Monthly Archives: October 2011

Can Reading Save?

There is no greater loss than the loss of a child. When a parent buries a son or daughter, the grief is immeasurable. When the cause is suicide, the tragedy is compounded by a single burning question: Why?

The death of Jamie Hubley by suicide has shed an ugly light on bullying in my community. This fifteen-year-old child went to my son’s school. I’ve seen him perform with the glee club. He grew up around the corner. Ignoring the tragedy of this death is impossible when it strikes so close to home.

Being a teenager has never been easy. Hormones, acne, fear of the future, math class, are all inescapable realities. And of course those bullies. Bullying has always been there and their targets don’t have to do much to draw the attention of the oppressors. Simply being too tall, too shy and too academic was enough in my case. But being gay, with its persistent social stigma, is often irresistible for these thick-necked brutes.

Recently there was a backlash against young adult fiction that people (parents, mostly) feel is too “edgy” for their children. They feel this fiction will give their kids ideas about such mature topics as eating disorders, depression, cutting, homosexuality, taking drugs or underage drinking. However, it’s a different world today and our children know all this stuff without being told. Today’s young adult fiction, as it always has, reflects our world rather than guides it. Many children find comfort in characters who are going through the same trouble they’re going through. When children discover they’re not alone, they might be more inclined to talk to a friend, parent or other trusted adult. Tellingly, the Twitter hashtag for supporters of edgy teen fiction is #YASaves.

In the 1970s, Judy Blume took teen fiction in unheard of directions. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret gave legitimacy to previously taboo subjects like menstruation and sexuality. Girls, hungry for meaningful stories about their personal struggles, ate it up. Finally, a character they could relate to. And, of course, parents balked, refusing to allow their daughters access to this wonderful story. (We found it anyway, Mum. At camp, a ragged copy, with the racy stuff underlined, got passed from cabin to cabin, read by flashlight and shoved under pillows at the approach of a counselor.)

With frankness and humour, Blume tackled subjects never before broached in contemporary fiction. Blubber, for example, gave a voice to victims of bullying and allowed the bullies themselves to view life from a different perspective.

Unlike television, which gives us superficial situations that are resolved within a forty-two-and-a-half minute timeframe, novels delve deeply, take time and effort to finish. Jamie cited Glee as a favourite program, and character Kurt Hummel (the only out gay boy in his school, like Jamie himself) as an inspiration, but felt he couldn’t cope as well as the character seemed to. The problem with television is that it can’t, given its limited format, show how difficult things are. Achievement and success are hard work and hard won. The It Gets Better YouTube campaign encourages gay teens to hang in there because it gets better, but Jamie had three years of high school left. When you’re fifteen, three years might as well be a lifetime, and it’s definitely longer than forty-two-and-a-half minutes.

Having flawed characters like Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another book parents and communities frequently try to ban) or Pony Boy in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to read about and relate to has, for decades, given legitimacy to the problems faced by young people. Today, there’s an abundance of edgy young adult novels that address many issues teens face. Cut, by Patricia McCormick, addresses cutting from the first-person perspective of fifteen-year-old Callie. Freewill, by Chris Lynch, tackles the difficult and dark topic of suicide. My own young adult novel, Voiceless, addresses homelessness, bullying, prostitution and rape.

Teens who read this fiction come to realize their depression and feelings of hopelessness and alienation are not theirs alone. Other teens feel this way and, by reading their stories, they can get into their heads and gain sympathy and understanding. Stories that feature engaging gay characters might help to de-stigmatize homosexuality, giving bullies less ammunition against their victims.

A secondary problem of bullying is blaming the victim. Why do you have to look so different? Can’t you try to fit in? Stop drawing negative attention? Why do you have to act so‚Ķgay? It’s akin to a rape victim “asking for it” because of her short skirt. When do we let the victims be themselves and target the bullies for a change? We need to isolate the bullies from the groups that give them strength and send them for counseling or sensitivity training. Introduce them to stories told from a victim’s perspective and encourage them to analyze and deconstruct them to understand their own victims’ feelings.

But sometimes the pain runs too deeply. Depression, sadness, hopelessness, anti-gay bullying and loneliness create a perfect storm that causes a young person to make a drastic and irreversible decision. Depression in teens presents differently than in adults and, rather than seeming sad, they seem irritable and aloof. They become secretive and withdrawn and no longer share what’s in their minds and hearts.

We need to protect our children. Encourage them to talk or write about their feelings. Get the bullies into behavior modification classes. Work with our schools and communities to seek out and help both victims and bullies.

Why do we wait for a terrible tragedy before we take action?