I recently had an interesting request from a family member to recommend some uplifting books for a troubled teen that would help inspire and offer hope and a positive message, and it awakened me to a definitive hole in the literature that is out there for young people today. This is not to say there are not plenty of feel-good stories, or fun and light adventure stories or romance stories, but what about the books with a true message? Why are they not out there?
One of the comments I got on some earlier versions of BAND GEEK was that it felt very "preachy", like the morals I tried to convey within the story were laid on too thick for the reader and gave it too much of a Hallmark-y feeling. Apparently, sending a "message" is a bad thing when it comes to talking to teens, as teens as a rule do not like concepts shoved down their throat and do not like being told what to do or how to think or act. Heck, I know I didn't when I was one.
But what about someone who is looking for hope that life really can get better? Those stories generally seem to come shrink-wrapped in darker tales of suicide, anorexia, loss of best friends or parents to diseases or accidents, and offer the reader a tale of survival and overcoming of obstacles and odds and learning to redefine a new normal. That's great, but what about kids who don't want any more of the darkness because they have enough of that in their own lives, and really just want a road map via a character's positive journey of finding themselves and navigating the tough waters of teenagedom without werewolves, vampires, cutters and cancer? (And I'm not knocking these stories - I've read some brilliantly written, moving ones, believe me!) Many books have messages quietly hidden (Believe in yourself, It's the journey, not the destination, etc.) and it is up to the reader to extract them on their own. This masks the "preachy" factor. But what if they can't relate to the characters or the world they live in so the message they desperately are needing to hear is too buried?
There is truth in saying that life really is filled with these perils and pitfalls, and without some level of drama, there is no conflict, which lends to a boring story. But it seems to me, there must be some happy medium.
The key books that immediately come to mind are the Harry Potter books, but they are also mixed with fantastical elements of darkness which do not exist in that form in the real world. Of course, we could probably all find the Harry, the Ron, the Hermione, the Snape, the Professor Dumbledore and the Voldemort in our lives, but I'm talking about a real-world relateable setting that teens can sink their teeth into and say "This is just like me. How did this character find their happy place?" However, I literally could not think of any contemporary book that fit this mold that I've read recently, and it seems that publishers have shied away from them for all the reasons stated above, yet here is a reader in need. If there's one of her, there must be plenty more like her. To assume every teen reader is looking for the same thing is like assuming everyone loves pizza or Disneyland. Every person is different, and when we read, we are all looking for two things: to escape and to be entertained. So why is there so little for those who "need" that moral story, or in fact, want it, because in those pages they may discover a truth about themselves that makes them realize that maybe they do have what it takes inside of them to move forward and take the next step to being the person they want to be?
Have you read any books that fit this mold? If so, please do share, as I would love to be able to pass this along to this young reader in the hopes that she finds what she is looking for. Teen writers have an important job in the ways we connect to our readers, and it seems to me that this gap, though it may be more of a crack than a chasm, does indeed exist. What are your thoughts?