The Influence of Books on YAs

Have you heard of The Unslut Project? It began with Emily Linden sharing her middle school diaries online in a Tumblr page. It’s now a memoir and a documentary. Unslut is the all-too-common story of a preteen girl who was slut shamed and bullied. Lindin shared her story to reassure other girls suffering from sexual bullying that they’re not alone and this time will pass and their lives will get better. Definitely a message that needs to be heard.

BookCover-Unslut

The experiences in UNSLUT: A DIARY AND A MEMOIR are familiar to me, probably because like most women I experienced sexual bullying myself and witnessed it happen to my friends as well. But I was particularly struck by a sentence in a footnote on page 61 in regards to Lindin’s eleven-year-old self wanting to commit suicide: “So many different factors go into a child’s decision to end her own life, but one common thread is that, as children, we lack the understanding that life can get better.”

I stopped and read that sentence over, puzzled. Do children not understand life can get better? I don’t remember that. When I was young, I always daydreamed about the future and how it would be better than the present. My friends and I talked about what we’d be when we grew up and what we’d do. Well, admittedly, not all of us – some were bigger daydreamers than others. But I personally had the outlook that the BS I was dealing with in my youth would not last forever.

Where did I get that idea?

It certainly didn’t come from the small town where I lived, a place steeped in sexism. And like a lot of young people, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my parents about any of this. So where did I get the notion that things would get better?

The only answer I can come up with: books. My two favourite books as a child were Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Both novel series feature spirited, independent heroines who overcome hardships and grow up to follow their dreams. These stories gave me hope that I could do the same. The other important thing these stories imparted is that boys are not the be-all-and-end-all of a young woman’s life. Both Anne and Jo turn down marriage proposals to pursue personal goals. Young me was sooooo impressed with this! And I carried that message, that boys don’t give girls worth, with me all through my childhood, into my teens, and throughout adulthood.

Books are powerful, and studies have shown that the benefits of reading include emotional intelligence, knowledge of self, and empathy, all things that help people navigate life’s challenges.

I know the stories I read gave me the strength and hope I needed to survive sexual bullying. This is not to say that if bullied young people read books they will never consider ending their lives (the problem is much more complicated than that), but I believe books can help kids feel less alone and provide the hope necessary to continue on. Books that tackle issues (either directly or indirectly) of gender, sexuality, race, class, etc, in a realistic yet hopeful way help everyone, young and old alike, understand that life can get better.

Influence of Books

What books influenced your life? Do stories help you get through tough times? Please share in the comments.

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

19 thoughts on “The Influence of Books on YAs”

  1. As a kid, books helped me connect to other kids in ways I would never have been able to do on my own. If you read widely enough, you learn to not only handle the things thrown at you, but to empathize with people going through things you have never personally experienced. Books can teach kids to get through the bullying, but also to not be the bully.

  2. The first book I remember about bullying was Blubber by Judy Blume. The book, which was published in the 1970s, is obviously dated reading, and it didn’t address anything of a sexual nature. But the story came right back to me as bullying has, overtime, become something we as a society are actually concerned about. Because it wasn’t always this way.

    Very interesting post.

    1. So true. Bullying absolutely happened when I was in school back in the “olden days” of the 80s, but it didn’t seem like adults were very concerned about it. No one talked about bullying or held educational seminars about it – at least not to my knowledge. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I love how books let me in on a character’s inner thoughts. My own thinking can get dysfunctional at times. So when I read another viewpoint, it can be mind-expanding and refreshing. Oh, people think that way?!

    1. Yes, that is a very powerful aspect of reading – expanding viewpoints. As someone who can also get lost inside her own head, books help me maintain a more well-rounded perspective regarding the human race. 🙂

  4. I was sexually bullied in school beginning in 6th grade. It made me feel like trash and I couldn’t talk to my family about it. I went through horrible depression over this and life did look pretty bleak sometimes. I had dreams though and yes, books helped me overcome a lot of the bullying (which only got worse throughout HS). I knew some day I would leave all of the BS in my small town behind and make something of myself. Thank you for this important message and now I definitely want to read Lindin’s book!

  5. I don’t think I really internalized the concept that life changed and things could get better until I was 30. Sure I dreams and goals, but I grew up fighting for basic necessities, and never considered that my life could be like the lives of people in books. There’s a cognitive disconnect. I read stories about underdogs, probably for release of tension, but never related it to myself. Daydreams were just an escape for me.

    1. That would be an interesting psychological study – why there’s a cognitive disconnect for some readers but not for others. Though I suspect the reason could be how easy it is to find reflections of yourself in novels. After all, I read a lot of books about poor, working class girls battling against sexism, so there was that. More diversity in storytelling would definitely help foster more connections for readers.

      Thanks for the comment, Rose!

  6. Hi Heather – yes, I think you’re right, it’s stories that make us believe in a future, good or bad. Most of the fairy stories we hear as children – Goldilocks, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, whatever, have such a strong backbone of ‘present suffering will have an end’ and ‘all things change’. And the books we read tell us the same – the story always goes on. (I’m trying to think of there’s an exception to that, and I’m sure there is, but the exceptions exist more to play with the usual trajectory of books, don’t they?)

    I’m sad that ‘slut shaming’ still goes on. I remember, long ago, a time when teenage girls would define their own ‘alrightness’ and ‘acceptableness’ as far as their early sexual interactions with boys went, by identifying a girl to throw outside the group, on either end of the spectrum – the ‘frigid one’ as one outpost and the ‘slut’ as the other. The rest huddled together, like penguins, desperately trying to stay as close to the middle of the group as possible, warming ourselves in our own, group-defined ‘normality’ as we moved forwards together. I remember it all clearly, and I’m amazed that it’s still happening.

    1. So true about the fairy tales – they’re either cautionary warnings and/or stories of transformation and hope.

      And yes, slut shaming still happens. Some people think it’s worse now than ever because of social media, but that’s debatable – there’s always been bullying, but now there are new mediums through which to bully. However, on the bright side, those mediums can be used to spread awareness and connect with people who can provide support.

      Thanks for the comment, Elaine!

  7. Thank you for writing this. What you’ve said and what Emily Lindin has to say need to be heard by all of the young women we can reach. I’m sharing this multiple ways.

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