If you’re a girl, you should strive to look like the model on the cover of a magazine. If you’re a boy, you should play sports and be good at them. If you’re smart, you should immediately go to college after high school, and get a job that makes you rich. Above all, be normal.
Wrong, say 35 leading middle grade and young adult authors. Growing up is challenging enough; it doesn’t have to be complicated by convoluted, outdated, or even cruel rules, both spoken and unspoken. Parents, peers, teachers, the media, and the rest of society sometimes have impossible expectations of teenagers. These restrictions can limit creativity, break spirits, and demand that teens sacrifice personality for popularity.
In these personal, funny, moving, and poignant essays, Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird), Matthew Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook), Gary D. Schmidt (The Wednesday Wars), Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl), and many others share anecdotes and lessons learned from their own lives in order to show you that some rules just beg to be broken.
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Break these rules
35 YA authors on Speaking Up, Standing Out, and Being Yourself
By Luke Reynolds
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Luke Reynolds
All rights reserved.
BE A JOCK OR A NERD.PICK A SIDE. WE'RE AT WAR.
I am the product of not one but two librarians. In other words, I had the most awesome childhood imaginable! I grew up in a house positively bursting with books. From an early age it was made clear to me that books and reading and more generally being smart was a good and important thing to be. So, not surprisingly, I became one of the "smart kids" in school. I got good grades, I liked reading, and I generally nerded it up, nerd-style. There was a poster of Walt Whitman on my wall. When I was in kindergarten! For real.
But the Berks weren't just book lovers. Sports were also big in my house. My dad was (and is) a huge baseball fan. I started with T-ball as soon as I could hold a bat and soon, like generations of American boys before me, became completely obsessed with baseball. And, like generations of American writers before me, I was completely terrible at it. I prayed that I might one day hit a home run or at least possibly reach base on an error or even achieve an illustrious foul tip. But alas, my prayers went unanswered, my bat went back on the rack, and my rump went on the bench.
I was clearly on the path toward being a classic nerd, right? Right. Good at school, bad at sports. But then something happened: I grew. Man, did I groow! Suddenly I had arms like chimp, I towered over most of my friends, and I could just about dunk a basketball by age 13. This didn't help in baseball, but hey, basketball was OK too. So I went out for the very competitive Freedom High School basketball team and though I still wasn't a star, I made the cut. I made the team. This brought me into a new world. Jock world. My teammates were not the same kids from my honors classes, and they certainly weren't reading poetry for fun like I was.
Fitting in was a challenge. I was constantly hiding something. I wanted very much to fit into that world even though I knew I was living a lie. I didn't listen to the same music they did. There were loud rap songs blasted on the team bus while I quietly listened to Jane's Addiction and Ned's Atomic Dustbin on my portable. (Yes! There really was a band called Ned's Atomic Dustbin. They had two bass players and a song about killing your television. And yes! I used a portable CD player. It was the 1990s. I'm old!) I didn't know what to say on these bus trips, during practice, or even during the games. I didn't know how to act; I didn't even know how to dress to make it in their world. I felt like I had to put everything aside that I enjoyed, at the risk of being embarrassed.
Thoughts rolled through my head constantly: Who am I? Am I a jock or a nerd? Some sort of third thing? Probably everyone wonders these types of things at some point, but for some of us the questions loom especially large. We feel this pressure to fit a predetermined mold, but I simply did not fit. I loved books, and sports, and that one girl from honors English! And that one cheerleader! You can see my mind was very muddled. So I am here to tell you to smash those molds, my friends. The rules of jock world were constraining and limiting.
But, to be fair, it's not just jocks who make the artsy/nerdy kids feel like outcasts. The knife cuts the other way as well. I recently saw a regional high school theater award show where the kid who won best actor announced as part of his speech that before joining drama he used to play lacrosse. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. It was as if a Nobel Peace Prize winner declared during his acceptance address that he enjoyed torturing kittens and farting on babies in his spare time. It simply did not compute with the crowd that this actor type was also a (gasp!) athletic type. I expected pitchforks. You're not one of us?! the collective gasp seemed to decry. Sure he was. We're all one of us. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. This took me way too long to learn.
