Turning 16 is a big, meaningful birthday – it’s supposed to be one of those landmark, milestone birthdays that everyone remembers. Girls get a little bit more mileage out of it, what with the whole sweet sixteen thing, but even for guys, turning 16 tends to mean a certain amount of freedom – there’s the whole license thing, just for a start. Mine wasn’t like that, for various reasons, but I remember the hype. In the book, Sixteen; Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, edited by Megan McCafferty, sixteen young adult authors tell some of their best stories about what 16 means in their minds, and let us decide if the hype is worth it or not.
There’s a lot to pick from here, as far as favorites go: In terms of authors, SIXTEEN culls from the cream of the crop – Sarah Dessen, MT Anderson, David Leviathan, Sarah Mlynowski. In terms of stories told, you’ve got everything from the horror that is rotaries (here in Massachusetts, I know they are their own special kind of hell); to pursuing your pen-pal; to the universality of having odd relatives (and also the completely unreal feeling of realizing that you are closer in age to the odd relatives than the main characters, but that’s just me, I suppose); to outrageous displays of shocking naivety. You’ve got dangerous strangers and even more dangerous friends; you’ve got religion and philosophy and it’s all approached with a seriousness that I so admire in Young Adult books – that sense that this matters, and we know it matters and we’re not going to patronize you about it.
The book doesn’t idealize or shy away from difficult topics – one of my favorite stories is about having a college interview with your closeted boyfriend’s father, but there are others that deal with things that are pretty heavy too, and this quote from Steve Almond’s piece more than encapsulates that spirit that I was referring to, that brutal honesty that I feel YA fiction is filled with –
“One of the reasons I hate Hollywood so much is that they portray the travails of teen life as so innocuous and fun-loving, some kind of idyll before the mean business of adulthood. People forget how much it all hurts back then. Someone pinches you and you feel it in your bones. They don’t want to face what a bunch of sadists teenagers are, wounded narcissists, killers. All these folks who acted all shocked and outraged about Columbine – where the hell did they go to high school?”
Exactly. Being a teenager isn’t any less painful then being a grown-up, we just sometimes remember it that way. But YA authors – or at least, good YA authors – seem to be able to clear away that nostalgic cobweb and write the truth of being 16: good, bad, painful, funny, heartbreaking, horrible, happy – you’re a whole person at 16, just like you are however old you are at this moment.
“I am not the person I have always known” a character exclaims in Juliana Baggott’s story, and it’s this mental reshuffling of the pieces, this new self-evaluation that being 16 requires of you that makes this book, & these stories, so great. But here’s a thing I didn’t know at 16 that I do now (at freaking 35) – those feelings, that mental reshuffling and re-evaluation? Never stops. Your brain doesn’t settle on a new thing that you are, instead it’s just a continuum of new things that you are/want to be/might be/don’t want to be, and you keep working for or against them, consciously or unconsciously. So when Emily Milty says “I am still a wool coat and grey soup and Sears carpeting, but not as much as I was just that morning when I woke up.” well that’s a feeling just about everybody can understand, no matter how far from 16 they may be.
I was glad that there was to see so many male characters represented (and well represented: w/author like Ned Vizzini, David Leviathan, & Steve Almond, that’s a given, but still) because I feel like guys totally get the shaft when it comes to the whole sweet sixteen thing, and I’m glad the book didn’t leave them behind. In fact, I don’t feel like it left anybody behind. There were stories of outsiders (and who doesn’t feel like an outsider, at 16), and the quiet kid, and the theater kid, and straight kids and gay kids and “please don’t call me a kid anymore because I am 16 years old now” kids.
There were stories of discovery and desperation; stories of finding love and finding yourself; stories about just waking up and making it through yet another day. There were those summers that changed friendships, and friendships that changed your life, and lives that wound up mattering more than they originally thought.
Short, and not necessarily sweet, Sixteen somehow managed to hit a lot of the right notes. (There were only one or two stories that didn’t do it for me, and out of sixteen, that’s a pretty good batting average.)