Saturday, December 4, 2010

Talking Health to Teens: Narrative Medicine and YA Literature

Stories are good medicine. It's the name of this blog. It's my firm belief. It's the question I always end my author interviews with ("are your stories good medicine?"). And ultimately, it's what ties together all my identities. As someone trained in pediatrics and public health, working in 'narrative medicine'/'medical humanities', as a parent, as a writer of essays, creative nonfiction, articles, and now, most recently, middle grade and YA fiction.

Stories are good medicine.

Stories are fundamentally the way we human beings make sense of the world. They are the way we interact with one another, and the way we make sense of ourselves for ourselves. Who am I? What happens next? How do I understand what happened before? These are all questions fundamentally rooted in stories.

Stories are also about power. Whose story counts? Who owns the story? What voices or stories go unheard? As someone also committed to issues of social justice, health, and embodiment, these are questions that often drive much of my thinking. Because, as 'nice' as we think stories are, as good that word makes us feel, ultimately, stories can also silence other stories - less 'neat', socially acceptable stories, stories from marginalized communities, stories that challenge the social power structures as they stand - the status quo.

For those of us who are teachers, clinicians, parents... stories are a critical way to engage young people around issues that may be difficult to otherwise bring into the light of day. Stories about difference, about violence, about suffering. In this way, stories are the first step in not just a shared consciousness, but in activism. We only have to remember that social movements from the Civil Rights movement to the 1970's feminist movement were rooted in the personal to political connection that enacted stories can make.

Recently, I wrote about how the 'it gets better' project began by Dan Savage and now taken up by many - from the ACLU to the youth pride chorus - has enacted change by trying to change the narrative of what it means to be an LGBTQ youth in this country. But, this is another case of how stories - no matter how well intentioned, no matter how powerful as agents of change - can still silence other stories. As important as this project has been, equally important are critiques of the 'it gets better' project as privileging a white, upper middle class narrative of social success while silencing other narratives, stories of teens of color, stories that don't involve economic success, etc.

I'm going to talk about the 'it gets better' project and its many complications this week in a class about narrative medicine at a teacher's college. I'm also going to use Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak as a text that shows how important speaking may be - but how a young person's silence is sometimes the most powerful story of all.

What are other texts I should go to? Stories about health, embodiment, medicine in the most broadest senses? Here are some YA novels I thought about:

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (about eating disorders)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (about biotechnology and the question of what is human)
The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time by Mark Haddon (written from the POV of someone possibly with Asperger's)
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (national book award winner this year, about a narrator with Asperger's)
Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBride Johnson (disability based narrative)

Anyone have some other suggestions?


  1. Have you read Saving the World by Julia Alvarez? Not a YA book (although she writes for children as well as adults)...but it twines two stories together -- a contemporary one about the narrator and some eco-terrorism stuff going on literally in her back yard...and the story of the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to eradicate smallpox. THe latter focuses on the nun and the orphan boys who were used to transport the vaccine live in their bodies. It isn't the best written book; however, it might have examples you could use for your class as far as stories and the "have nots" whose stories end up silenced -- or altered -- by the "haves".

  2. There was a YA book I read a while back called "Under the Wolf, Under the Dog" with a main character who's dealing with some rough psychological consequences of, if I remember right, his mom's death. I can't say for sure whether it would fit your talk, though. Just remember it was really really good. There's also Break by Hannah Moskowitz...not my favorite, but it's certainly about mental health and it concerns the body.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations! I've read neither book! Let me know if any more occur to you!

  4. oo just remembered that of course Libba Bray's "Going Bovine" is a fabulous examination of life, death, dying... all wrapped up in a re-visitation of Don Quixote...

  5. You Don't Know Me by David Klass is an excellent book on physical/emotional abuse.
    I haven't read it yet, but Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, from the point of view of an intelligent girl with cerebral palsy who's unable to communicate at all with those around her, is supposed to be quite good.

  6. OO thanks de Pizan, don't know either book...