Close to the Edge
That’s what I’ve heard—in various print sources and at last month’s James River Writers Conference. (YA includes ages 12 through 18.)
I hadn’t read that many YA novels since I stopped teaching. Most of the edginess of YA novels from the 70s and 80s dealt with drugs: Go Ask Alice by "Anonymous" was one that was too much for most school libraries. That book was supposedly an autobiography, but was actually a novel. I remember that an 8th grader told me I ought to read it, and I did. An eye-opening experience.
Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger (teen sexual awareness) was published in the early 70s. Anne Head’s Mr. & Mrs. BoJo Jones (teen pregnancy, although they couple involved got married and the baby died) was another edgy one from way back in 1967. S.A. Hinton’s The Outsiders seems tame today, but was way out there—edgy—when it was first published in 1967. And S.A. was a young girl when she wrote it!
When I was a YA myself (not that anybody called us "YA" in the late 50s and early 60s—we were just “kids” or “teenagers”), there weren’t many "YA"—er, teenage— books. We mostly read the classics or else the same books that grown-ups read. Or we re-read the books for younger kids.
When I was 12, I was immersed in the Black Stallion series, but I also liked Caddie Woodlawn—about a girl my age who lived in the “old-timey” days. I remember checking it out of the Lee Junior High School library back in 1957. Now, because of a bit of “political incorrectness,” Caddie Woodlawn now seems edgy.
In junior high, I also read all the biographies I could find—I didn’t care who they were about. I doubt that any came close to being edgy.
In high school, my classmates and I continued to read classics (George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, etc.), but I also remember reading Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Animal Farm was an “animal story,” only it wasn’t. But it was OK to read. In 1962, the year 1984 was so far into the future as to be incomprehensible. Outside of class, I read Gone With the Wind, “old-timey” novel I liked, although I thought Scarlett wasn’t as interesting as Caddie.
In 1963, after the movie came out, everybody read To Kill a Mockingbird, too, even though it dealt with rape and racism—two topics that polite folks in our male-dominated segregated society didn’t talk about. I guess that made it edgy.
I can’t remember titles of most of the other contemporary novels I read in high school. But I must have read some.
During my first year in college (on my own time, because everyone was talking about them) I read Peyton Place and Catcher in the Rye. Now, I’m told (by a panel at the JRWC) that if Catcher in the Rye were to be published today, it would be marketed as YA. (YA readers today would probably think Peyton Place too old-timey and boring.)
Anyhow, I just finished a new YA novel: Claiming Georgia Tate, by Gigi Amateau, whom I heard speak at the JRWC. She’s a southern writer besides a YA writer, so that was a plus in my deciding to buy and read her book. Claiming Georgia Tate was well-written, and I enjoyed it.
The novel deals, among other things, with the incest/rape of its twelve-year-old narrator. That event happens after the narrator’s grandmother dies and she’s sent to live with her father in Florida but before a boy grabs her butt and causes her to have a bike accident, after which the drag queen takes her in and tends her wounds (both physical and mental), and then there’s her grandfather’s car accident that occurs just before she gets home on the bus—well, a lot of stuff happens to this poor girl, who never does know what actually happened to her mother who abandoned her in the care of her grandparents after she (the mother) got out of the mental hospital where she was sent following her unsuccessful attempt at suicide, which the grandparents never told the narrator about until right before the grandmother died.
I really did like the book and Amateau's writing style. The main character is likeable and believable. I generally don’t enjoy reading about so much misery, especially when so many bad things happen so fast to such a nice kid. However, this was a book I couldn’t put down until I finished it.
I know bad things— child abuse, rape, incest, animal cruelty, war, famine, devastation, misery, abandonment, mutilation, and a bunch of other bad things—happen on a daily basis. And I know that folks need to be made aware that these things happen.
Awareness of a problem can often be the first step in finding a solution. "Edgy" books make us aware.