Alyssa Sheinmel: Exploring Self-Acceptance in YA Books

Alyssa Sheinmel: Exploring Self-Acceptance in YA Books

Some of my favorite stories deal with the struggle to accept yourself. Perhaps so many YA novels (including my own) embrace this theme because so many of us struggle with self-acceptance as young adults. In fact, perhaps we’re drawn to stories about self-acceptance because most of us can relate. When I was writing Faceless, so many of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I was worried that readers wouldn’t be able to relate to Maisie. After all, a face transplant, though real, is a very rare procedure. Half my friends assumed I was working on a sci-fi novel! I couldn’t blame them: before I began researching and writing Faceless, I didn’t know anything about these procedures, either. Even Maisie, Faceless’s main character, balks at the idea of a face transplant at first. A face transplant can’t be a real thing, she thinks. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, a horror story, a mad scientist’s experiment.

But despite all that, I never worried that teen readers wouldn’t be able to relate to Maisie. Because while Maisie’s experience in Faceless may be singular, not looking the way you think you should look unfortunately isn’t.

And, stories of self-acceptance are limited to realistic fiction – at least, certainly not in the world of YA. Characters in fantasy and sci-fi novels can struggle to accept themselves as well. (Though perhaps the stakes are a bit higher as they also struggle to accept that it’s their destiny to save the world, that sort of thing.) Perhaps that’s why even the most fantastical story can be relatable – even though we’ve never faced a fire-breathing dragon or an evil wizard, we can still relate to our heroes’ struggles to come to terms with their places in the world, with who they’re growing up to be.

Of course, self-acceptance doesn’t begin and end when we’re teens, and maybe that’s why such stories aren’t limited to YA novels (and why some YA novels are so popular with grown-ups!). The relationship we have with ourselves is ongoing, a lifelong relationship that occasionally has to be nurtured and looked after. At the end of Faceless, Maisie is still coming to terms with the ways her life has changed. It’s not just her face that’s different: her relationships have evolved, her goals and dreams have shifted. But she also understands that things probably would have changed whether or not she’d needed surgery. Even if the accident had never happened, she would have changed and grown. And, accident or no accident, she might have struggled to accept that growth and change – just like the rest of us.