Monday, August 29, 2011

In Defense of College Books

Last Wednesday marked freshman move-in day and the start of Welcome Week at Indiana University, my alma mater. Today is the first day of classes at IU. My own freshman move-in day? TEN YEARS AGO. Holy crap. I remember moving all my crap into Read Clark-503, where I was by myself for a couple of days until my roommate arrived. My mom was a trooper all day, until the moment it was time for her to leave, and then she burst into tears (and I cried a little, too).

Kathleen, me, and Lindsay hanging out at Delta Gamma
(Kathleen's sorority house)
I was one of those kids who couldn’t WAIT to go to college. I started requesting brochures and dreaming about dorm rooms as a freshman in college. I looked at a million different schools, but fell in love with IU because it had a kickin’ journalism program and just looked like college. I applied in September of my senior year, was accepted in October (note to admissions offices: rolling admissions? BEST. THING. EVER.), and spent the rest of my year getting psyched up for what I just KNEW was going to be the best four years of my life.

Showalter Fountain ... yes, I swam in it. And yes, I was there for the 2002
NCAA victory over Duke, which took us to the finals. AMAZING.
Being a high school student who was completely enchanted by the college, I devoured all the books I could find set in college. There weren’t many, and definitely not many literary once. I definitely read as much of Sweet Valley University as I could stand (I actually started reading these in middle school, which I probably shouldn’t have, because they were SCANDALOUS). And of course, I was completely plugged into Felicity (still one of my favorite shows of all-time).

My sophomore year, buddies in McNutt, our dorm (that's me, 2nd from left)
And even though I’m long since past my college years (oh sad...), I still love books set in college. Commencement? Joe College? I Am Charlotte Simmons? The late Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books? Oh yes. I just wish there were more YA-focused books set in that first year of college. Unfortunately, every time someone brings it up, it seems the idea is instantly shot down. Apparently teens don’t want to read about college-aged characters (I don’t quite believe that), or those books belong in the adult section (see several of the books I mentioned above).
Ballantine Hall, where I had most of my classes
But I want them. I’m begging for them. And in fact, I want to write them. And I'm tired of people telling me these books have themes that don't fit into the YA market, that the characters' experiences would be too different front the experiences of teen readers. Well, if fiction is meant to be aspirational, then I think the themes of college-set books will appeal to every desire of your average 16-17 year old American teen. I think these books would do well in a YA market.

And here’s why:

Maximum freedom, minimum responsibility

My first year of college, I didn't work (I had a job every semester after those first two, but at the beginning I just focused on classes). I had no parents, no curfew, few rules (other than the ones imposed by my university) ... I could take care of myself in a very low-risk environment where most everything else was taken care of for me. What an exciting time, when you can just jump in your car and drive to Chicago on a Tuesday because there's a concert you want to see. 

The ultimate opportunity to reinvent yourself
You can move anywhere, and as a result, become ANYTHING. Join a sorority, take up a club sport, run for student government, become an RA, study harder, study less, party harder, party less, audition for a play, since in a coffee house, read some slam poetry ... pretty much anything you could want to be is available to you at college, and you can be it, because you've ditched all that rotten high school baggage. NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It's a truly amazing thing. Remember when Felicity cut her hair off? Yeah, I did that too ... I was watching Sliding Doors and fell in love with Gwyneth Paltrow's short haircut, so I went to the salon in town and hacked it off. 

A flashpoint for self-discovery
Remember when Rory Gilmore went to Yale, and we thought it would be all predictable and fabulous for her ... but (spoiler alert) then she was told she couldn't handle 5 classes, and that awful Mr. Huntzberger told her she was only fit to be someone's assistant and she nearly lost her shit and stole a yacht? Yeah, ok, that's a little extreme, but college is the place where you lose your future and rediscover it several times a week. I changed majors a several times, made new groups of friends, tried out new clubs, and left college with a life plan that bared very little resemblance to the one I had going in. And hey, look at me now ... it all worked out, I think!

I loved my four years at IU (so much, that I earned a master's there, too!). Basketball games, late nights in the dorms, Little 500, parties, good friends, laying in the Arboretum, and all the amazing food in Bloomington ... I'm going to stop short of saying they were the best years of my life, but they were pretty damn good. College really CAN be SUPER DUPER AMAZING FUN. This is why Greek ran for FOUR SEASONS, and was hysterical all the way up until the end.

The Student Building in the Old Crescent at IU


Miranda Hardy said...

I went to IU, too, but not the Bloomington campus. My daughter is looking forward to her college experience now, even though she is a high school sophomore. She's excited about it all.

Giles Hash said...

I agree: I think a lot of young adults want to read books about men and women between the ages of 18 and 26. You know, college students. Heck, I would love to read and write books about characters in that age range and stage of life.

But that's just me :)