Saturday, December 21, 2013

Remembering Ned Vizzini

Ned Vizzini died this past week at the age of 32. I have scanned Facebook posts and responses (and wish there was a sympathy icon instead of a “like”), scrolled through Twitter in tears, and poured through thoughtful and meaningful tributes from his friends and colleagues. Countless people have been touched by this loss, so I cannot imagine what I can add to the conversation. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine not writing about my interactions with Ned.

I met Ned Vizzini for the first time when I was supposed to be in class. To be fair, it was during a Young Adult Literature class online and I told my instructor I had to leave early. But what could be more relevant to our discussions about serving youth, raising readers, and the cathartic power of stories than hearing Ned Vizzini talk about his experiences in front of a group of teens? At Chicago Public Library’s Albany Park Branch Ned Vizzini drew our undivided attention as he talked about writing, the lives of teenagers that are “always scared, but ever hopeful,” and the importance of having “a love triangle and a fire” in a successful YA book. He was engaging, hilarious, and warm, able to connect equally with the teens in the room and the adult librarians who joined them. When I told him that I was studying to become a librarian as he signed my book, he was thrilled to hear that I was joining the field. He expressed his admiration for the work librarians do and was thrilled to be able to partner with them. I left this event walking on air.

The next time I met Ned Vizzini was at NCTE in Chicago. I stood in the long queue, waiting for him to sign a copy of It’s Kind of a Funny Story for a friend of mine, who was going through a difficult time in her life. When I reached the front of the line, I was shocked beyond belief that he remembered me from the Albany Park event.  Knowing how many people authors meet each year, I never expect them to remember me from one event to the next. But Ned remembered me, and it made all the difference to a shy, fledgling librarian. (Later, when I expressed an interest on Facebook in his latest book, The Other Normals, he emailed me, and we arranged for my friend and blogger, Nori of Nori’s Closet, to receive a review copy. This was a genuine attempt to make connections with a human touch.)

Ned had the incredible gift to make each person feel heard and appreciated, a tangible sweetness that made his stories even more powerful. By simply being himself, he inspired people in deeply personal ways. He spoke up about mental health, unafraid to talk about his own experiences in the service of helping others. As a talented writer, he could not only draw us into his stories with his trademark wit and humor, but made us empathize with his characters. Many can credit him with giving voice to the fears and pain they endured. Whether you have suffered from depression or know someone who has (because chances are, we all fall into either (or both) camp), his books help us feel that we were not alone. In the debates about YA literature, the important of encountering characters who mirror our experiences is now particularly poignant. During his keynote speech at NCTE, he spoke about what educators can do for teens who suffer from depression, which, like his books, now resounds like a painful postscript. Whether we show teens how to keep their antennae up, stop them from selling themselves short, or remind them that their stress is not a real threat, we can support them by simply being there for them. He showed us that the most important thing we can do is let our teens know that there’s hope.

But I also know that hope isn’t always enough.

In the first paragraph of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned wrote, “It’s so hard to talk when we want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed ice-dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”

These words carry so much more weight today. 

I will continue sharing his books with friends and patrons, people who need to read and talk about the most hidden parts of ourselves. Without judgement or stigma, it is up to us to speak up and provide support and resources.

And when I can make connection with someone or when I can make someone feel heard, I will think of Ned Vizzini.   

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