books, Young Adult fiction

Discussion: Presenting What We See Versus What We Hope For In YA Fiction

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So, last night we watched the movie version of “Everything, Everything,” and while I haven’t read the book (and realistically, I wouldn’t, because it’s a contemporary and a romance and I don’t read those), I’m certainly capable of reading reviews and finding out if the book was different from the movie.

Now, after doing some research, I have a bunch of “interesting” thoughts to share. (Cue a big rant.)

Alert: Massive spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I will ruin it all for you. Hey, at least I warned you.

Okay, here is the premise of the story: Meet Maddy, nearly 18 and stuck in her house, because she has an autoimmune disorder, meaning that she’s allergic to the world (and, yes, this is a real, complex condition). Her mom is a doctor, she gets all her treatments at home, via a visiting nurse, and she takes online classes. Then one day a lovely young lad moves in next door, and attraction happens, and of course they try to find ways to have a relationship in spite of Maddy’s situation.

(My first thoughts as we watched the early scenes of the film were comparisons to an episode of the TV show “Scorpion,” but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

Maddy’s mom is super overprotective — yet, can you blame her? The mere fact that her daughter will probably get pneumonia just by going outside and being exposed to germs would be enough to make most parents in those circumstances overprotective. However… This is where the spoilers start. As the movie progresses, you begin to get the idea that something is up.

You never see any of the medicines Maddy must have to take. You never see a list of her food restrictions, which there must be. She doesn’t have an oxygen tank or an epi-pen or protective medical gear anywhere in her house. All the nurse has to do, apparently, before examining Maddy, is wash her hands. This does not seem to make much sense.

The episode of “Scorpion” I mentioned earlier had a girl “in a bubble” — the poor thing was so autoimmune that she wasn’t allowed human contact (they had to wear those CDC suits to get close to her), her room had to be temperature controlled, she couldn’t be in direct sunlight, etc. From the criticisms I’ve read of “Everything, Everything” it sounds to me like “Scorpion” has the more accurate portrayal.

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Well, there is a very good reason for this — SPOILERS DON’T GET BIGGER THAN THIS — it turns out Maddy isn’t actually sick at all. Her mother is a complete whacko who has been keeping her daughter trapped in a clean house, because after Maddy’s dad and brother died suddenly, she couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to Maddy.

Now, from a writer’s point of view, this is an incredible twist, and as a viewer/reader, I thought it was such an impactful choice for plotting. And I thought that the ending — Maddy abandoning her mother after she learns the truth, to go live the life she’d never had and deserved — was perfect.

But on the other side of the coin, I was also furious. To say that what Maddy’s mother did was unethical is merely the tip of the iceberg. Not only should she lose her medical license and go to jail, but it would also be fitting for Maddy to never speak to her again. And for someone to start a foundation for kids who really do have the autoimmune condition that crazy witch faked for Maddy. (If I was the author, that’s what would’ve happened.)

I can see why this novel has garnered extreme criticism from people who actually are ill with what Maddy is supposed to have. It’s like this story is trivializing such a serious medical issue because, surprise!, Maddy’s in fact healthy and can just run out of her house to go live a normal life. Although I imagine this was not the author’s intention, I can totally understand how this perspective could be misconstrued. And I get why it would make people mad.

As White Fang and I watched the movie, we kept expecting something to happen to Maddy, basically that she’d quickly pass away, and we were ready for that to be the ending. And the point would be, “Hey, she took a chance and died with no regrets, and hopefully her mother would see that.” (And for anyone who has issues with that, yeah, I get you, too.) But for the big reveal to be what it actually was…

Well, that makes me bring up this: Why is it that the parents in YA fiction always have to be such complete !@#$%^&*. (You can mentally fill in your impolite word of choice there.) This story is a MESS on steroids when it comes to the adults. Maddy’s mother is certified mentally unstable. Olly’s father is drunk and a wife-beater, and his mom is too afraid to leave, so she stays in a situation that threatens her own kids’ safety. Maddy’s nurse — well, the movie didn’t make it clear whether she knew the truth or not, but if she did, OH MY GOD, why didn’t she tell Maddy and turn in Maddy’s mother to the authorities?!?! As a parent myself, I simply cannot imagine what the point is of having such horrific role models presented to the very impressionable audience of teenagers.

Yes, there are some adults in the world who are piss-poor examples of adults. I know that, but I don’t accept it. If we’re really going to teach our kids how to be decent adults, we have to give them good role models to follow.

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When did it become totally okay for fictional parents to be everything from low-key neglectful to downright vile, sub-humans, with none of the other characters calling the police, contacting Social Services, going to teachers or ministers for help? In real life, we tell kids all the time that if they’re being abused to go to a trusted adult. Well, how are they going to do that if they think there are no trustworthy adults?

