YA fiction has often told the tales of historical trauma. It’s a powerful tool to provide a richer understanding of the past. It’s one thing to read in a history textbook about the Holocaust or 9/11. It’s an entirely other process to provide rich, literary experiences through books. While I revere history classes, literature can compound and elevate students' understanding of past events like the Holocaust or 9/11. Books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Jewel Parker Rhodes’ Towers Falling provide the human experience for young adult readers. As a professor of literacy that is exciting to me. However, there are some events that are rarely, if ever, discussed in our schools. Some are deeply personal to us as teachers. For me that would be the onset of the AIDS epidemic in America. While AIDS impacts us all on some level, for gay men of that time, the experience is wholly unique.
There is a lost nuance about the collective trauma that happened to gay men when coming out in the 1980s and 90s. It didn’t just come with fear of legislation and people’s aversion to us being homosexual. For gay men, it also came with people’s irrationality about HIV/AIDS. And for many gay men like me, that meant a great deal of doomsday thinking. A virus that was killing the men in my community at epidemic rates. So many deaths I can’t keep count. There was little to no information and similar to the debates of masks during the covid pandemic, debates on condom efficacy raged early on. The gay generation above me was fighting to stay alive, and sadly for many men my age today, we have no older generation to pave the path to aging as they died so young. All of this amounts to collective trauma. And while we are thirty-five years past that precarious time of my life, that time deserves to be represented, archived in a sense, and told. Repeatedly told to future generations.
One way we do this is through books for kids. Books about kids who were like me as a teenager who craved to see their identity, and equally as important, their experiences represented. For me, at the tender age of 51, that book is Destination Unknown by Bill Konigsberg.
Destination Unknown is the story of Micah who lives in NYC in 1987. He meets C.J. one night out dancing at The Tunnel (yes those of us a certain age will remember). CJ lives proudly and openly gay, and on the fringes of Micah’s Upper West Side life. Micah is your everyday 1980s teen who likes watching MTV, buying records and trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. But in this time, that means frank internal, and sometimes external, conversations about HIV/AIDS. The book is authentic to the experiences of being young and gay. Seeking love and first kisses. But in 1987, that meant seeing the devastation of the disease on the bodies of men in the community and to fear a disease that no one knew much about.
Konigsberg has crafted a tale so rarely told, and he told it expertly. I saw myself in Micah on every page. This book transcends generations. For gay men my age, it's a representation of identity and experience. For young, gay men, it’s a book of historical relevance. AIDS isn’t over. It may never be over. We live with it. But transmission rates, particularly in gay Black and LatinX communities has not declined with years of education. In fact, it has leveled, or worse, risen concerningly according to Wikipedia. The CDC data from 2021 shows that Black and Hispanic persons account for almost 70% of new diagnoses in the U.S. even though the groups account for only approximately 30% of the population. We all should be alarmed. We all should arm our young readers with information that can be woven through stories. Stories like the one Bill Konigsberg crafted.
This is but one example of how we can use YA books to bring to life past events for students born long after the event. We do this amazingly well sometimes with many world events; however, some events like the onset of the AIDS epidemic are uncomfortable to bring to life. As educators, we fear the uncomfortableness that comes with verbalizing words like AIDS, condoms, and gay. We should lean into that uncomfortableness the way we do with verbalizing equally as uncomfortable words like terrorism, Nazi, and concentration camp in our classrooms. There are many books to bring to light the AIDS epidemic past and present. Books like Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story and Camryn Garrett’s Full Disclosure. While AIDS impacts all communities, the events and trauma of the early days of the epidemic on gay men was devastating. That time deserves deeper discussions. Discussions that can come through books to tell the stories to help young readers make meaning of an event that happened long before they were born.
While it may seem strange to say that a book that has the AIDS epidemic at its’ center as a motivator, Destination Unknown is indeed motivating me. To see my identity, and my experience, represented is amazing. While that time in my life was filled with trauma, to see the trauma in print makes me feel seen. It brought to the surface so much of what I’ve buried through the years. It touched me as a young man who wanted nothing more than buying records, having my first kiss, and surviving an epidemic unique to my identity as a gay man. To know that this book can make an event in history more meaningful for my students is powerful. It is a book I can’t wait to share with young readers and see their conversations and answer their questions. I think the best place to start may be with the dedication that Bill Konigsberg wrote in this novel; To my friends who didn’t make it to the 21st century. I miss you.
Today's post is written by Roy Edward Jackson. He is an assistant professor of education at Goshen College and holds degrees in English, Education, Library Science and Creative Writing.