The funny thing is, for how long I struggled with this confusion, the answer was there all along, staring at me from my bedroom wall. The answer comes from Walt Whitman. The word is multitudes. Embrace your multitudes. Even if you have to break the rules of clique and caste. Walty (I call him Walty) said it best in his famous poem, Song of Myself, which I will now adapt for my needs. That's right! I can dunk and I like poems. Deal with it. (OK, fine, I can't dunk anymore, but still: deal with it.)
Do you contradict yourself?
Go ahead and contradict yourself!
You are large, you contain multitudes ...
To the secret poet on his way to the game,
Hiding his book of verse under his basketball uniform,
Reading Keats on the bus by the lights of passing cars —
I celebrate you.
To the quiet nerd yearning to rock
All the way out
Blasting polymaths and feedback
I celebrate you too.
It is a new age and we need new hyphenates:
No. Forget all that. We don't need hyphenates at all
We don't need labels at all.
The world is not a monochromatic place, it has many
It is a non-uniform place.
You love cars and physics and drama and videogames
You love the hum of an electric guitar, the swish of a
basketball through a hoop,
Beauty, light and the darkness of words pressed into
You love it all,
You live it all.
So stop this day and night with me and remember
That there is not just one way to be
You are large, you contain multitudes.
Go ahead ...
You're one of us.
We all are.
A. S. KING
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.
You heard it from the minute you were born. You heard it in babyhood when you were sad or hungry or cranky. You heard it in toddlerhood when you were hyper and you hadn't found your volume control yet. You heard it in childhood when you talked more than you ate your dinner or when you played too loudly in the house or when you tried to spout a great idea about how to build a new invention during the nightly news.
They've done studies on how many acts of violence you've seen on TV and how many teaspoons of sugar you eat and how many bases you will clear with your boyfriends and girlfriends before you turn 18, but I don't think anyone has ever done a study on shushing. So I'm going to take a wild guess for the sake of this essay.
By the time you graduate high school, I estimate that the number of times you will be shushed is one million. One million shushes. This includes Shut-ups, Be-quiets, Zip- its, and Hush-nows. It includes hand signals used in quiet places like church or your sister's cello recital — the zipper-across-the-mouth, the index-finger-straight-up. This includes the bad stuff. The hand-over-the-mouth. The "If you tell anyone about this, I'll kill you." The slap. The backhand. My conclusion: I reckon you've been told to shut up more than anything else so far.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm a mother. I shush my kids all the time. There's nothing wrong with learning boundaries and teaching the appropriate times to speak or make robot noises. However, I think our society goes too far in its quest to make everyone shut up. There's this very dangerous side effect: silence. And while silence is great during your sister's attempt at the sonata in B-flat minor on the cello, on a wider level, silence is a horrible disease that has scarred our society for too long. How would hunger, child abuse, and domestic violence still exist in your neighborhood if it were not for silence? How could genocide and torture and inequality still exist if it were not for silence?
Here's a fact: if you speak up about any of these things, some so-called adults will roll their eyes at you.
"Ha! She wants to cure starvation!"
"Pfffft! He wants to rid the world of genocide!"
"LOL! Good luck with that stopping child abuse and domestic violence crusade!"
We live in cynical, apathetic times. Yes, the ages on their driver's licenses may show they are legal adults, but let me tell you, these people are simply silenced children using cynicism as an excuse to allow their world to stay exactly the same as it was when they arrived. Don't be fooled. At one time in their lives they had dreams and hopes, just like you do. And the only reason they'll laugh at you and me when we try to change the world is because they gave up, gave in, and shut up. Because that's what they were told to do.
I have made it a habit of not doing what I am told to do and I want you to make a habit out of that too. (This does not mean making robot noises at your sister's cello recital.) You have a choice. You can pretend nothing is wrong with your world or you can change the world by saying, "There is something wrong with my world." Don't think other people are going to change it for you. Only you can change your world — your small personal world and your big whole wide world. The first step to that change is: say stuff.
I don't care what you say stuff about. I don't care if it's dogs or cats or kids or the price of cantaloupes in Saskatchewan. If you care, say something. If you're hurting, say something. If you know someone else is hurting, say something. If you can help someone, say something. You have to practice this skill in order to get better at it. The more you point at things and say, "Hey! That's not how things should be!" the more you will notice things that should change. This applies to you, too.