When did it become the gold standard in publishing for 16-year-olds to have to save the entire world? I’m specifically thinking of dystopias like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, in which anyone over the age of 20 is a complete schmuck (or gets killed if they’re not). Compare this to Harry Potter, where the kids are indeed going forth to battle evil — but their parents and teachers are right there beside them.

There are major reasons I don’t read contemporary YA romances — this is one of them.

This is also why I write parents who care, who can be trusted, who make sure the kids finish their chores and homework and eat their greens.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. We need MORE adults like this in YA. Period.

Okay, rant over. Any thoughts, fellow readers and writers?

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8 thoughts on “Discussion: Presenting What We See Versus What We Hope For In YA Fiction”

  1. I haven’t read this book, but don’t plan to because I don’t like contemporary… or romance. I like your perspective on the twist, tho- I’ve heard bad things about it for the reasons you said, but agree with your point that it’s not inherently problematic.
    I also love that you see the lack of adults in YA. People talk so much about diversity in fiction, but there isn’t much diversity in age (at least among the ‘good guys’).

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    1. Apparently it’s a rule now that the parents in YA are always dead or morons, and the kids are definitely smarter. Since I’m a parent – now with a teenager – pushing that idea makes me really uneasy. I know it’s common for teenagers to feel that they are smarter than their parents (heaven knows I went through that years ago), but the perspective of a juvenile who still has lots of development and experience to obtain is not necessarily reliable, and should not be considered as the highest standard. It’s why I don’t write dysfunctional families, because we need to teach our kids that being responsible is cool.

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  2. Totally get why this would annoy you- personally I did like a lot of the book BUT I have to say a lot of this was different there. For instance, there was a whole process of the nurse coming in- it’s described in detail- *and* she had loads of food restrictions. Interestingly enough, this made the twist at the end (when she gets sick from going outside because her immune system is now so crappy after not being exposed to the world) actually make logical sense. I *did* however end up getting pissed off at the mother *especially* as it was all wrapped up to fast and there was no real resolution/punishment for her!! And in the case of the nurse I totally agree. Unfortunately there are situations where kids end up with no one to turn to- but in this case it’s totally far fetched that no one ever intervened here. (I can’t remember- but were the state just never aware of her existence?!) Anyway great post!!

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    1. As we watched the movie, I did wonder if the book went into more details that would set up the “lie” without giving Maddie too much reason to doubt. But as someone who has a cousin with Cystic Fibrosis, I just knew there were some things you *would* see in a house with a terminally ill person, and so the lack of those things jumped out at me. It’s possible that the moviemakers did that on purpose, to help get people to the big reveal, so I can see that for a stylistic plan.

      And I wondered if the book actually tackled what needed to happen to Maddie’s mother, or if it was glossed over. In the movie, I’m aware they might not have time, so, again, that doesn’t bug me. But if the book doesn’t address it properly, that pretty much means I am never reading it, or anything by that author. To me that’s just irresponsible writing, and not acceptable as a publishing standard. It *is* a contemporary, so the idea that Social Services or something would never get involved – when you knew there *had* to be records of Maddie’s homeschooling, etc. – just does NOT make any sense.

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      1. Yes that makes complete sense. Really sorry to hear that about your cousin. I do think it seems likely- since I vividly remember details like that being in the books (though of course memory’s tricky and I could be wrong).

        Unfortunately that was glossed over- I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s important to reach a stage of forgiveness when something like this happens, but that has to happen after the person has to deal with the consequences of their actions (it’s also always a bit of a slap in the face to victims of abuse/neglect when a book or piece of art goes down the “forgive and forget” route, pushing people to make up with relatives that may be harmful to be around- I’ve never liked that in stories and this is no exception). So yeah I do completely get what you mean- this was not the healthy way of concluding the story and like you said, I don’t think there’s any logic to it. (again, not to say Social services don’t miss things, but there’s no way that they could miss a fake illness- especially since they do checks on kids that are homeschooled)

        To be honest, I did really like this book, but saw the flaws in a lot of her reasoning. After reading her second book (which was basically propaganda) I’m sworn off her for life, so I don’t blame you.

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      2. Yeah, I CANNOT STAND when there are NO consequences for the actions of fictional characters. While there IS a chance that people would get away with it, it’s highly unlikely in most of the situations in these books/movies, so I feel the writers not tackling that part of the subject indicates they’re totally all right with the culprit walking away scot-free. And like you said, when we’re talking about victims of some sort of abuse, that is SO NOT OKAY, on a million levels.

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