Tim Starkweather - On YA Books
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
~J.K. Rowling, "King's Cross," Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The sun is setting and I call still feel a thin sheen of dust and sweat covering my back. I’m sitting outside on a small patio overlooking a dirty city road. A pack of feral cats prowls through the day old garbage left beside a slab of crooked and battered concrete pretending to be a sidewalk, dodging and diving in and out with wide eyes as walkers, cyclists’, and cars roll by. Somewhere behind me I can hear a dull roar growing to a peak as a train approaches the station a few blocks north of me. As the last of the sun disappears and the street slides from grey to dark I sip slowly from my Turkish coffee and smile tiredly. I’m reflecting on the last 72 hours since I arrived by myself in Egypt. My name is Timothy and life was not always thus.
Packed away in my suitcases are the normal essentials for anyone moving and living in another land. Clothes. Toothpaste. Socks. And, for me, Books. Always books. More importantly, YA Fiction. It’s comfort food for my brain, my greatest stress reliever when all else fails, and I never travel without it. When I was a child my family moved around a lot. Every two years, with clockwork precision, we would pack up and move to another part of the country or world. Books remained my constant companion through a overwhelming number of family road trips, explorations, fiascos, and transatlantic shuffles. I took to wearing oversized coats on my wiry frame, packing the pockets and sleeves with the books I was reading, sometimes as many as seven or eight. Often, while staring at a painting or scenic outpost, my mother would sigh with a little exasperation, pull my nose out of my book, and tell me to look around. That I would miss what was going on around me if I didn’t look up every once in awhile. I’d usually nod solemnly and wait for her to turn around before fishing another story out of the hidden recesses of my coat. She was right, of course. But I don’t think she could have known how lost I felt.
I didn’t read books as a child, I lived in them. When the shear weight of the world became too much for me to handle, when one more move or last goodbye seemed like it would break me in half, I slipped into another world. A world where a lost young boy could be a proud champion or a hero. Where he could walk alongside other young people who embodied all the things he was still aching to contain: the confidence, the purpose, the security that he lacked in his current reality. Here there were best friends who would never leave, loyalty, direction, and honor. In books I found my first crush, my best friends, lessons on fidelity and friendship, the importance of finding something bigger than ourselves to live for and the loss we feel at the passing of a loved one.
When Alanna of Trebond finally faced down the Duke of Conte, she did so with me cheering her on. When Harry walked alone into that dark forest, I practically wept in my coffee shop. And when Leslie was killed on her way to Terabithia, a part of me went with her. As young people books give us a safe place to encounter the things that scare us. They afford us the chance to grow and challenge the things around us and to find the role models for what kind of person it is that we would like to become. These encounters, occurring in a safe place, allow young people to challenge to the world around them. To meet it head on in a test run for the future, walking side by side with other children as they confront their bullies, their nightmares, and their embarrassments.
There are two forces in my life that shaped me into the person that I am today and will continue to become. One of them was my father. The other I found in the YA fiction I read. In books I found people my age changing the very world around them: toppling tyrants, facing down the odds, overcoming their insecurities and fear, comforting friends and loved ones, and coping with death and loss. Young people rising above their age, position, and limitations to become something greater. It remains, for me, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
So as I deal with one of the biggest life changes I’ve ever had I take some time, here on this patio, in this new country, to pull some YA fiction out of my backpack. It’s nestled between my passport, journal, and maps: Cinda Williams Chima’s ‘Warrior Heir’ - the tale of a 16 year old boy who discovers that he is a member of a magical society where children are forced to compete in an epic duel to determine which house will hold dominance of their society. It’s a story of relationships and magic, of sacrifice and friendship: just the way I like them.
Here, even in Egypt, I am surrounded by friends. The best of friends. The kind who set the bar high and lead by example. And I’d hate to let any of them down now.