You will get better results if, when you open your mouth, you remember to open your mind as well. In these cynical times, making declarations about who is wrong and who is right and deciding you are the all-knowing expert on the world's problems is only going to make you look silly. Yes, I know there are people like that all over TV and radio, but just because they are on TV doesn't make them right. Speak up about truths. About things that are wrong no matter what your politics. It's very hard to go wrong when you are fighting for something, rather than against something. It's very hard to go wrong when you are trying to help people who are in desperate need of help.
If you do this, I guarantee you two things: you will feel good, and some people will fight you. They want their comfortable blanket of mind-numbing TV and silence! They do not want to think about the starving and suffering people all over the world. They can't do anything to help them, remember? So you're just wasting your time.
Except that you're not. You're doing more than they could, and it makes them feel bad. One out of four of them have suffered some sort of ill treatment themselves and many haven't even been able to speak up about that yet, so why would you expect them to help you? They are living proof that there is something wrong with our world. And you and I are living proof that people can speak up and break the silence.
So please. Say it with me: I will not shut up. No matter what world you aim to change, you can't do it without your voice. And the rest of us loudmouths need you.CHAPTER 3
IT'S BETTER TO BE SAFE THAN SORR
Adults always told us to lock up our bikes whenever we went to the pizza shop or the 7-Eleven. "Even if you're only going inside for a minute — use the bike lock!" they'd say. And when we went to a friend's house, his parents would often ask where we left our bikes. "Don't leave your bikes out front on the sidewalk if you want to keep them!" they'd yell.
I lived in a small suburban South Jersey town called Oaklyn and knew most of my neighbors well. So why the bike theft paranoia?
We were told that the kids from Camden would come and take our bikes.
I don't remember when I first heard about the kids from Camden, but they came up quite a bit when I was in elementary and middle school.
Apparently, the Camden kids invaded our town in pairs. The first partner powered a bike, the second was rumored to ride on the handlebars, and when they saw one of our bikes unlocked, the handlebar rider would leap off, steal, pedal like mad, and escape back into the city of Camden, where none of us would dare to follow.
This was the story, and we lived in constant fear of losing our bikes.
Oaklyn is less than one square mile. I lived there for almost two decades. I never saw strangers casing the streets for unlocked bikes. Not once. Nor did anyone ever steal my ride, even though — because I was a kid — I neglected to lock it up many times. I remember hearing stories about bikes gone missing, but I can't remember any hard facts. "Someone's cousin lost a bike to the kids from Camden," we heard, and we believed it without asking a single question. I don't remember any of my friends losing bikes to the kids from Camden.
Camden is the city that borders Oaklyn. When I was growing up, Camden was considered the most dangerous place in South Jersey. I often heard adults claim that Camden had one of the highest murder rates in the country. Most of the people in Camden did not look like us. They were not of European ancestry. We'd be able to spot them right away if they ever came to our town. We were always looking for them. We were afraid of them. We didn't go into Camden. During the holidays, when our parents took us on the Speedline — through Camden to Center City, Philadelphia — we looked out the train windows and saw that the people of Camden mostly lived in dilapidated row homes. Their city looked dingy, broken, drug-infested, and dangerous. We hoped we wouldn't have to interact with the citizens of Camden, and we didn't.
I am right now — at the time of writing, at the age of 37 — sitting in Camden, serving jury duty. Earlier this morning, I got off the Speedline at City Hall and didn't know which way to walk, so I approached the first person I saw. His skin color was different than mine and a tattoo of a dark blue tear leaked from his eye. To be honest, he looked kind of scary and the amateur tattoos on his neck and hands made me wonder if he had spent time in jail.
"Excuse me. Which way is the courthouse?" I asked him.
He flashed a huge smile, and then said, "This way, my man! It's that big building over there. See it?"
I nodded and said, "Thanks."
We exchanged grins.
Middle school me would have been amazed.
High school me would have never asked that man for directions.
When my wife, Alicia, and I landed in Windhoek, Namibia, our friend, a Peace Corps volunteer, greeted us. He had aarranged for taxi to drive us to a hostel. When we saw the troops of baboons next to the highway that leads to the city, we knew we had landed in a new, different world. "Welcome to Africa," our friend said.
