How I Got Into Young Adult Novels Through Chuck Palahniuk
I used to think that Young Adult novels were lame, because I assumed that you weren’t allowed to cuss or discuss dark and gritty topics. Of course, that’s what happens when you assume things; you make an ass out of u and me. Now that I’ve actually read a ton of YA novels, I am hooked!
And I actually owe it all to Chuck Palahniuk!
Although he writes mature adult novels–full of excessive vulgarity, disgusting details, and overtones darker than the night itself–I got into YA thanks to him. Most of his novels do feature adult characters getting into adult situations, most of which involve some awesome plot twists (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Snuff), but there’s one book of his that features a fat 12-year-old dead girl in Hell.
Damned follows the story of Madison “Maddie” Spencer, the daughter of two Hollywood big shots who are constantly too stoned out of their minds to give her any genuine attention or affection. She apparently dies of a mairjuana overdose, and is sent to Hell where she meets a group of other damned souls who become her posse of misfists.
The book is often described as The Breakfast Club meets Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in Hell because each chapter begins with “Are You There, Satan? It’s Me, Madison,” and she shares the coming of age struggle Margaret faces in Judy Blume’s book.
Now, I’ve watched The Breakfast Club several times in my life and have always connected with the universal themes of the teenage struggle, but never once have I ever read a Judy Blume book. Why would I anyway? Aren’t her books written for little girls?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Damned, but the sequel Doomed, felt a little overwritten compared to its predecessor. The narrative voice felt too intellectual and masculine to be that of a 12-year-old girl’s, but I read it anyway because I highly enjoyed the overall adventure of Maddie’s goal to confront Satan and find out why she had to die early and be damned to eternal torture.
(Chuck Palahniuk’s idea of eternal torture includes walking on hills of toenail clippings, passing by rivers of pimple puss and rejected human fluids, and my personal favourite; working at a telemarketing office to troll the people still alive on Earth)
So I got curious about Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret just so I can see how much of it actually inspired, or at least reflected the content in Damned. Aside from the chapter openings and having a 12-year-old protagonist, there was obviously a stark contrast that astounded me.
Gone were the supernatural elements, gross descriptions, vulgarity, drugs, and violence etc.
What I got instead was a story about a middle grader feeling left out because she’s the only girl in her class who hasn’t gotten her period yet. That made for a great a surface theme–since I’ve never considered what the female puberty experience was like, though it was a welcomed surprise–but what really captivated me about the book was Margaret’s struggle with her religious beliefs.
It surprised me immensely when I started noticing the bigger picture. Margaret was raised without religious affiliation; her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian–but pushed neither religion on her–and so Margaret’s internal struggle, on top of her desire to get her first period, was trying to find religious singularity.
[spoiler]There was this epic scene where her grandmother and her parents argue about what religion she should conform to, but she gets so frustrated and cries out about how no one even is stopping to consider what she wants to believe in.[/spoiler]
Although I prefer to read more mature YA novels with older characters who do cuss and discuss dark topics, Judy Blume single handedly diminished my assumptions about YA. Now I have absolute respect for it because it’s now that I understand the appeal to it.
Being a teenager is an intense time in anyone’s life because it’s when we begin to truly begin to question our identities as individuals separate from culture. Our hormones and emotions are the most sensitive and although it’s such a small amount of time in our overall lives, they are the most intense, bringing with it the growing pains that shape us. The teenage experience is universal for anyone who has survived it.
How I Conceived the Idea of It Starts at Home
“My life sucked when I was in high school, so how much worse would it have been if I was a girl?” That was the important question I asked myself after I finished reading Damned and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
When I was a teenager, I got into heaps of trouble due to talking back at teachers, retaliating against bullies, and on some occassions I became a bully myself. The kind of bullying that I experienced and carried out fell on the masculine side of bullying. This included, but was not limited to, physical violence and intimidation.
And so due to society’s propaganda against us males being thoughtless violent brutes, I used to think bullying was only a male thing, but no, our supposedly gentle birth giving and nurturing counterparts are not exempt from this behaviour. I am speaking in generalities of course, since typically it is boys who get into fist fights, but the form of bullying girls are capable of can be as equally destructive. It’s just more subtle and harder to spot.
To understand the female psyche, and more importantly that of the teenage female psyche, I took to reading more young adult novels with female lead characters, as well as talking to my female friends, cousins, and co-workers to ask about their experiences of having been teenagers.
I learned about how feminine bullying consisted more of psychological tactics. They employ more verbal abuse through passive aggression, spreading gossip, and public humiliation, thus resulting in the destruction of their victim’s self esteem. By recognizing their victim’s personal vulnerabilities such as their body image and emotional issues, female bullies exploit those weaknesses in order to gain a sense of power.
Why would anyone want to command and demand power in such destructive ways, especially when there are healthier ways to feel and be empowered? The answer is quite simple, but also very difficult to accept. High school students are made to feel disempowered, not only by the prison like structure public high schools consist of, but also by the maltreatment they receive at home.
This is why it’s important for parents take the time to connect with their children as opposed to control them. To use their hands and their words to guide and comfort their children, not to strike or intimidate them. Otherwise, where do you think this behaviour comes from? Children are sponges. They only learn what they live, and devoid of any self awareness or intervention from peaceful people to point out the dysfunction, they will often bring their home life out into the world, particularly at school.
If you are bullied at home, you are likely to become a victim and/or perpetrator of bullying. Either you will walk down the school hallways with slumped shoulders, head bowed in hiding, and sticking close to the walls as to avoid detection, or you will attempt to regain the power you are robbed from at home by mistreating the former.
It’s not set in stone, teenagers do have the choice and capacity to act virtuously, as well as develop the self confidence and healthy support groups in order to ward off bullying–but studies have shown that maltreatment of children sets them up to exude anti-social behaviours and aggressive tendancies later in life.
So why write through a female perspective for my book? Threats of meeting another boy at the flagpole to beat the shit out of him is already such an obvious and apparent form of bullying, but bullying takes on several other forms. Society and the media will usually only touch upon the effect, but not the cause, because fundamentally…