I’m an anxious person. So are a lot of the teen characters in the novels I’ve edited. It makes sense; the teen years are fertile ground for anxiety. So much is beyond your control, even as you feel a pressure to take on greater responsibility. The present is a mess; the future is a terrifying unknown; and if you’re paying attention to history, the past is distressing too!
This summer, as our present continues its spiral of chaos and the future threatens even more upheavals and the past rears its head with reminders of unhealed wounds, I’ve often thought about my teen self. High school was when I first began to grapple semi-constructively with uncertainty, with the limits of what I could control, with the reality that horrible things happen in the world, and with fears that one of those horrible things was about to happen to me or to a loved one. I continue grappling with all this, much more constructively, as an adult, but my teen experiences are still vivid in my memory.
That’s why I find Sarah Scheerger’s young adult novel How to Live on the Edge so compelling. Cayenne, the eighteen-year-old protagonist, is nothing like Teen Me (and nothing like Teen Sarah, she’ll be quick to tell you). She deals with her fear of dying young—as her mother did—by courting danger and making light of risks. She treats her anxiety like an enemy to be spited, even imagining a personification of death whom she names Lorelei and takes great satisfaction in baiting.
Her younger sister, Saffron, is much more like Sarah and me: eager to pin down her anxiety with plans and information and backup plans and caution and even more backup plans. In one of my favorite moments in the novel, they both drag their father for alluding to the serenity prayer—Cayenne because she hates the idea of taking responsibility for what she can control, and Saffron because she hates the idea of letting go of what she can’t control.
But gradually, each sister is forced to reconsider her outlook. Cayenne realizes that to truly live her life to the fullest, she has to do what she can to protect her life by making safer, healthier choices. Saffron accepts that no matter how carefully she makes her decisions, she can never guarantee a good outcome or eliminate all risk.
And so it goes. Today’s teens are standing on their own precipices, weighing the choices they have, mourning or raging against the ones they don’t. They’re shaped by the past, navigating a complex and often painful present, and bracing for a future full of question marks. I hope some of them will find Cayenne and Saffron to be welcome company.