You’re Allowed to Feel: Guidance from Characters in YA Fiction

Since we started dating four years ago, my boyfriend and I have wanted to take a trip to Baltimore. The National Aquarium for him, Edgar Allan Poe’s gravesite for me, and restaurants that serve good quality crab cakes for the both of us. With art museums and a massive Barnes and Noble bookstore to fill the time between visiting major hotspots, spending a few days in a new city together would make for an excellent getaway. In order to afford to go on this trip with little financial concern, we made the collective decision to forego Christmas, birthday, and Valentine’s day gifts this year. The trip was scheduled for April during my break from teaching, giving us both the opportunity to reconnect and enjoy new sights and experiences together.

 This trip is one of many that has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Since the news of school closures, business hiatuses, and implementation of social distancing, I have witnessed countless milestones slip between fingers of those I love. I have comforted high school seniors who will not attend prom after spending hours shopping for a dress. I have read angry tweets from college students who cannot risk walking at graduation having already reserved restaurants for their families to attend after the ceremony. There are expectant mothers whose baby showers have been cancelled, betrothed couples whose weddings are being postponed, countless dollars in deposits evaporating into thin air. COVID-19 is greedy and aggressive, swallowing events whole, including most heartbreakingly the funerals for those who have been victims of its cruel, unyielding grip. 

Like most people whose lives have been disrupted by this virus, I am angry. I’m annoyed that I had to cancel my trip. I am irritated by the uncertainty of how long this might last, how many concrete plans that have regressed to become ideas sketched in pencil, liable to be erased at any moment. I am plagued by the anxiety that accompanies the unknown. And, at the same time, I feel guilty. I feel terrible because complaining about missing out on crab cakes seems trivial in the wake of such mass devastation.  

At times of distress and uncertainty, I turn to books for comfort, often seeking wisdom in their pages. I’ve read enough dystopian literature to know that what’s happening outside our windows is similar to the trials many beloved characters have faced. Thomas, the main character of The Maze Runner series, devotes his life and body to finding a cure for a horrific disease, even if that means facing both physical and emotional challenges. Jonah of The Giver takes on the memories of the entire world’s hardships, existing as the sole person in society who can understand the concept of “war.” Katniss Everdeen faces The Hunger Games more than once, and while people are murdered around her, other emotional turmoil arises as a result of her conflicting feelings about Peeta and Gale.

I remember when I first read The Hunger Games, I was outwardly critical of Katniss’ emotional affair with her two male friends, as many other readers and watchers of the film were. My anger festered as I turned the pages, as she casually moved back and forth between relationships, her own feelings unclear to the reader, and presumably herself. I would close the book at the end of a chapter, sigh, and wonder, how can she be worried about that right now? It took my own pandemic, living in the plot of a dystopian novel, to answer that question even though it should be obvious.

She is human.

We all are. We are dealing with the aftermath of a continuous tragedy, and we are allowed to be upset. The human capacity for emotion allows for more than one thing at a time, so yes, I’m grieving for a friend who lost her father, for my elderly neighbor who lives alone, for class time I don’t have with my students, and for the loss of a trip to a new city to eat crab cakes with my significant other, and I’m trying to figure out how all of that is possible.

Another book I turn to for solace is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I read it in high school, and it has stayed with me for a decade because it is the first book that made me fall in love with reading. I often return to its pages for guidance, seeking advice from Charlie’s letters. A quote from that book that I often think about is one I think we can all learn from: “Even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.”

Right now, we all have what we have. We are mourning the change in the universe, the way life used to be, the number of lives that were snuffed out too early. We have anger and anxiety and fear and sadness and love and passion and connection and separation all at the same time. We can be grateful for our loved ones, the food in the refrigerator, the sunshine through the clouds. We can be upset about broken plans, allow ourselves to grieve missed opportunities, and remember that whatever we feel, it is okay.

We are human, and we are doing the best that we can.

IMG_3097Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in Creative Writing and her MAT in Secondary Education. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. Her work can be viewed or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, the Brevity blog and The Nightingale. 

3 thoughts on “You’re Allowed to Feel: Guidance from Characters in YA Fiction

  1. Kingston Lim says:

    For those of us blessed not to have been directly impacted by the virus (us or someone we know getting sick), I think we’re all at least a bit irked. Which is normal being in the best case scenario we have been inconvenienced.

    I’d like to think when life deals lemons we make lemonade. One day we’ll laugh as a canceled trip is minor in a macro sense.


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