The Moral of the Story Is . . . ?

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Isn’t interesting how — unless a story is told like a parable with an obvious lesson — different readers take different morals from the same story? And, if you reread a book at a different stage in your life, you’ll likely take a different point from it than you did earlier. To me, that’s one of the things that make stories so awesome.

This weekend I scored the chance to borrow and read an early copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger, which comes out in July. I promise not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say general things, like that I loved it even more than the first one in the series, Shiver, and have fallen more in love with Stiefvater’s writing style. Also, this book gave me more to think about.

For example, I’ve started thinking how miserably difficult it would be to find your true love as a teenager.

Regardless of your opinions about true love leading to marriage, I think true love naturally leads to the desire to be together, to live together in the sense of creating a life together (not just sex), to come home to each other at the end of every day, to sleep beside each other for that chance to whisper about the things that fall into your head before sleeps takes you.

Teenagers (under 18) are sort of restricted in all those areas, and that’s definitely something that comes up in Linger and that carried over from Shiver. I felt that ache of frustration for the characters. I could understand where they were coming from.

After all, when I found love I was almost 20 — certainly still pretty young, but old enough that we were both already out of our parents’ houses and it was possible to get married, get an apartment, get furniture, get jobs, etc, within just a few months of when we started dating. If you find your true love at 15, 16, or 17, you’d be waiting years, not months.

But here’s where my perspective also handed me a different moral of the story than most teenage readers would take away: I also saw the story from the parents’ point of view.

Most parents do not want their daughter’s boyfriend sleeping in their daughter’s bed, regardless of how in love the two might be.

My gut reaction was to wonder if I’d want my kids reading a book like this when they’re teenagers. Would I want them to sympathize so strongly with the girlfriend and boyfriend while the parents seem a little like bad guys?

But then I started to think about what lesson there might be for me as a parent in this story — not that I believe Stiefvater constructed the story that way on purpose, but I believe that stories can naturally give us ideas about what things might be like in certain circumstances.

And what I think is that parents should be the ones sympathizing with the daughter and the boyfriend — not necessarily condoning their behavior, but respecting their feelings.

In this book, Grace complains that her mother is condescending, always telling Grace that she’s in lust, not love, and that it’s not really possible to fall in love so young and that Grace won’t really know that until she looks back. While all of that may be totally valid (I think it was the case for most of us that true love did not hit in high school, regardless of how often a high school heartbreak made it feel like it had), it’s the attitude of the mother that sabotages her relationship with her daughter.

On the flip side, one of the greatest things my mom ever did for me as a teenager was take me and my feelings seriously. I still remember being fourteen and liking a guy who liked me (looking back, I probably liked him because he liked me), telling my mom all about it, and being surprised at her level of sympathy and seriousness. Her tone suggested everything: that she understood, that she wasn’t treating me like or thinking of me as a kid, that she considered my feelings valid.

Now I wonder if she was able to talk with me that way because she and my dad were high school sweethearts. She knew very well that young love is possible.

And what it did for me was create a mother–daughter relationship where I knew I could always talk to her. I was more willing to go to her for advice because I knew she wouldn’t talk down to me. And when you’re trying to navigate those hairy-scary teenage years, a relationship like that makes all the difference.

So maybe the moral of the story is that it’s great for YA books to treat teenage problems as being this real . . . because it helps us remember that they are. It helps us remember that teenagers are young adults — encountering adult issues and emotions for the first time. And if we can sympathize with our own teenagers as well as we sympathize with characters in a novel, maybe that will be beneficial all the way around.

Plus, looking at it that way, I’d be excited for my kids to read a book like this so we could talk about it together. I’d be curious to see it from their point of view and find out what morals they’d take from the story.

What do you think?

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11 responses »

  1. I think you got the right lesson from this book. Treating your teenagers with respect and sympathy seems like an important step in getting them to start making their own life decisions and becoming a full adult. I decided who I would marry in high school too and I can say it’s heartbreaking when your parents don’t take you seriously.

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    • That is such a great point, and I’m sure you and Andrew will be more sympathetic with your teenagers since you’ve gone through it for yourselves. That understanding helps so much. 🙂

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  2. I applaude your opinion and I think this is why I have started reading so many YA novels because I want to be able to identify with my son or daughter (I’m 4 months pregnant) and I don’t want to lose the memories of my youth. Looking back to my teenage years, I think that if my parents had been understanding, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble. If I could have gone to them with a problem, I could’ve gotten much needed advice rather than figuring it out on my own.

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  3. Wow! Thanks so much for posting. I am a mom of teens and a hopeful YA author. Like you, I hope that my teenagers wait until they are older before they are sleeping in anybody’s bed other than their own. So, what is my own, personal, obligation in my writing? (rhetorical question asked to myself). Do I only want to write scenes and stories that depict what I hope for or what may be more reality? Learning from mistakes or choosing the hard thing because maybe it’s “right”. I realize that this is a question each author has to answer for himself or herself. I hope to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Maggie sometime (and now you, Niki, and “pick your brains”. I do whole-heartedly agree with the need to take our teens seriously. Their emotions may be leading them in a good direction or a bad direction, but either way, they are real and very strong. (And I learn a lot from my teens.) Thanks again for your post, your thoughts, and your honesty.

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    • Thanks for the comment! Great to hear from a parent of teens, as I don’t have that experience yet myself (my boys are 5 and 2).

      I’m also a hopeful author and totally agree about how tough it is to make these decisions in writing. Some parents will likely condemn a book like this (there are also drug references) without seeing the benefit of the realistic depictions and the growth of the characters as they deal with the consequences of the drug use, etc. I guess that as an author you simply have to hope that the good most people will take out of your book will outweigh the “bad” that others will see.

      And I’d love to be there when you have coffee with Maggie someday! From reading her blog posts, I think a conversation with her would be incredible. 🙂

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  4. That’s why I love writing for teenagers. I think their problems, their feelings, their love, are all so real to them, even though some adults tend to wave their emotions away with the flick of the hand.

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