Sunday, June 5, 2011

YA Truly Does SAVE - My Story

This is lengthy and personal, but after reading this article last night from the Wall Street Journal, it just needed to be written.

I grew up in a small town in Alabama, population less than 3,000. My graduating class had less than 130 students. My mom worked as an accountant for the church we attended (southern baptist) and I was there Sunday morning and night, and every Wednesday. My dad had a great job, but he traveled a lot, so after both of my sisters moved away to college it was mostly me and my mom. Being anything less than cookie-cutter perfect in this town meant isolation. But being different also meant having a chance to be real. 

My life wasn't complicated until eighth grade. Call it the creative side of me, but makeup, hair color, funky clothes; I loved it all (still do)! I have green eyes, so I always wore dark makeup to make them pop. People started calling me a goth and a druggie...all because I wore dark makeup? Isolation begins...

Things didn't get much better when a guy who also dressed differently asked me out. I was happy. He was my first real boyfriend. The rumors started to fly and my youth pastor told my mom I was on drugs....I wasn't. Thankfully she believed me, but the damage was done. Word got out I was a druggie. I remember walking down the street with a friend and I was supposed to babysit for a lady later that night and the woman pulled up beside us as we were walking and said, "You will never babysit my kids!" and drove off. I was speechless and embarrassed.

I poured my heart into notebooks and poorly written poetry, but the notebook always listened and never judged. The town's public library was right next to the school and I would go there at the end of the day and wait for my mom to get off work. I would read and write for hours.

When 9th grade started I moved on to high school. People were scared of me because they thought I was dangerous. I guess dark makeup and baggy pants are terrifying. *shudders* The people who accepted me were people like me, different, but also smart. We had conversations about things that actually mattered. We talked politics, philosophy, books, music and life. I talked two friends out of committing suicide. It was a big deal. One friend was on a bridge. His sister called me. Me and my friend went to get him. He was standing there crying. A broken soul, taunted for not fitting the mold. It was horrible. The police came and instead of getting him help they ARRESTED him. My other friend also suffered. My small circle of broken friends helped him that time, but three years ago I got a call that he shot himself through the chest with a shotgun. His seven year old nephew found him. He was still living in that town.

I had no one to go to and no one to talk to. My parents were unhappy about me spending time with my friends and eventually they forbade me to hang out with them. That's when my life really changed and I started to be everything everyone already said I was. I started lying to my parents, telling them I was going places I wasn't, making all sorts of excuses for why I was late or smelled of certain things. My mom started checking up on me to see if I was really where I said I was going. I wasn't. "Tough love" bloomed out of that. I was grounded for months. I won't go into a ton of gory details, but I did cut and burn myself. I did get all the pills from the medicine cabinet, lay them all out and stare at them. That is when reading truly saved my life.

I started to spend my free time at the library, absorbing as many books as I possibly could. We didn't have a huge section of YA, but I read anything I could get my hands on:  George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Nevil Shute, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Tolkein, etc. By the end of the year I received the Accelerated Reader award for reading the most books in the school, it was presented to me at awards night.

Prom night of my junior year. I was dared to go through a car wash with just car. I did it. Why not? It was a stupid dare. I stood there for like three seconds and then ran out; everyone laughed. The following Monday the guidance counselor called me into her office. She heard about the incident and called my parents. "Why?" I asked her. "Because it is clear you were trying to hurt yourself. Didn't you go through the hot wax?" I stared at her; dumbfounded. I clearly was not injured, but what credibility did I have? She chose to believe what other students told her instead of opening her eyes.

I wish I could say things got better, but they didn't. There are still too many things that happened that I'm not ready to talk about. Things I'm sure people thought I deserved, but things no one deserves. I moved to a college 60 miles north of my hometown and pursued a degree in journalism. I was damn good at it. I finished college and only stayed in Alabama another year before I moved away with my now husband. My relationship with my parents is good. I think we all learned a lot from me. Every single day my mom tells me how proud she is of me. She says I taught her not to be judgmental and that she has learned so much from me. 

