I saw this cartoon about parenting today and was struck by “the paradox of children’s literature — my favorite authors had no kids of their own!” That makes perfect sense to me — in fact, I’m quite startled to discover that Diana Wynne Jones did have children. No, she’s not my one of my favorite authors — though she is one of my mom’s — but she does stand out in my mind as one of the people who wrote for children in a particularly fearless way. She never worried about what would or wouldn’t work; she trusted in kids’ ability to accept, to not need things spelled out for them the way adults do. I found that after a certain age, I could no longer read a lot of her books because I lost the ability to let them just flow over me — but my mom still reads from that accepting place, I think.
I suspect you probably do see that fearlessness more often in children’s book writers who don’t have children. They write what they want to write — they’re not thinking about developmental stages. or the fact that their own kid reads nothing but Wimpy Kid books and would find anything else too sophisticated. (Which is rarely truly the case.)
I was thinking about that because yesterday I started reading Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and my first thought was, this is so pretentious, it’s really going to turn kids off. Then I felt like a total idiot. I loved pretentious when I was a kid. Pretentious was big and meaningful and cared about important things. Which pretty much sums up the book.
I read something wonderful online recently, which I wish I could find again, about how ridiculous it is to complain the the teens in The Fault in Our Stars don’t talk like normal teens. As if that makes it a bad book. As if teens only want to read about people who talk like them. As if all teens are the same or want the same things, for that matter.
Having had that thought, I embraced Two Boys Kissing, and got swept up in it. Mostly. There were still times I thought the writing was over the top self-consciously insightful. But then I cried like a baby.
Ten years ago, Levithan published his first book, Boy Meets Boy. I haven’t read it since, but my memory is that it’s set in an alternate reality in which being gay is just an everyday thing. Two Boys Kissing felt kind of like an answer to Boy Meets Boy. It’s saying, no, sadly we’re not there yet, but we have come so, so far. And we’ve come there on the backs of a lot of suffering. And though suffering is not inherently a good thing, it can be very powerful to choose to suffer for what we believe in.
As the title indicates, the focus of the book is on gay boys (though interestingly, not just cis-gendered boys. I think this is the first YA book I’ve read with a trans character. I don’t even know how to tag that.) In that context especially, the author’s acknowledgements kind of freaked me out. “My editor, Nancy Hinkel, is a better reason to jump for joy than a pretty boy in his underwear…” I’m taking that as a cute way to talk about an adult, like I might call my husband and son “my boys”… but I’d really prefer not to have to even go there when reading a YA book. Perhaps that’s just me.
Anyway, I can’t get all these thoughts into anything resembling a coherent narrative. But as overly pretentious and serious young adult books go, this was one of the best.