The Moral of the Story Is . . . ?

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?

Leave a comment!

Literary Merit

TwistedThis blog of mine isn’t about reviewing books, but about questioning the way we read, write, and teach. And not questioning in the sense of finding fault, necessarily, but in the sense of exploration.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I read for Banned Books Week: Laurie Halse Anderson’s 2007 novel Twisted.

On her blog, she gave an update on the challenge in Kentucky, saying that now instead of the book being objected to by parents on the basis of content, it’s being objected to by the superintendent on the basis of literary merit. The class trying to use the book is an AP literature course and so, according to the superintendent, should only be reading books that would be taught in college.


Does anyone else have a hard time wrapping their head around that? I mean, I took an adolescent literature class in college where our “assigned” reading was 30 young adult lit books of our choice. That was the semester I finally got around to reading the Harry Potter series, thanks to that teacher. I think I also read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. So, if they teach young adult lit in college, wouldn’t that mean any YA book would qualify to be taught in an AP class?

And here’s my other thought: Does a book have to be hard to understand in order to be college-level and have literary merit?

Literary merit, to me, is that it shows a side of humanity I might not have considered before and does it in a way that opens my mind to new ideas and new tolerance of people.

This book does that.

I was blown away by how real this protagonist and his family felt. His father is referred to as a grade-A jerk, and yet the reader can tell that there’s more to him than that. He’s never the stereotypical jerk. He’s a father who doesn’t know how to be a father any more than his son knows how to be a “man.” Their relationship is complex, dipping low to points where the son imagines killing his father and then reversing completely, like when Tyler is up on the roof pulling down Christmas lights and his dad comes up the ladder to hand him pliers and experiences vertigo, and Tyler helps him down one shaky step at a time. Without giving away the ending, all I can say is that I teared up twice.

On a different note, I learned new sympathy for all the teenage guys in the world as I experienced through a book what it’s like to have to hide an erection so often. Yeah, this book is real in that sort of raw, uncensored way, too, which might be part of the reason for the challenges, but it’s also part of what gives it merit. It validates the story and experience of adolescence.

Life isn’t neat and tidy, life is raw and uncensored. And a book that will make teenagers think about life in new complex, complicated ways and reconsider people and themselves through new perspectives is a book that deserves to be read and taught.

[UPDATE: I just read Chris Crowe’s September 2001 article in English Journal called “Young Adult Literature: AP and YA?” which defends thought-provoking YA books as potential references for the open-ended question on the AP test and also points out that AP students dissect complex young adult novels with as much fervor as they do classics, pulling ample meaning from both. I’ve excerpted a bit and provided a link in the Quote of the Moment on the right.]