Values

Why your teen needs messy books

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I remember precious little of my seventh-grade year. What memories I have of school echo from the nurse’s office, where I would lie, both pre-seizure and post-seizure, and wish that I was someone else. I twitched my shoulder and counted the holes on the ceiling tiles and waited for the next seizure to take me. And during one such wait, I rolled over and asked the nurse …

“When is this going to go away?”

“I don’t know, Jonathan,” she said softly. “I just don’t know.”

And all that truth made me feel good, as if maybe I wasn’t the only clueless person in the world.

Thirty-five years later, I’m still looking for answers, though the questions are different. Now, I’m asked to provide an author’s perspective on the types of books our struggling teens need. I think of my teenage kids, my teenage self, and the answer becomes clear. Teens need messy books.

Messy books raise questions, without providing spoon-fed solutions. Messy books mimic life with their messy characters who muddle and fail—sometimes with finality. My children and I have lengthy conversations over books with chaotic endings and multiple interpretations. Perhaps this is why many of my own books address the uncertainties of mental illness. For many of us who struggle with mental illnesses, there is little clarity in the next minute, much less the guarantee of a sigh-worthy ending. Life simply unfolds, one moment we ride a good wave, and the next we are swept under. My adolescent life with Tourette syndrome, Panic Attacks and Epilepsy taught me that. I searched for authors who questioned with me, and who joined me in my confusion. They were hard to find then. They are still hard to find.

As a parent, I wonder how it is YA novels grant my teens full adult status when it comes to expressions of sexuality, but treat them as emotional children, unable to deal with ambiguity. Authors tie up loose ends, and teenage readers learn a tidy lesson complete with a clear takeaway. Heaven forbid my kids finish a novel and find themselves left alone in a messy place, forced to grapple with the unanswered questions of life. If we want to foster divergent thought and personal conclusion, we must seek out stories that provide the uncomfortable space needed to become free thinkers. Ask any teen; for all the uncomfortable situations encountered while reading the typical YA novel, a tidy ending is quite …predictable.

Predictable. This word contradicts the reality of my kids, and every teen I’ve met. In any given year, I’ll speak to tens of thousands of young adults in schools and at conferences. Most tell me that their future is anything but clear. Relationships are complicated. Loves are simultaneously passionate and fleeting. Friendships are contingent. Life is messy.

What books do teens need? All kinds! I say yes to the comfy beach read and the dystopian success story. Yes to the romance with the relationship you saw coming from page two. Everyone needs a good escape. But teens who live in a confusing world need more than predictable YA fare. They need the chance to find hope in messy stories. Let them experience the comfort of collective cluelessness. This type of story reminds them they aren’t alone, and that the tension they’re feeling only means they are part of the human race.

Yep. Messy stories are good medicine.

Almost as good as an honest school nurse. 

Jonathan Friesen is an international storyteller and award-winning author of messy books for teens, including Unfolding (Blink/HarperCollins). His first young adult novel, Jerk, California, received the ALA Schneider Award. When he’s not writing, speaking at schools, or teaching, Jonathan loves to travel and hang out with his wife and three kids.