Thursday, July 24, 2014

In Praise of YA Lit.

Not so long ago, my best friend Sarah McGuire used to hesitate whenever she'd confess her affection for young adult fiction. She knew that I didn't really read it (I've been known to be a book snob in the worst way) and I guess she thought I'd think it was silly.

Well, I don't think it's silly anymore. In fact, young adult (YA) literature is quickly finding a place in my bookish heart, for several reasons.

First of all, I do have a 15 year old writing student, as y'all probably know if you've talked to me lately. And while I try to introduce him to adult classics all the time (Frankenstein, Animal Farm, Things Fall Apart), sometimes we're forced to read the YA novels on his school book lists. Right now, I'm waiting for my copy of The House of the Scorpion to arrive at the Mount Pleasant library branch. It's not my typical pick -- it's got science fiction and cloning and all that jazz as part of the plot -- but I'm keeping an open mind.

I've also been mentoring my tutee's sister, who's just one year younger and happens to be an avid reader. She let me borrow her copy of John Green's novel, An Abundance of Katherines, and I rather liked it. I mean, I laughed out loud at it a few times. More importantly, I realized why all the kids are crazy about John Green: he's clever and funny! Anyways, she and I have been working on a series of short fiction this summer (my latest project is about a pair of maids who work in a ritzy hotel) and the practice is definitely pleasing my muse. Who knew I could be so inspired by a teenager? Or teenage books?

And right now, bookmarked on my bedroom floor, I have a copy of a book called Fangirl by an author named Rainbow Rowell, whom Sarah recommended. I went to the library yesterday in downtown Charleston, and, for the first time ever, I made a beeline for the YA room. I wanted to find out if they had a copy of The House of the Scorpion (they didn't, so I have to wait in line) and I wanted to grab a copy of Rowell's book, Eleanor and Park, which Sarah said I would like. Plus, Sarah invited me to a Sunday book club meeting where all the members will be discussing Rowell's work.

"Eleanor and Park is all checked out," said the friendly YA librarian. "Can I offer you Fangirl, the author's earlier work?"

I happily accepted. Perhaps I can add to the conversation on Sunday.

Anyhoo, after collecting my prize, I headed to an art showing of local photography and joined the artist and a few friends for a beer afterward. But -- oops! -- I forgot about my car, which I left in the library garage, which is locked at 8 pm! And it was 7:55 when I remembered. So I ran like HECK (barefoot because I was wearing heels) and got to the library at 8:02 pm. The cops were already standing at the door, telling me that the library was closed. I was out of breath and frantic.

"Can I get my car?" i gasped.

The lady cop took me upstairs with my dirty, bare feet and asked the library employees whether any of them would be kind enough to check my ticket out. Then, a friendly face in the crowd stepped forward. It was the YA librarian from earlier.

"Oh, I remember her. I can let her out with my employee card," she said, much to my immense gratitude.

So, in the end, I parked for free, got a new YA book to devour between now and Sunday and learned an important lesson.

All books are vehicles for good in this world.

My girl Rachel and me. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bad Language - A Personal History.

Throughout my childhood, my mother never used bad language. In fact, she'd admonish people who had the nerve to say anything than worse than "damn" or "hell" around my sister or me -- even as I got old enough to handle it, hear it, even say it. In fact, no one we knew (the adults, anyway) had a filthy mouth. After all, we were closely monitored kids with MTV removed from the remote control (my grandma said it was "trash"), R-rated movies removed from our wish lists and friendships supervised with a careful eye.

Later, as I became a young adult, I was exposed to more bad language -- but I still wasn't much of a potty mouth myself. In fact, I was sometimes made fun of for being a goody-two-shoe, but I wore the label proudly. It was part of being Denise. I came to high school, and eventually college, as a late bloomer, determined to hold onto my virtue and not snort lines alongside strangers or miss class the next day. I'm not sure how or when those not-so-nice words crept into my vocabulary. But they did, little by little.

Here's a short list of experiences that stand out in my mind.

In the third grade I had my first real introduction to bad language -- though I wasn't the one who used it. I was brought to my teacher's desk along with a couple of other female students. We were informed that one of us had used a racial term on the school field trip -- but our superiors weren't sure which of us it was. At the time, I was a Catholic schoolgirl, and when the teacher repeated the word to me, I told her with honesty that I didn't know the word, and that I'd never heard my parents say it. She didn't believe me. I was mystified.

I had a babysitting job at age 16. At that point, I wasn't using bad language but I was listening to it -- I've always had a soft spot for rock n' roll. I remember popping in a Cake CD and playing a song with some choice words, only to be called out by the 7-year-old. I quickly turned off the CD -- who knew kids were so perceptive? -- but it was too late. I didn't babysit for that family very often after that.

My first job after graduate school was at a tiny book publisher that dealt primarily with military fiction and reference. My boss, an old dude around 70, let the F-bomb fly one afternoon because he was angry. I blinked in surprise, but I didn't question it.

One day, when I was around 27 or so and sobbing on the phone to my mother over a particularly brutal break-up, I let a word slip out that she had never heard me say. She gasped in shock, but she knew I was upset. Thus, she didn't say too much about it. But I still felt guilty.

Two and a half years ago, I started working at Mount Pleasant Magazine and Brian told me I had a dirty mouth. I dismissed his comment; I was stressed out and needed to vent.

I guess the point is that even now, at the age of 30+ years old, I still get scolded for using bad words. It's not that I don't know other words to use; in fact, I think of myself as having a decent vocabulary. I'm not exactly certain how I picked up the habit of uttering anything other than the Biblical "damn" or "hell" from my childhood years. Maybe it was all that Cake. And while it's true that a lot of people find bad language to be offensive, it's probably my worst habit. I mean, I don't drink that much (anymore); I don't have cigarettes in my handbag; I don't like porn and I don't snort lines.

Everyone has a vice, dammit.