I have recently read and enjoyed Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (the first two of the five books in the Jessica Darling series) by Megan McCafferty. While perusing her biography on a fan site, I learned that a short story about Jessica Darling and her best friend Hope was published in an anthology called Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, which was also edited by McCafferty. "Awesome!" I thought, "I need to read that right away!" And I immediately hunted it down through interlibrary loan.
McCafferty's forward to the book really resonated with me. It begins, "Many readers have asked me why I wrote my debut novel about a sixteen-year-old girl rather than a character closer to my own age. There are a lot of answers to that question, from my obsession with books, movies, music, and TV targeted at audiences half my age, to the distinct possibility that I might have some (ahem!) unresolved issues about my high-school years." Yes, yes, and yes. I think I'm just going to memorize that answer and spit it back every time some asks me why I taught high school for 10 years, or why I constantly volunteer in teen-centered activities, or why I am now a teen librarian, or why I read mostly YA literature.
She goes on to explain why sixteen is "the make-or-break age" for many people, and to prove it, she quotes from many of the over 500 responses she received when she asked her fan list, "What does being 16 mean to you?" Sixteen eventually grew out of her inquiries. It is a collection of short stories from sixteen well-known young adult authors (Sarah Dessen, David Levithan, Sarah Mlynowki, and M.T. Anderson, just to name a few), all contemplating what that age means. McCafferty suggests that the work as a whole is useful to teens on the cusp of the age, but also to the adults who struggle to understand them.
With all of this in mind, I was prepared to LOVE this book. But much to my surprise, I found myself hating it. It did contain a couple of gems. Thankfully, McCafferty's "Fifteen Going On..." (the reason I got the book in the first place) was one of them. I also particularly enjoyed Sarah Mlynowki's "The Perfect Kiss" and Sonya Sones "Cat Got Your Tongue?" (which was written entirely in verse). But the rest of the stories, as a whole, left me feeling deeply disturbed.
I would never say that being sixteen--or being a teenager at all--is easy. But as I read this book, I felt like the authors were trying to one-up each other in the tales of teenage angst and horror. From the boy in the Wild West whose father forced him to go to a brothel to celebrate his sixteenth birthday ("Rutford Becomes A Man" by Ned Vizzini), to the anorexic girl who engages in sexual acts with both her drugged-out best friend and the friend's father (and makes allusions to having done the same with her own father before his death) ("The Grief Diet" by Emma Forrest), to the glorification of promiscuity and the criticism of Christianity ("Mona Lisa, Jesus, Chad, and Me" by Carolyn Mackler), to romance with a "dangerous" man three times her own age ("Venetian Fan" by Cat Bauer), to a group of deeply depressed teenage mothers with little disregard for their own future ("Nebraska 99" by Jacqueline Woodson).... well, there was very little hope to be found in this collection. Indeed, Jessica Darling's misery over her best friend's moving away is definitely as tame as it comes.
Frankly, I would NOT recommend this book to an actual teenager. While I realize that the teen years are, indeed, full of angst and many dark places, I felt that the collection of so many dark places in one slim volume was rather overwhelming. While I deeply respect these authors and their craft, the overall product is definitely not what one would expect from the cheerful, polka-dotted, car-key decorated cover. Readers proceed with caution.