My personal reading preferences have almost always veered toward the books dealing with tough issues. Even as a kid, these books full of heartache and pain and suffering and hurts drew me. So I thought that this would be a really easy post to write. The 'issue' books are what I'm drawn towards, what I read the most, so it should be really easy to explain why that is. But alas. 'Tis not so.
Because honestly, I can't say exactly why I'm so drawn to these books. I have been reading them since before I really thought about the differences in genres, before I considered that they were 'tough' or 'issue' books. For me, when I was a kid, there were really only types of books, books I hadn't read but really wanted to, books I hadn't read and was so not interested in, and books I read over and over and over and over. I pay much attention to genres until I was a little bit older.
So why do I like these books dealing with such painful subject matter? I don't know, but I have a few ideas. Part of me is drawn to them, because they are not my life. My life isn't perfect, but if you compare it to the rest of the world, even the rest of the United States, I've been blessed. I'm smart, I got good grades, was a good student, never did drugs or drank, didn't hang out with anyone who did either, never got into 'trouble' with a boy, have never been bullied, never went hungry, always had a roof over my head, my parents and I fought a lot and I wasn't very happy as a teenager but I always knew that they really did love me and were there to protect me, and my extended family is huge and incredibly loving, I had some really great friends and I didn't lose anyone really close to me until I was in college when my Grandpa died of cancer. I did struggle with some stuff in high school. My life wasn't perfect, but compared to most, I was in a really good place. And even when I was being a teenager and feeling full of the anger and sadness, I knew that.
So these books that deal with severe drug abuse, eating disorders, neglectful parents, self harm and eating disorders, rape, abuse, death, suicide and more take me to a place completely foreign to me. But I feel it. The emotional connection I have to books like this astound me. And I learn from them. When you have never struggled with something, it is easy to fall into judgment toward those who have. For a variety of reasons, I have never tried drugs or alcohol. At all. And I've never even been tempted. They don't appeal to me in any way, and they never have. I feel like we've reached a point where everyone knows that drugs=SERIOUSLY BAD. So I used to genuinely wonder why anyone would try them. I honestly couldn't understand it. And although I tried really hard not to be judgmental, a tiny part of me was always there thinking, Really? Really? But then, I read (among other things) Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert. And I could see it. It completely changed the way I saw things and allowed me to safely become part of a world I had never before even glimpsed. It definitely didn't make me want to try drugs, but it made me better able to understand the place mentally and emotionally someone might be in that would make them reach for them.
Abusive relationships are another thing that I didn't understand. Why don't they just leave? I used to think that all the time. All the time. I come from a family of very strong willed women, on both sides, and allowing someone to treat you like last week's garbage is something I couldn't comprehend. I have a cousin whose boyfriend tried to hit her once, and she broke one of those huge old fashioned telephones over his head... But then I started reading books that deal with abusive relationships. And, I can't pretend to truly understand them, even still, and part of my is now pleadingly thinking, Why won't they just leave, but part of me also understands them better now. It's not that easy and the abusers make sure that it's not.
Laurie Halse Anderson has also written some brilliant books. In Speak, Melinda has lost her voice after being raped at a party by a much older boy and the whole school just thinks of her as that annoying little kid who calls the cops, and no one thinks to wonder why. In Twisted, Tyler is 16 and feels like he has the whole world on his shoulders. The back blurb for this one is utterly perfect — Everyone told him to be a man. No one told him how. This is one of the most authentic and real Male POVs written by a woman I've ever read. Wintergirls is a story of a severe eating disorder and LHA captures the deeper emotions perfectly. Eating Disorders aren't really about food or weight, not really. And they are about more than control too. And Anderson manages to capture all of this, to bring it to light and to really make the reader feel everything alongside Lia.
In Homecoming, Dicey's mentally ill mother leaves her four children in a mall parking lot and young Dicey is now responsible for keeping them together, keeping them safe and fed and getting them to someone who can help. When She Hollers is about a thirteen year old girl who is being raped by her stepfather and her mother doesn't want to see it. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about life on an Indian Reservation and what happens when you try to straddle both worlds only to find that you now belong in neither place. Want to Go Private? warns about the dangers of internet predators and can be applied to predators in all areas of life.
Other books like Revolution or Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie deal with the death or illness of a younger brother, something that terrifies me, because I have four of them. The Sky is Everywhere is about the sudden death of a beloved older sister, something else that I have. In If I Stay, Mia's whole family is suddenly killed in a car accident, leaving her to make the choice to stay alone or leave to join them. In Jellicoe Road, nearly every character has something going on that makes your heart ache. In Saving Francesca, Francesca needs to learn how to cope with depression, both her mother's and her own. Tom in The Piper's Son has had a really crappy couple of years and he's in a really bad place when the book starts that he needs to find his way out of. Where the Red Fern Grows, my absolute favorite book from childhood makes me sob every time those dogs die.
I suppose throughout writing this post I've answered my own question. I'm drawn to these books for two reasons. One, because I've never lived through anything like this and these books allow me to talk a walk through someone else's shoes for a while, to gain a better understanding and appreciation for what they went through. But also, and this is probably the stronger of the two, I read these books because they make me feel. Nothing wrings out my emotions so thoroughly like reading about the struggles and challenges of a character in a truly well written book. My emotions get so completely tied into these stories that I genuinely mourn the lost characters, my heart aches with their pains, and I am well and truly saddened when I close the book because these people who I have suffered with aren't actually real.
Stories that make me feel that strongly are always my favorites. There is something special about a book that can make me cry, those gulping heaving sobs that are so incredibly unattractive, that unashamed and completely broken crying. A lot of books make me tear up, or sniffle, even cry almost pretty for a page or two. But it takes a special kind of book, a unique strength to the characters, the writing and the storytelling to completely break me. And those are the stories that stay with me for the longest. Those are the stories that I love. And that is why I love these books dealing with heavy topics, why I'm drawn to issue books, the tough stuff. Because it's raw and real and emotional and so completely ready to become a part of me.