All Happy Families Are Alike: E.M. Kokie talks family dynamics in YA

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“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

From a teen’s perspective, a family crisis can shake every foundation of their world. A death in the family, financial crisis, substance abuse, family violence, and mental illness, to name just a few possible crises, rarely happen in a vacuum as the sole difficulty the family is facing, or as something that happens to only one member of the family.

Part of the inciting idea for Radical was my recognition of how many teens are living in families facing serious financial crises that may not be visible to their peers, such as lost jobs and lost homes and parents struggling with a changing workforce that has left them behind. Radical is a somewhat extreme example in that it also explores the links between financial stress and why some in our country are angry with and distrust our government. But books like The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson and Tyrell by Coe Booth explore other ways in which financial difficulties can intersect with systemic discrimination, grief, substance abuse, mental illness, or other stressors to exacerbate a family’s situation, especially for its teen members.

Some readers seem to especially chafe when a book involves parents who favor their own needs or the needs of another family member over the needs of the teen character, when for many, many teens, this is their reality. Even in loving, otherwise functional families, sometimes one member’s needs must temporarily take a backseat to another’s. But in too many families, the hierarchy isn’t temporary and it is a teen’s needs that are perpetually sacrificed.  For example, situations of family violence among siblings often go unchecked, sometimes because the parents can’t face the realities of the situation or allow themselves to see the behavior of the abusive child, and sometimes because the parent might also be afraid of the violent teen. And the unfortunate reality is that some siblings may simply be valued more than others in the family’s overall financial, social, or cultural prosperity.

burn baby burn meg medinaSometimes the hierarchy of whose needs are prioritized has larger and graver consequences. When I read Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina earlier this year I was struck by the parallels between it and Radical. While the books take place in different times, they both explore families in crisis, exacerbated by the pervasive fear of what is happening in their world and a family member who is out of control without a parent willing to rein them in or confront the danger. Both families also struggle financially, though for different reasons, and in both books the family’s social or cultural expectations run contrary to the female main character’s needs. Both girls must ultimately make choices to claim their own futures, though very different choices with very different ramifications, both for the girls and for their families.

Even when a parent wants what is best for their children, they are not always effective at achieving it. This is especially true for many LGBTQIA+ teens.  Thankfully there is a growing trend in young adult novels and in real life for queer characters to find love, acceptance, and support within their families. But too many queer teens, even in functioning families with parents who do love them, are expected to hide or cover certain aspects of their gender or sexual identity or expression for the sake of family harmony, cultural or religious beliefs, or public appearances. Sometimes those expectations result in significant emotional or psychological harm. But even those smaller cuts take their toll, and a family’s continuing refusal to embrace a child’s sexual or gender identity can cause long term harms and lead to fractures in the family. Those fractures can hinder the family’s ability to deal with other crises. And, unfortunately, the conflicts within the family about the queer teen’s identity can cause the family to fail to value or protect the queer teen’s other needs in times of crisis.

In May I was on a panel at the AWP conference in Los Angeles — Looking Through the Lens of Conflict: Writing Young Adult Literature About Families in Crisis. It was a wonderful panel, and the questions from the audience led to some interesting discussions, including whether it’s fair or accurate to call families working through a crisis “dysfunctional,” and whether such a label may sometimes come from a place of privilege or cultural ignorance. The back and forth also caused me to consider the question of whether we perpetuate ideas of what kinds of families are prone to dysfunction. Not all families who experience a crisis will become dysfunctional, and for many those crises will be temporary. But do we have a tendency to perpetuate racial and cultural stereotypes by always writing the narrative of certain families being “broken,” certain families being poor, and certain families being prone to drug abuse, violence, or mental illness? If all teen readers see is family violence in families struggling financially, are we telling them that there is no family violence in wealthy families? If we never explore what it is like to be LGBTQIA+ and poor and a person of color, are we ignoring the intersectionality of experiences and how those facets of a person’s life combine to affect their choices and ability to prosper? If we only write about urban poverty are we both perpetuating stereotypes about who is poor and failing to explore the complexities for teens living in rural poverty?

Issues of representation and authenticity are not just issues of social conscience, but are also issues of craft if we believe that YA novels should accurately reflect and represent our world. Writing authentically requires consideration of our own cultural experiences and blind spots, as well as performing the research necessary and drawing on our own stores of empathy and curiosity about others to create well-rounded characters that resist and transcend cliché, and writing stories that explore characters’ humanity instead of merely cultural stereotypes. One book cannot and should not try to represent the entirety of a place, culture, or issue. But if we are writing about a teen or family in crisis, it is worth considering if we are making ill-informed assumptions about who confronts those crises, and how they are resolved. Personalizing characters – including secondary and tertiary characters – by endowing them with hopes and needs and desires, with humor and feelings and actions that show their essential humanity, whatever the circumstances, can help us avoid writing them as “other” or in ways that perpetuate damaging false narratives.

the boy in the black suit jason reynoldsFor example, while it is true that a family that struggles financially may have a more difficult time coping with other crises, it is possible to explore that reality without perpetuating cultural or racial stereotypes. The Boy In The Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a poignant story about a teen boy dealing with his own grief, and with his father’s unhealthy coping mechanisms, following his mother’s death. Beyond the richly detailed characters, the book is a wonderful exploration of how the boy’s urban, predominantly African American community includes many people who are compassionate and supportive, willing to help the family through the crisis, and who look out for the main character. The boy and his father emerge from the temporary crisis caused by grief stronger, closer, and with their remaining family unit intact.

With Personal Effects, I was writing about a family for whom a death was just the latest in the long line of crises, and even though the family unit survives the acute crisis caused by fresh grief, they still have much work to do to resolve the other conflicts and issues that remain. In contrast, The Way Back From Broken by Amber Keyser, How To Save a Life by Sara Zarr, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order) by Kekla Magoon all explore families dealing with grief exacerbated to varying degrees by other struggles, but families who, like that in The Boy In The Black Suit, are moving through the acute crisis by the end of the book, with largely healthy familial relationships for support. And sometimes the grief is not necessarily about death. Ari and his family are struggling with a sort of loss, one also marked by fear and anger, in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. And years after having first read After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson, I continue to think frequently of those characters, of their families, and of the different types of loss and grief the young characters face.

In preparing for that AWP panel, I rediscovered the first line of Anna Karenina. I’m not sure I agree that all happy families are alike, but the second part has stuck with me.  It might offer the clearest insight into why there are so many young adult novels about “bad” parents, “broken” families, and families in crisis. We write these stories at least in part because they are fertile fields for fiction, but also because teen readers face these issues daily, and too many face them in secret.

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About Author

E.M. Kokie is the author of Personal Effects, an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Adults selection. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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