There are a million things I dislike about this article that attempts to explain what “clean YA” is. But talking about the obvious things feels a little too obvious and boring. More, this is a piece from a publisher who specializes in publishing “clean YA,” so whatever bigger picture things there are to say about it don’t especially matter from the perspective of general readers, librarians, educators, or others who work with teenagers and books.
What stood out to me, though, worth examining in more depth, was this particular point:
Protagonists in clean YA are not perfect—far from it! But they often are the types of heroes and heroines who don’t give up, even when they’re facing seemingly impossible odds. Their attitudes are meant to inspire readers to be stronger and more confident no matter the situation.
“Clean” YA, as opposed to dirty YA, is meant to showcase only characters who don’t give up. They’re the kinds of characters who face the worst and still keep going because their purpose is to inspire readers to be stronger and more confident . . . no matter what.
The longer I think about that, the more it bothers me. The more it reminds me of every time as a teenager I was faced with a difficult, frustrating situation, and I was forced to keep pushing through. Even though I hated it. Even though it killed my spirit. Even though I was not good at it and found no reason to keep doing it.
And this is the message that we continue to send to teenagers. That being good is about not giving up or quitting.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in an advanced placement biology class my senior year of high school. I’d done OKAY on a number of quizzes and tests, and I knew how hard I was working to keep a solid B in the course. It wasn’t that I was dumb or unable to do science at the college level — there was a reason I was allowed to take the class in the first place! — but it was an unreasonable set of expectations put upon me from the teacher. He found problems with everything I did, and as a result of seeing me continue to struggle, he offered up a solution of extra credit.
That extra credit was to go on an insect hunt and create a display, labeling the insects by species. Being desperate, I didn’t think about how this sort of activity didn’t fit with my own beliefs about leaving nature to be nature; instead, my best friend and I packed up some butterfly nets, plastic jars, and spent a long evening at one of the local forest preserves catching every insect we could. Later that night, we sat in my bedroom, carefully killing the creatures that survived the car ride and labeling them.
When I turned in the project, I felt terrible. Everything about it felt wrong and uncomfortable, but I’d done it in the name of making my grade stronger. Of being better at biology. But the same day, I received a big test back from the previous week and I’d done terrible.
Not because I didn’t study.
Not because I couldn’t answer the questions correctly.
But because the teacher did not like how I colored something.
Between that grade and the bug project for extra credit, I realized I’d had enough. I didn’t need the class, and frankly, it was turning me off to science all together. I’d taken bio classes before and enjoyed them, but this was turning into a struggle. I hated going, and I hated knowing no matter what, I’d never get ahead.
So I quit the class.
I think about that moment a lot and how much a sense of relief I felt immediately afterward. I didn’t have to spend hours upon hours wondering if my coloring was good enough for the teacher. I didn’t have to spend my nights catching bugs and killing them (!!) to create a display. Instead, I took study hall for the rest of the semester and then found an excellent elective course on criminal justice to take the following semester. There was something empowering about choosing to quit, about choosing not to “keep pushing” when I knew I had no more to give. I didn’t need to be brave or an inspiration when my time and energy was better put elsewhere. No matter how many counselors and college admissions officers and lectures I sat through about taking and succeeding in hard courses, my life turned out just fine after quitting the course that was making me miserable.
Quitting continued to be a thing I practiced. I quit a sorority I was a part of in college because the interpersonal situations and the college’s demands upon me as an elected representative of the group were silly. Years later, I quit a job that was literally causing me to have panic attacks and sink into some of the worst fits of depression I’d ever experienced. This was a professional librarian job, with professional benefits, and “everyone knows” that quitting something like that is a mark of failure upon you as an individual, rather than a problem within the organization itself.
That last line, of course, is sarcastic.
It’s important to try hard and it’s important not to give up when you have the fight in you. But, too often, we believe character comes through putting up with the tough times and ignoring the impact those challenges have on you as an individual. You become stronger by being a fighter and powering through, rather than stepping back, assessing your own needs, and saying it’s time to quit.
Not quitting is a virtue. It is the mark of a strong person.
It is a thing we instill in teenagers and insist will make them better, make them more whole, and make them an ideal and well-functioning member of society.
And while there are so many excellent YA books about goal seeking, about being strong and powerful, about muscling through the hard times and tough challenges in order to inspire a reader, I think there’s a real hole in the YA world for books where characters quit. Where the fight is too hard, the stakes too high, and the personal toll too much to keep going. These characters, let’s call them dirty YA quitters, are strong characters, too. They’re characters who are virtuous, who can be inspirational and aspirational for readers, in part because they are able to self-assess and know when it’s time to say “no more.” When the push they have in them has hit the limit and they need to stop and try another path.
Being a quitter isn’t about giving up because the going gets too hard. It’s often about comparing your needs and desires and beliefs against whatever it is you’re facing. I quit a biology class after realizing I was being asked to perform acts that felt silly and acts that went against my personal ethics of treating nature and the world around me. It would take me years to find love for science again after this class, but I’d find it in a college course about the importance of nature and food and the relationships between sustainability and growth. I quit a sorority when politics interfered with genuine female friendship. And I quit a professional job when, no matter how hard I served the public, I was left empty and hurt by the environment I worked in.
And had I not quit those things, I’d never have found a true love for nature, a true love for girls and female friendship, or a job that leaves me full and satisfied.
Being stronger and more confident sometimes means quitting. It sometimes means knowing your best isn’t enough. And sometimes it means saying you and your own life are more important than being an inspiration or lesson for someone else.
Quitters sometimes — many times — do prosper.
I don’t know about you, but I’d welcome far more YA books that feature characters who throw in the sword and say they don’t want to anymore. Who give up a future that looks one way in favor of one that better suits what it is they truly, eagerly want.