Two big bully kids


All semester, I’d tried to teach with passion. To share my love of words and the fact that words CAN change hearts, and if words can change hearts, they can change the world.

At the beginning of the semester, many students said they hated reading, especially academic reading, and I can’t say that I blame them. (To this day I have to read “The Metamorphosis” in bits or I’ll literally need anti-nausea medicine).

Bedbug Concept

For a teacher, spreading passion is what it’s all about. The words that form in our minds, the words we speak and the ones we wish we could take back, are what make us who we are, and when we read someone else’s words, it’s almost like cannibalism. We’re not tasting a person’s body, we’re tasting their mind, their soul, their experiences. We’re growing exponentially by reading the words of those who have lived before us and of those who lived before them.

Some would say that these are dark and difficult times in which we’re living. But the truth is that every era has its own shades of hope and despair. The key to dispelling the dark is to find the passion that was born out of each generation. To learn from it. To feel it.

Why is literature important?

Because we are meant to feel the emotions of many lifetimes, but we are only given one.