I'm told my writing is pretty, beautiful, graceful. Lest you think I'm at risk of getting a big ego, I'm often told my books are not. They are the antithesis: dark, disturbing. They are called “too real,” putting the ick in realistic. Should I apologize? Hide? Or take the words as a compliment?
I'm going with the last option.
As a teen in the 1990s, I gravitated toward contemporary fiction—the more realistic, the better. I didn't like happy endings, where popular guy gets dorky girl. Maybe they gave others hope, let them believe social ladders didn't matter, that high school was indeed a magical planet where anything could happen and where unicorns instead of mean girls hid in bathroom stalls. Not me. My reality didn't always end well. I had good times and good friends, but I also had bad days and bad friends. I wanted to read about others who experienced what I did or worse. I wanted to know they got through it. By got through it I don't mean, that the end resulted in everyone singing "Kumbaya," and welcoming band geek and football player alike into the fold. By got through it, I mean the main character survived in his/her own way. S/he was a stronger person by the end and learned how to deal with a divorce, a hard break-up, or a horrible situation through inner strength and a good support network. THAT is what reality truly was. Those kinds of books, not the ones where things just work out, were the ones I treasured. They made me believe that life got better, even if it seemed it wouldn't. The only requirement? No, not a posse of girls ready to make me over into diva extraordinaire, but the desire to keep going and the willingness to take one day at a time and see what it brought.
I write books that I hope will help the kind of teen I was.
When my first novel, Inconvenient, came out, I had my first real experience with reviewers. The story was about a Russian-Jewish girl dealing with her mother's alcoholism. Some loved the ending; others “wanted to throw the book across the room.” The latter reaction surprised me. I thought the ending was real, hopeful even. Others disagreed. They found it depressing. To me, the main character's survival was what mattered. I wanted to give her wings without compromising my belief that real not be synonymous with perfect.
My second young adult novel, Pieces of Us, comes out this March. It tackles cyberbullying, sexual abuse and family relationships. Reviews have started to come in, and people are finding this one much darker than my first. I'll be honest. Some readers are tough—saying they “wanted to crawl into a hole” after reading the book. Others talk about the emotional impact the book had on them, their need to be thankful for what they have, hold their children close. They thank me for writing a book that's so “real” (there's that word again).
I don't write to be gratuitously graphic or shove some teens' realities down people's throats. I write books that I hope will help the kind of teen I was—the one who escaped in others' problems and heaved a sigh of relief when the characters got through it.
Sometimes, just getting through the teen years—minus the glitter, fairy dust and perfection—is all that counts.
YA author Margie Gelbwasser was born in Belarus, Minsk, and moved to the United States when she was three. She is the author of Inconvenient (Flux, 2010), which was a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens, and Pieces of Us (Flux, 2012). She is also a journalist who has written for Self, Ladies' Home Journal, and Girl's Life. Gelbwasser resides in New Jersey. Visit her online.