You're Doing Just Fine: Annie Barrows' Not-So-Secret Message to Young Readers
Best known for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which she cowrote with her aunt, Mary Ann Schaffer, and her Ivy and Bean children's books, Annie Barrows tackles young adult fiction for the first time—at the request of her own daughter—in her new book, Nothing. Goodreads asked Barrows to share her thoughts on writing for teens.
You want to know a secret?
All the books I've written for kids are about the same thing. The Ivy and Bean books, my picture book that's coming out next year, and now Nothing, my new YA book—they're all about the same idea, and here it is: You don't need to get better. You're already fine the way you are.
Wait. Don't go. Let me explain. I'm not saying that even if you run over small animals, you're beautiful inside. You're not. I'm not saying that you don't need to learn the multiplication tables because you already have inner wisdom. Learn them.
For example, seven-year-old kids generally want to run around more than they want to sit at desks and do spelling worksheets. Their grown-ups want them to learn to spell. So their grown-ups say something along the lines of this: "You're having trouble controlling yourself" or "Now is the time for quiet hands and feet." Sez who? Sez the person who will be most inconvenienced if kids run around the room like maniacs. But notice the way the grown-up's problem is framed: as if the kid were wrong.
Grown-ups should be honest about why kids need to follow orders. It's because it's a problem for the grown-ups if they don't; it's not because they're bad if they don't.
Now, it's one thing to talk this way about seven-year-olds because everyone knows that they will probably die if they are not at least somewhat governed. But what about teens? The whole scaffolding of adult authority gets shaky with regard to teens because what they want is, er, really close to what grown-ups want. How embarrassing. How difficult to condemn teens for wanting love and sex and intoxicants and money and community and meaning and a vacation and—most frightening of all—agency, when those are exactly the same things we want. And, in many cases, have failed to attain or have messed up.
It's incredibly frightening for grown-ups to admit that what teens want is valid. Why? I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's because it makes us feel bad to see what a hash we've made of those elements in our lives. Maybe it's because we want to protect our teens from sorrow and regret. Or maybe it's just really inconvenient to have to respect another person's wishes after all those years of denying them.
Whatever the reason, we grown-ups cling to old habits. Over and over again, we undercut the validity of teens' desires by questioning (or outright rejecting) their judgment and competence, by reinforcing self-doubt, by demonizing their pleasures, and by cultivating a culture of fear. Teenagers are often portrayed as powerless, shallow, oppressed, hurt, in need of a comeuppance, ignorant, mean, weak, depraved, and confused.
Personally, I think this is utter crap. The teens who are currently in my life and my kitchen are sometimes some of these things. And sometimes they are bright, just, loving, communicative, hopeful, generous, kindhearted, and funny. On occasion they are profoundly irritating, by which I mean they cause me inconvenience.
But they aren't wrong. They're fine.
Annie Barrows' Nothing hit bookshelves on September 5. Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.
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