Why do I read? I just can’t help myself – Part 3 of a series (continued from The Purpose of YA)

The Goodreads explanation of this book:

The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park in this exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning!
 
Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

Warning: spoilers below

To borrow from Sherman Alexie’s point in my last post, I understand that topics in novels like All the Bright Places are important for young adults. It’s required that young adult writers discuss themes of suicide, mental health, and fitting in. However, I believe these topics require great care and attention to their messaging. I read three separate articles that describe why this book falls short in being meticulous with its messages and how alarmed people should be. Finch chooses to commit suicide, and Violent ends up being the one to find his body. I commend the author for taking risks in going to this extent and not shying away from incredibly difficult content. However, I find myself wondering – did this have to happen? And if so, why was so much of the book flippant and silly and glib? Is it authentic to have a suicidal kid get “saved,” or should more kids be committing suicide in books and movies? I find films like Dead Poets Society to be incredibly difficult to watch, re-visit, and even recommend to kids because I grapple with this question myself. One way to resolve it is to point out that traumatic content is received depending entirely on the viewer/reader’s experiences and triggers; therefore, it isn’t up to me to decide what is appropriate or isn’t. It’s up to individuals. This gets complicated, though, when we produce and market content specifically for young adults and claim that it’s important and appropriate.

Last year, I attended a young adult literature conference that had a panel of authors whose books were concerned with serious topics of depression, suicide, eating disorders, and mental illness. They were all brilliant women who had clearly spent countless hours researching the things they wrote about; not a single person sat down and said, “I’ll picture what it’s like to be suicidal and hope people like it.” That being said, one author in particular complained about being “softly censored,” in that librarians weren’t featuring her book because they were afraid kids would get the “wrong idea” or be negatively influenced to be suicidal, depressed, or ill themselves. Alexie challenges this decision-making when he says,

Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?

It’s preposterous to protect young adults from learning about heavy topics and trauma. Nevertheless, do I sometimes steer children away from books like All the Bright Places? The answer is – yes. I want my students reading books that affect, educate, console, inspire, and sadden them. But they have to be phenomenally intentional and responsible about it. And while this book featured beautiful language and some incredibly brave writing decisions, I can’t write this off as something I’d recommend. The rate at which books are being written and then becoming best-sellers that feature controversial content like this send a variety of messages including but not limited to why suicide is a valid option, that severe mental health issues shouldn’t ever be addressed with medication, or that young adults are just misunderstood and should never seek help from adults. The articles I linked to above expand more explicitly on how this applies to All the Bright Places.

Ultimately, I’d like my kids to read about suicide, rape, mental illness, murder, and trauma. I’d also like them to read about marriages, boyfriends, girlfriends, difficult tests, sports, going to college, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, current events, and opinion pieces. I’d like them to read The Fault in Our Stars one day and pick up a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt the next. Everyone should always be aiming to Try New Things. And they shouldn’t all be about suicide (though some of them can be, and they should be great).

NOTE:

I do think Rainbow Rowell’s portrayal of mental illness in Fangirl is an incredibly respectful, authentic one. Furthermore, when reading about Theodore Finch in this book, I was constantly reminded of Leonard Bankhead from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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