Resonance and connectivity are things that I look for a lot as an editor, things that I ask writers to pursue in their storytelling, urging them to open up their stories as wide as possible. Doing so can lead to one of the most powerful kinds of writing, in my mind: when a book reaches beyond merely telling about a particular set of characters, and becomes a story that echoes as familiar and personal and true in the hearts and minds of all different kinds of readers. If, as creators of stories, we recognize and believe that stories are what connect us, then of course that potential for deep connection is one we want to make the most of, right? And if we're lucky, the connections do, in fact, emerge: between readers and characters, between readers and their classmates/friends/family members/fellow humans, and sometimes between readers and authors, too.
But what happens, once the connection is made? Do we talk enough--or at all--about what that can mean, especially for writers of deeply resonant and real (but also sometimes deeply painful) stories?
We talk a lot about "responsibility" in children's and YA books, and one of the fascinating things about that word is that, like any word, it means something different to different people. To some, it means militant safe-guarding of young readers from stories that may, ultimately, shape them, even in the slightest of ways, into a different person than they were previously. But to most of us working in publishing, whether as writers or industry folk, "responsibility," especially in the context of YA, usually translates best to "honesty."
Most of us remember what it was like to be a teen, and we know teens today, too. And the truth is, growing up is (still) hard, and (still) confusing, and it isn't always safe, and sometimes it's positively cruel, but every teen has to stumble through it somehow. And if there are books that might help him/her do so with a little more certainty or a little less loneliness, so much the better. In a way, it means we're all in this together: authors and agents, editors and publishers, librarians and teachers, with all the other invisible walls between our linked-but-separate professions broken down. We're all in it together for every single teen who might, just might, reach for a book while seeking to answer some variation of the questions that we still remember asking ourselves: How, exactly, do we learn to grow up? To become human? To survive the turbulent mess of fears and glories and heartbreaks and changes that any kind of significant becoming entails? To find out which things actually matter, to understand what part of everything is true?
My Jesuit university extolled an ideal that's at the heart of their mission/philosophy of education, and that ended up at the heart of me, too: cura personalis, or "care for the whole person." In other words, it's not enough to care for or feed a person physically, you must also look after his/her unique emotional, spiritual, and mental needs and hungers, too; we must offer a deep respect for everything that makes a person human. In this way, we can help others--and ourselves--them grow, by refusing to segment a person into only the elements we might feel comfortable seeing. Ultimately, if reaching outward, you cannot only give attention to singular aspects of a person's full humanity, or you have failed to truly care for them after all. It's a philosophy that I think can offer a deeper meaning to, but demand a deeper responsibility from, any profession: from doctors to social workers to teachers to writers of books for teens. Because we do care for those we encounter, and deeply: writers care for the teens who will read their books, and editors care for those teens, too--and also for the authors, caught somewhere in the middle of this chain of connectivity.
Which brings me to the question that Janet Reid is asking on her blog today. It's not a question that I have any answer to (would that I did!) but I agree with her that it's an important one for all of us to weigh, and to think about in terms of today's social media-driven world. What happens when a teen does find a story that speaks to him/her powerfully, and that book becomes a lifeline--when a reader reaches out, believing the author has the answers he/she is seeking, or wanting a continuation of what felt like a deeply personal connection? And then in turn, what's an author to do when that same sense of immediacy that we extol in writing for teens comes through in a reader's communications--when they email/blog comment/Facebook message/MySpace post/Tweet/etc, etc. an author offering their own story, brimming with vulnerability and then desperately--or even just hopefully--await an answer, a meaningful response, a deeper connection, a promise that there's a way past whatever moment they're in the midst of living? And how does an author begin to shoulder that responsibility, that hunger, that need on the part of readers, somewhere in the midst of the other work of being a writer?
Media is so often blamed when things go wrong in the lives of damaged, hurting, unhappy, teens. We blame tragedies on the influence of violent video games and movies; we blame magazines for encouraging hopelessly unrealistic self-images. In the resoundingly opposite direction, it's long been the stance of children's/YA book folks that the greatest thing we can--and do!--offer to teens is hope, in the form of stories. But social media has changed--or at least, slightly shifted--so many other aspects of publishing that I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it's changed the author-reader relationship in some regards, too. And I don't think that new-media-heightened hope for connection is an aspect of the job that a writer can simply chose to turn away from and ignore--I don't think writers of books for teens would choose to do that, or I don't think they'd bother writing for teens at all. So somehow, it seems that a writer's job isn't just to serve words and stories and characters anymore--it's also to serve the searching/freely-sharing/sometimes-broken readers who come barreling, virtually, into their in-boxes. And for writers, that fact is powerful and beautiful and utterly overwheming, all at once, or so I suspect.
So what's the next step? It's a two-pronged query, I think: one set of answers may spell out some ways writers can best respond to teens who, though virtual strangers, are craving connection in a way that validates/orients/respects/sometimes even rescues them. But the other part both precedes and follows that, and it's for all of us: How do we (agents, editors, publishers, fellow writers, booksellers, educators, and the children's publishing community as a whole) equip writers to receive the stream of stories teens offer in return for the books they've just read?
It's a big question. I welcome your thoughts.