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"YA: Responsibility or Opportunity?"
by John Darryl Winston
Writing is a third career for me. At least I’m trying to make it into a third career. And it’s the first time I’ve considered an endeavor in relationship to responsibility and/or opportunity. I grew up feeling responsible to act a certain way around adults and never embarrassing my parents, indeed honoring my parents and making them proud of me is still high on my “strive to do at all cost” list. I saw it as a responsibility to be loyal to my friends, and as a man, to be responsible for protecting and taking care of my family.  

We often hear how entertainers or athletes have a responsibility to give back to the community that supported them once they are successful and how those same celebrities have a responsibility to be role models now that they are respected, revered, and held in high regard by the youth of our fragile society. Criticism is never far behind those who rise to fame and then participate in, shall we say, sordid behaviors such as over indulgence of life’s simple pleasures or breaking laws indiscriminately and often being held above those same laws. 

I think it all boils down to this; there is no universal right and wrong, and therein lies the problem. I’ve always seen this type of thinking as problematic. Who gets to decide right and wrong? My perceptions of right and wrong are based on my foundation and subsequent life experiences, which can never be exactly the same as another’s, my siblings included. I’ve only recently begun to ponder this concept when I started writing fiction. Since I was a teacher and athletic coach. It seemed like a natural progression to write middle grade and YA, so I did. In the process, my upbringing reared its ugly head again, and the “responsibility” concept emerged, only this time, I flipped the script from responsibility to opportunity. And I think opportunity works better in the previous examples as well. No need to rehash, just substitute opportunity for responsibility above. Let’s stay with writing. A lot of the books that my middle school kids are reading have what I feel are inappropriate situations (sexuality is a big one) as well as the use inappropriate language. 

I struggled with this in writing a novel about an 8th grader growing up in modern-day, inner city with the major setting being a middle school. How in the world can my novel have any authenticity if I’m not using profanity? Trust me; as a middle school physical education and language arts teacher, I hear more curse words on the playground and in the lunchroom than I heard from my drill sergeants in basic training, and I can’t remember my drill sergeants ever completing a sentence without using a curse word. That being said, if I was going for sheer authenticity, I would win an award for the most curse words found in a middle grade/YA novel series. Hmmm … maybe I’ll put that to the test and on my list of book ideas. I digress. 

Then, it occurred to me the question, what makes a story interesting, different, not your run of mill situation? How about middle school main character that doesn’t curse? It’s a start. And believe me; that is a unique quality for a middle school kid. Add to top that, his friends don’t curse much either, which is plausible. You know, the whole birds of feather thing. Then use a few writing techniques to add in implied profanity and you have my IA trilogy. The third book may have a few slip-ups, I think.  

Now, this is why I see it as an opportunity and not a responsibility. If I give a one of my students or my daughter for that matter a book that has what I feel is inappropriate language or situations, and—now I feel this is even more important that language or those situations are not seen as “bad” in the context of the story or even worse, are glorified, then, I’m giving my students and my daughter license to use that language and consider participating in situations that I feel are inappropriate. At the very least I’m planting a seed that society has become proficient at germinating. 

I know. Talk to the kids. Explain to them that just because the good guy does bad things, gets away with it, and wins in the end, it’s still wrong. Oh, and it’s just a story. That’s called mixed messages, and I can guarantee, and Denzel Washington would say, our children will gravitate to the most attractive part of the whole message and follow the easiest path. Harry Potter is a prime example of exemplary literature for students, middle school and up, along with the IA series, and I swear by those texts when teaching my students ELA and creating an atmosphere where their love of reading can grow. So, I relish the opportunity rather than the responsibility of exposing young readers to quality literature that inspires and excites as well as reaffirms morals that align with my own foundation. I’m just sayin’.


John Darryl Winston
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