The Way of Experience


Readings converge, as they so often do.  I’ve just previewed a novel-in-verse Every Little Bad Idea, a debut by author Caitie McKay.  The poem above immediately sprang to mind and triggered a connection with an excellent analysis of neuroscience research in Sarah-Jane Blakemore’s fascinating and readable Inventing Ourselves The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

McKay uses the good-girl-chooses-bad-boy trope when she writes about high school junior Skyler Ann Wise, smart and focused on her future —that means college— who has thus far avoided the pitfalls of normal high school life: parties, excesses, dating.  “Skyler Wise/ the ultimate prize./ Untouchable in every way.”  Her life has been carefully designed to avoid history repeating itself; her mother had Skyler in high school, after following a  “little bad idea” of her own: “From the very start/ your dad/ was a very bad/ idea.”  This mistake and subsequent abandonment when Skyler was a little girl is at the heart of their life together, but real love joins them.

As the novel begins, Skyler, urged by her best friend Layla, succumbs and attends her first party.  There she meets Cole, and the magnetism of first love pulls them together and her well-orchestrated life apart.  This story unfolds predictably— the growing deceit between mother and daughter, the deepening bond between Skyler and Cole, the rift between friends, the criticism from valued others.  Miss Anders, Skyler’s English teacher, who sees Cole drop Skyler off from her apartment building across the street and says: “You’re just such/ a good kid./ And he’s just/ not./ I always thought/ Miss Anders was/ the cool teacher/…But now, I think/ it’s me and Cole/ against Miss Anders.”

What is unique and effective is Skyler’s work in the NICU at the hospital.  She wants to become a doctor and is given a position to support these most fragile newborns despite her youth. “My new job is to hold/ the babies/ who are too tiny and weak/ to take home.”  The trust and respect she’s earned, her relationship to these infants adds dimension to Skyler’s character.

In Inventing Ourselves, Blakemore discusses the differences between the parts of the brain that are activated in teens as compared with adults in highly charged emotional “hot” situations.  There is no “hotter” context than first love.  Skyler’s mother is operating on her stored experiences, on her history.  Many novels depend on this brain difference.  When in the throes of love, her mother’s admonitions means little to her daughter, just as it is highly unlikely that the poet’s reference in “The Romantic Age” (above) to Romeo and Juliet, “Remind her how that one turned out,” will yield any instant wisdom.  Though there are some heartening conclusions in Blakemore’s book regarding helping adolescents avoid risky behavior such as drinking, smoking, and unhealthy eating, she avoids the topic of love altogether.

Fortunately for young adults there are authors like Caitie McCay who are prepared to wrestle with the conflicts that love engenders.  Her verse and the first-person narrative enable her to do so in an engaging way for a teen audience.  Love will remain fodder for young adult authors, and in its demise, a saner and more experienced teen.  As McCay writes:

Mom Says It First

I’m sorry, baby girl,

I know I need to

let you fly.

I know I need to

keep an open mind.

I know I need to

let you make

your own mistakes.


I’m sorry, momma.

I know I need to

be more honest.

I know I need to

be more careful.

I know that I need

you now more than






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