For those of you not entrenched in the book world (or at least dreaming of it and living vicariously through the blogosphere, like me), there’s been an uprising in defense of YA (young adult) lit over the past few days. Meghan Cox Gurdon of the WSJ wrote an article entitled Darkness Too Visible, a biting editorial on the content of modern young adult literature.
Obviously, the book world is up in arms about it, as am I. Here are the parts I really take issue with (because it would be wrong to post the entire article here):
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Well, you know, there are a lot of things that have changed in the last 40 years. And really, no matter what a parent can say, the world is different. Yes, the fundamentals of human emotion and experience are the same, but those same feelings are reached in different ways and through different media. It’s possible for adults to understand how teenagers today process their environment, but not probable. That’s not to say that teens are writing all of the YA fiction that exists, but those who are writing it have exited that stage of life generally within the last decade, and are more in tune with the existing struggles.
Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
You know what this says to me? This last paragraph walks the dangerous line between a harmless sentence and accusing YA writers of condoning acts of violence. The last time I checked, YA books aren’t about teaching their readers that it’s okay to live life without fear of consequences – but it is acknowledging the harsher world we live in now, to and with great effect. More people die untimely and violent deaths than in the past, more families are drained by all sorts of cash vampires, more teens are saddled with rising levels of responsibility than they ever have been. Why shouldn’t literature address this? Today’s YA lit is a reflection of the struggles that young adults face, rather than an acceptance of poor decisions.
I would guess that more YA books are banned in school libraries these days than are non-YA. Why? Simply because there are more of them. Because they target the youth, they’re automatically seen as acceptable – until they aren’t, by someone who wants to censor their children’s learning. Before we get in too deep, I don’t think we should just live in an anarchy of anti-censorship, but that’s not to say I agree with it, either – every person has his or her own rate at which he or she is capable of adjusting to the world that isn’t always there to protect.
But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. “I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,” the editor grumbled, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.”
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.”
Excuse me? I really don’t think it’s up to parents to dictate what their young adult children read. If they have concerns, a conversation is probably in order, but my parents never told me I couldn’t read a book. There are a few books that I had an extremely limited reading of because I didn’t really understand them, and my mom told me that was probably going to be the case, but I insisted. And look at me, I’m fine. I got a degree in reading, for crying out loud.
At the same time, she notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.
Notably, there are no actual teenagers quoted in this article, nor are there any statistical figures on the topic. Just some opinions and parental censorship quotes. While I do think parents have a dog in this fight, theirs is a small dog compared to those of the teenagers reading the books.
And obviously only a few of them owned up to it.
- Reading YA isn’t considered cool. It’s generally considered Twilight and Harry Potter, which it is not really.
- Let’s be completely honest here: how many of these teenagers are avid readers? In one class, it’s probably not too many. But we don’t have their answers in front of us to assess, so this is all rather a moot point.
- Another reason it isn’t cool to read YA? It does tackle tough subjects. A lot of YA readers find books that deal with their specific issues, and who wants to talk about their problems in high school? I didn’t, that’s for sure. And I had relatively zero problems compared to the rest of suburban high schoolers.
I’ve read some incredibly moving YA books in recent years – some of them far better than the “literature” I’ve read, too. Just because a book has a younger character set does not mean it can’t be meaningful for readers of all ages.
Both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are marketed as young adult, but are wildly successful with people of all ages. My brother has been reading them for a few years – he and I stayed up to read the last book together the night it came out five years ago, when he was seven and I was 18. Even now, we share books. We share books with my parents. Of course, we have different interests, but our main interest lies in good literature, no matter the target age.
And really, I think a lot of people could really use with reading some books that demographically target a younger age. If you’re reading this blog post, I would guess that you grew up privileged enough to have books in your home. You learned to read at an early age and have thoroughly enjoyed reading since. (If this isn’t you, I’m not sure how you stumbled upon my blog, but I suggest you go back where you came from and take a book with you.) You probably grew up reading Maurice Sendak, developed into The Phantom Tollbooth, and worked your way into the Penguin classics.
Have you looked back at those books since?
I reread The Phantom Tollbooth last year for the first time since I was a little girl, and I realized how much more there is to it than I could have ever understood when I was younger. It’s a book of choices, of having to make the right decision, and learning what to do when you make the wrong decision, among so many other things. Sure, it’s covered in a fantasy setting, but that doesn’t make the lesson any less real, does it? You could say the same for any genre novel published “for adults.”
It’s rather funny that Gurdon bemoans the literature of today, wishing for the days of Judy Blume, when, in fact, Judy Blume is a staunch supporter of literary development and support for young adults.
And really, if you need more proof that YA Saves, go search the #YASaves tag on Twitter. Go Google “YA saves.” There’s been a tremendous outpouring of love for the genre, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It doesn’t get much better than that.