I have the most amazing supportive husband, recently finished my Master's degree, have a good job, and still read and write daily. I am revising/editing my YA novel and hope one day it will be published. 

YA has given people a voice when they feel theirs cannot be heard. I was on Twitter last night when Maureen Johnson posted the WSJ article about YA literature being too dark. I read it twice and still couldn't believe what it said. The uproar from the YA community on Twitter has been epic. Maureen and Libba Bray started #YASaves and encouraged everyone to share their story of how YA has helped them. Within twenty minutes #YASaves was the third trending topic on Twitter in the NATION (and still is this morning). The responses brought me to tears. There are so many books that have helped so many people--people of all ages. #YASaves has  inspired many (including myself) to talk about their life experiences, which is therapy in itself. In essence, this article made the YA community stronger. I am full of emotion, strength, empowerment, and pride.

The article may be published, but the damage done is not to the YA community, but to the WSJ. I don't think they were prepared for the aftermath.


  1. "The responses brought me to tears. There are so many books that have helped so many people--people of all ages. #YASaves has inspired many (including myself) to talk about their life experiences, which is therapy in itself. In essence, this article made the YA community stronger. I am full of emotion, strength, empowerment, and pride."

    We could not agree more. In a strange way, I think this was good for the YA community. My fear, however, is that b/c of the WSJ's name/brand, it will get more attention than we will. I shudder to think of the # of parents who will take that "article" at face value and suddenly tell their kids, No more YA!

    Sigh. But we'll do what we can, and we won't be silenced.


  2. Courtney
    Great post! You went through a lot, and it sounds like it made you stronger and more creative. I'll never forget when I was taking a road trip with a friend of mine and we stopped in Alabama. I was wearing overalls (back in the day, my rebellion), and I went to a laundromat. The man in charge there, took a look at my overalls and locked the door! That night, my friend who lived in Alabama (and played in a band) told me that her drummer's dad--the man in the laundromat--was the most prejudice, right wing guy in town. Then it became funny to me (but not before).

  3. This had to be tough to share, but I am glad you did share. I could see how your tale could indeed save the lives of other youths as they realize they are not alone.

    I know recently the news tried to slander my own genre and we came back full force. Does the world want to condemn books? In my opinion, books are saving grace. It is there that we can learn about the feelings of others and how to deal with what life throws at us; even fantasy and historical are great teachers of emotion and are a good escape. They keep us out of trouble and teach us to use our own imaginations. Life does not take place inside a little box, and all the genre's show this as they show the lives led outside of the box society tries to enclose us in.

    Thank you for this post, from the bottom of my heart. Rock on Courtney!

  4. Hey Courtney! Lindsey linked me to this post (thank you Lindsey!)

    You have a powerful story here. Thank you for having the courage to share it.

    I will be back!

  5. I give you a lot a credit for sharing your story. That took courage. And I agree with you. YA can really help kids with all the tough things they go through at that age.

  6. Thank you all for the support and positive responses. Writing this post was emotionally taxing. I was considered young for going through all I did at the age of 15. Now kids are going through it way younger than that.

    Books are life savers; they provide you with a GOOD addiction. I don't think any genre should be censored. Let kids learn from the mistakes of a character in a book instead of making the mistake on their own.

    Again, thank you all for the comments =) They mean a lot.

  7. I'm so sorry that you went through all of that, Courtney. I think books in general and YA books in particular are a real comfort to kids who are facing serious problems.

    Are some YA books very dark? Dark enough that they aren't appropriate for young teens? Yes. That's why as parents we have to help our kids chose wisely. And we have to let them grow and read hard things.

    My younger daughter read the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor for school. She sobbed hysterically several times. The woman lived a horrifying few years. She was in sixth grade. She still considers that one of the best books she ever got to read. And she is a better person for looking beyond her small, safe world.

  8. This was well said. I know what it's like to be different in a small town.