In Reader, Come Home, Dr. Marianne Wolf talks about reading a short story called A manual for cleaning women, by Lucia Berlin. Wolf recalls having trouble entering into the story, but then the last line — “I finally weep” — changes everything. Suddenly Wolf can imagine herself as this cleaning woman. She enters someone else’s story.
That’s what happened to me when I reread Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’d first read it between college and graduate school, and at the time could not identify with Jane. This time I could.
I also could not stop thinking about how Jane is the perfect YA hero.
Reading deeply led to researching (somewhat deeply) and then to writing deeply. I came up with a list of 11 characteristics of YA novels and why Jane Eyre is one of them.
• Teenage protagonist. The story opens when Jane is 10 and spends many chapters in her first years at Lowood School, but the bulk of the story takes place in her teen years, between 13-19.
• First-person POV. Back in 1847 a first-person POV from a young woman was radical. This whole story is I-driven, Jane-rendered. She addresses the reader multiple times, with the benefit of hindsight.
• Plot-driven. Stuff happens in YA. Jane’s story unfolds slowly by today’s standards because it’s 172 years old. But I remembered all the major plot points because they’re so compelling.
• Go dark or go home. The stakes are high in YA. The fate of the world hangs in the balance, or at least, the fate of our hero. The physical and emotional abuse Jane suffers at Gateshead is much more harrowing than I remembered. Lowood School becomes, in essence, a morgue. Mr. Mason suffers human bite marks on his skin. Starvation on the moor is rendered in pang-inducing detail. Also, fire; beware!
• Secret talent. For Katniss in The Hunger Games, it’s archery. For Jane, it’s drawing. Not only is she talented at bringing faces to life, some of her art is prophetic.
• Emotional truth. A YA story has to feel true, even if the reader shares nothing in common with the hero. I am not an orphaned English governess, but I feel Jane’s passion, her determination, her self-assurance, and her cluelessness.
• Tragic flaw. Jane considers herself insightful — and she is — except when it comes to understanding what’s right in front of her. She’s clueless about Rochester, while vividly describing every clue.
• Anything goes. This book simultaneously embraces Christianity and criticizes it. Jane balks at the hypocrisy of Mr. Brockelhurst of Lowood School, and she rejects St. John, who only feels pious when he’s gloomy and suffering. And when she is desperate, she says something pretty scandalous for the time: “I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose.”
• Sick burn. Many YA heroes are distinguished by their snappy retorts. Jane’s words usually cause other characters to judge her as mouthy and headed straight for hell. One of my favorite scenes is when St. John is trying to convince Jane that it is God’s will for them to marry and go to India as missionaries. Jane says she’ll go, but only as his “sister.” She refuses to marry him because he doesn’t love her. St. John objects that she’s giving God an imperfect sacrifice, and Jane comes back with, “Oh! I will give my heart to God…You do not want it.”
• Simple prose. This book does not always sound simple to our ears, but neither is it flowery. Another sick burn comes when Rochester asks her, “Am I hideous, Jane?” And she answers, “Very, sir; you always were, you know.”
• It’s the journey, silly. YA stories don’t always have happy endings, but they do end with the hero having grown, changed, or learned. Jane’s ending is remarkably happy, but she earns her happiness the hard way and on her own terms.
I don’t go this deep with every book I read. Frankly, not every book I read is worth it. But a book like this one, one that makes me imagine myself as a character I will never be, is like dressing up in someone else’s clothes and, for a while, making their story my own.
Hand in Hand: An American History Through Poetry, edit. Lee Bennett Hopkins, illus. Peter M. Fiore
Early Readers and Picture Books
Middle Grade and YA
Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset
1. What stories have you read that caused you to identify with a character, even one with whom you have nothing in common?
2. When is the last time you read something from the YA section of the library? (Hint: It’s not just for teens anymore.)
3. Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
4. Share your February pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reader, Come Home
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro