Growing up half a block from the local library is every kid’s dream come true. Well, if that kid was an avid reader like me. A few times a week—almost every day in the summer—I went to the library and paged through books by Aliki, Eric Carle, Beatrix Potter, and the rest of the authors that I loved as a child. I took out as many books as my junior library card would allow and poured over the stories again and again. I don’t know if I loved Eric Carle or Beatrix Potter more.
I got older and graduated into books like Bunnicula, The Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little, and of course, The Baby-sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin. My goodness, I owned and read every single book in the series. One day while cruising through the “young adult” section at the library, I found a book by my beloved Ann M. Martin called Slam Book. Naturally, I checked the book out and began devouring it on my short walk home.
Slam Book is about a group of high school girls who make a “slam book”—a composition notebook in which students anonymously write [mostly mean] statements about one another. It was Mean Girls before there was Mean Girls. In retrospect, I have to admit the book is pretty lame, but as a middle school girl I knew two things—I hoped that the kids at my school would never make a slam book and if they did, that I never read it.
I felt particularly attached to one character, who was dumpy, unkempt, and the butt of many jokes. I don’t remember the details, but as a result of the slam book, she commits suicide. And it wasn’t just that she committed suicide—Martin laid out the graphic details, probably to elicit sympathy for the character. However, I took it as a how-to guide.
A year and a half later, like the girl in the book, I took a shaving razor out of our bathroom closet and made diagonal cuts on my wrists. I was 13 years old and thus began my lifelong struggle with cutting. And until now, I have never been able to admit that I got the idea from a book—a book by Ann M. Martin called Slam Book.
True, I obviously had other problems going on in my life because there wasn’t a rampant outbreak of self-injury because of Slam Book (though I have noticed it’s out-of-print, probably due to its lack of revenue generation.) Initially, I was so offended by the book, I immediately returned it to the library, thrust it at the librarian, and told her that there was an upsetting suicide in the book. I said there should be some sort of warning on the book and that girls my age should not have access to this supposed “young adult” reader, appropriate for ages 12 and up. The librarian apologized and the book never graced the library’s shelves again.
Yet the idea never left my mind—how the character laid everything out so neatly in her bathroom to perform the perfect suicide. Towels, warm bath, razor, note. And, oh, how they lamented her death! How they saw the error of their ways! How they knew they mistreated her! But it was too late.
It wasn’t too late for me. If only I could elicit the same reaction without dying…if only…
Years later, I would learn in a socially conscious episode of “7th Heaven” that what I did was called “cutting” and it was becoming a problem. Eventually, someone would form a group called To Write Love On Her Arms, high school counselors would go to seminars to learn how to address the “new teen bulimia,” and I would go to graduate school to help other girls who cut, just like me. No one ever told me they got the idea from Slam Book, and maybe no one else did. I hope no one else did.
There’s a delicate balance in place when young adult authors choose to address certain issues such as abortion, anorexia, rape, bullying, cliques, and the like, and probably more checks-and-balances in place now than in 1989 when Slam Book was published. Still, YA authors need to remember they are writing books marketed not to adults (though many adults read YA), but to impressionable young teenagers. If the book says for readers 12 and up, then authors better make sure they write age appropriate material for that audience.
Was it all Slam Book’s fault? Should I file a lawsuit against Ann M. Martin? Do we need to have a Baby-Sitter’s Club book burning party? Of course not. I always had a choice. I merely want to offer a cautionary tale that just because something can be written doesn’t mean it necessarily should be written. There will always be impressionable teens out there that use YA books as a how-to guide for life, not to explore another reality.
Thanks to Andy at ReadingTeen.net for inspiring this topic. This book review caused me to consider the responsibility that young adult authors have to their audience as well as the impact a book can have on a teenager.
This was originally published at BackseatReader.net.