Can Books Be Our Safe Spaces?

As this year’s fall semester ramped up, so did the discussion of safe spaces. The term can take on different nuances in different situations but, at its core, a safe space is a place where anyone can feel free to express themselves without fear of retribution based on identity. Let’s use this definition from Safe Space Network to frame our thinking, here.

“A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. A place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.”

And safe spaces have caused quite a stir, especially among the academic community, with University of Chicago denouncing them as an excuse for students to avoid any ideas that don’t match their own. In the firestorm that followed, we’ve heard safe spaces both supported as critical for mental health and condemned as over coddling young people, or compromising freedom of expression.

But now, as our nation begins to navigate the fallout of Trump’s shocking election win — with hate crimes soaring, and members of every marginalized segment of our population fearing for their well-being under this new administration — the need for safe spaces has become more evident than ever before.

I can’t help but wonder, when physical safe spaces are hard to come by, whether our books offer us the sanctuary we need to begin moving forward.

Outlets from Book Riot, to Bustle, to the New York Times, have published reading lists to help us get through election 2016 — and cope with its results. For many, Harry Potter has reemerged as an immense source of both comfort and inspiration.

Similar lists circulated in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, the Paris attacks, and plenty of other tragedies we’ve witnessed in the very recent past. There are reading lists for college graduation, for divorce, for marriage, for death. You name the life event, and someone out there will offer you a book to help you cope.

When we don’t understand, when we can’t imagine, when we’ve lost control or we don’t feel safe, we turn to books to help us find our perspective and our strength. I’m convinced this is true for readers of all ages but primarily, and most intriguingly to me, young adult readers.

Admittedly, I’m nowhere near the first to think this way. A recent Publishers Weekly article about authors as advocates cited a study from the National Institute for Mental Health that suggests adolescents actually feel more intensely than young children or adults. It has to do with the way our brain circuitry is changing as we mature.

“One interpretation of all these findings is that in teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. Such a changing balance might provide clues to a youthful appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse — without regard for risk.”

So where an adult might be frustrated at a slight from a coworker, a teen is likely to feel devastated. Where an adult might feel embarrassed at underdressing for an event, to an adolescent the smallest social faux pas is the end of the world. And this extends to more serious issues: bullying, family dynamics, body image, sexuality, to name a few. And without a safe space to discuss and explore these hyper-intense emotions, it can be easy to feel like things are spinning out of control.

Fortunately, there’s another place to turn.

In a quick Google search on Young Adult Literature’s ability to help readers work through their changing environments, emotions, and perceptions, I was delighted to find not only countless anecdotal articles and essays, but several scholarly books on the educational power of Young Adult literature.

In The Critical Merits of Young Adult Literature: Coming of Age, Purdue English Professor Janet Alsup argues that the “increasingly complex narrative depictions of emotional, social, and cognitive change in teen protagonists can help teenage readers better understand themselves in a fast, turbulent world.” The book, a collection of essays edited by University of Oklahoma’s Dr. Crag Hill, unpacks everything from sexuality and gender nonconformity, to race, to poverty, and personal identity in today’s young adult canon.

The bottom line? Teens’ books offer them an opportunity to explore their hyper-intense emotions in a risk-free, judgment-free environment.

Here are a few examples, from my own growing-up years and from today’s recent titles:

  • Looking for Alaska, John Green — themes: fitting in, first love, depression
  • 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher — themes: bullying, suicide
  • Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson — themes: bullying, sexual assault
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Alejandro Saenz — themes: sexuality
  • All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven — themes: grief, mental illness
  • Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell — themes: abuse, body image, bullying, first love
  • Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie — themes: race, socioeconomic status

And teen readers aren’t the only ones who can find safe spaces in their books.

Plenty of literature for adults can offer the same opportunities to explore new situations and emotions.

In fact, York University psychologist Raymond Mar recently discovered, through an fMRI analysis, that the brain uses the same networks to understand stories as it does to understand and navigate real life situations, enhancing our ability to process emotions, empathize, and interact with others and our environment.

It’s as though our books offer us a practice run — a chance to process how we feel about ourselves and others, all without the risk of judgment, persecution, or consequence that comes with navigating those feelings in the real world.

It’s as though our books offer us a safe space whenever we need it.

None of this is to say we should forget about physical safe spaces but, perhaps, in the between spaces, our books can be the sanctuaries we need.

Do you have a literary safe space? Which books have helped you cope with major life events? Tell me about them in the comments!