Thursday, December 11, 2014

Considering the Young Adult Memoir

To-date in 2014 at the CCBC, we've read five memoirs by young adults (usually in collaboration with other writers): 
  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick (Young Reader's Edition: Little, Brown)
  • Laughing At My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw (Roaring Brook)
  • Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill with Ariel Schrag (Simon & Schuster)
  • Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews with Joshua Lyon (Simon & Schuster)
  • Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela de Prince with Elaine De Prince (Random House)

I found each of these young adults' stories compelling in one or more ways and think many teen readers will, too. The young reader's edition of Malala Yousafzai's life to-date is, as she has said, her story, whereas the adult book has greater emphasis on her father. The Katie Rain Hill and Arin Andrews titles are an intriguing pair of books, because the two transgender teens are friends (and were girlfriend/boyfriend) and so have a number of intersecting characters and events seen from their two different points of view. Shane Burcaw's perspective on his life--he has spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative muscular disease that has made him wheelchair bound--is frank and often funny. Dancer Michaela De Prince's tells how she lost her family in Sierra Leone during brutal war and was eventually adopted by a family in the United States, which is where she began to pursue her interest in dance: a life of striking contrasts.

But I also found myself asking questions as I read them.

I would imagine one of the challenges, when taking on a project like this, from an editorial perspective, is trying to balance the teen's voice with the adult collaborator's (when there is a collaborator).  My guess is that the ones that are less well written from a literary perspective are the most authentic in terms of letting the young adults' voice come through unfiltered. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in terms of evaluating the books?  I don't know. 

Occasionally, what I think of as the less-filtered voice gave me pause.  There were moments in some of the books when I thought--Oh, how are you going to feel about having said/written this in five or ten years?

They are so young, really, to be reflecting on their lives. They all have stories worthy of sharing, but at moments like that I wondered if it wouldn't have been better for their stories to be something other than first-person.

Then again, I think the first-person is also part of where the power of their narratives resides. And those occasional moments that made me wince in some of the books are also, perhaps, the very things that teen readers might find most genuine.

So, no answers, just questions, none of which detract from my overall appreciation for the existence of these works.

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