One of the authors of a story in the collection Heathers (published by the Pankhearst Writers Collective) offered me a review copy, and I thought, “A book of short stories written by adults for teens about teens. Uh-oh.” In the world of indie-publishing madness and self-important MFAs too concerned with style to say anything of substance, I opened this book with no small amount of hesitation and a deep well of cynicism. Would it be some earnest but misspelled, ungrammatical mess, or would it be the bastard child of Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka telling teens that their young lives climaxed on the first page and had no resolution? Sure, the editors had the good taste to pick a great epigram from Margaret Atwood, and the introductory essay was so good I will be sharing some of it with my teenage students when I explain why YA literature is not just good but vital to surviving adolescence, but could Lucy Middlemass and E.R. McTaggart pick stories to cash the check that essay was writing? The proof is in the pudding and all that.
I was hooked from the very first story. Wow.
Here’s what this collection gets so right: Teenagers are not monsters. I know this because I teach them every day in my high school English classes. They are not one hundred year-old vampires. They are not the know-it-all brats who aggravate their parents on TV sitcoms. They are human beings. My ninth graders are squirrelly and hyperactive sometimes, but that’s a function of their age, not a judgment of their character. I have to remind myself of this occasionally. They are people, complicated and imperfect. If you don’t love people and all their multifaceted and sometimes ridiculous struggles, this book is not for you. Find something where the characters are amalgamations of a few interesting traits with no soul underneath. But if you, like me, are inspired by the way people strive in the face of an onslaught of suffering and find hope and love where none should reasonably exist, this book is for you.
Shizuyo, in Simon Paul Wilson’s “Sushi,” is more than just the new-kid-in-school archetype. She’s a real person who has fallen in love with the wrong girl and has pissed off the wrong bully. Barbara, in Karen Eisenbray’s “Hat,” isn’t the alternative loner who needs a make-over to win the popular guy. She’s a girl who has been turned invisible by a witch and needs a magic hat to allow the kids at her school to see her (and to allow her to see them).
Real teenagers are not all heroes, any more than they are villains. Some are kind and others cruel, some are shy and others outgoing, and some are good while others are jerks. And then there’s Pete in E.R. McTaggart’s “Girls, Interrupted,” who reminds us that some are kind of douche-y but still have very real feelings they hide under a proto-frat boy suit of armor that is just as real.
This collection is full of characters like this. There’s the girl who is about to learn the perfect thing on the London subway train in Lucy Middlemass’ “Metro,” and the 19-year-old fatherless heroin junkie who is about to learn the exact opposite in PS Brooks’ “Chairoscuro.” There’s the girl who can weave through every defender on the basketball court and every distracting through in her head in Layla Harding’s “On the Line.” And then there’s Trevor, the autistic boy simply trying make it through a week of junior high in Evangeline Jennings’ “Walking to School,”… …oh, just spending time with Trevor will make you ache for him, make your guts twist with a sympathy that can never be empathy…
The only real question I had when I was halfway through the collection was: Should I buy one copy for myself or six copies for all the teachers in my school’s English department?
I’m buying six.
Heathers was released on Amazon in print and Kindle version on December 14th. Get your copy (or six) here.