My wife and I had just quit our jobs and sold our house to pursue our dream of writing fiction full-time. We had recently traveled in Peru and were beginning a six-week backpacking trip through southern Africa.
"Why Africa?" asked most of the people we knew. These were the same people who had also asked us, "Can you really make a living writing fiction?" Some asked if traveling through southern Africa was dangerous. One acquaintance — who had done business in South Africa — warned us, saying, "It's not safe to take public transportation over there. Be careful!"
When we arrived at the hostel, named the Cardboard Box, we first noticed the tall cement walls.
Inside those walls was a hip open-air space with a pool, bar, fire pit, tent area, and rooms for rent. The guests were mostly friendly Australians, Europeans, and Kiwis — almost all were white people.
Once we were settled in, our Peace Corps friend told us that he would be leaving, which surprised us. He was going to hitchhike north to fulfill an obligation. The next morning we were to pick up his friend at the airport via taxi, then rent a car, and meet our friend at a northern camping spot before we'd go on safari at Etosha National Park. Before we knew it, he was gone and we were alone in Namibia.
That night I had a panic attack.
I woke up shortly after Alicia and I went to bed. I felt disoriented. I could hear unfamiliar music and people talking in the lounge. Everyone had thick accents. I remembered speaking with the bartender earlier that evening. He was an ex-soldier from England. When I told him we were traveling north and would most likely end up in Zambia, he smiled and said, "You're going to see the real Africa then." I wondered what the real Africa would be like. Windhoek already felt strange and unfamiliar. As we had driven through the streets of the city, we didn't see anyone who looked like us. Yet here at the hostel were many people who did. A few dozen white people bbehind large walls. I remember thinking we had made a mistake coming to Africa. I felt like something bad was going to happen to us. I wanted to go home.
In the morning, I felt better. I reminded myself that I had traveled in South America thrice already and had also been to Europe as many times — that I knew how to be a tourist in a foreign land. My wife was excited to travel north, and so I tried to feed off her enthusiasm and pushed all the bad suspicions deep down back into the subconscious from whence they came.
Excerpted from Break these rules by Luke Reynolds. Copyright © 2013 Luke Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: 35 Ways to Be Who You Really Are 1
Be a Jock Or a Nerd. Pick a Side. We're at War Josh Berk 5
Shhhhh A. S. King 9
It's Better to be Safe than Sorry Matthew Quick 13
Listening is a Waste of Time Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich 23
Never Be Alone Francisco X. Stork 29
Don't Tell Neesha Meminger 33
Don't Quit Carl Deuker 39
Be Clean! Gary D. Schmidt 41
Never Talk About Religion Sara Zarr 51
Follow the Money, Not Your Heart Lisa Schroeder 55
Look Like a Magazine Cover Sayantani Dasgupta 59
Don't Tell Lies Leslie Connor 67
Pretend the Dark Stuff Isn't True Carol Lynch Williams 73
Don't Daydream Wendy Mass 79
Go to College After High School Chris Barton 85
Be Cool Kathryn Erskine 89
See Yourself Through the Eyes of Others Jennifer Reynolds 95
Speak Up! Mike Jung 101
Always Sit In Your Assigned Seat… Lyn Miller-Lachmann 105
Be Normal Jennifer A. Nielsen 111
Don't Clash With the Crowd Anna Staniszewski 115
Compare Yourself to Others Luke Reynolds 119
Be Productive Jennifer Ziegler 125
Always Know Where You're Going Brian Yansky 131
Don't Get Fat Lisa Burstein 137
Two is Better than One Natalie Dias Lorenzi 143
Follow The Directions Tamara Ellis Smith 149
Grow Up. Be Serious Tara Lazar 157
Boys Don't Cry Chris Lynch 161
The Boy/Girl Rule Pat Schmatz 165
Be a Man Rob Buyea 169
Dress Appropriately Margo Rabb 173
There are Firm Rules in Life Thanhha Lai 177
Don't Let The New World Change You Mitali Perkins 181
Me First Lynda Mullaly Hunt 185
About the Contributors 195
About the Editor 209