Why YA Matters

Yesterday, the WSJ published a (lazy, badly-written) article on how young adult fiction (YA), by virtue of addressing topics such as rape, incest, violence directed towards gay people, and swearing is gratuitous and bad. Why, asks the pearl-clutching author, should we be allowing kids to read this? Why do librarians celebrate banned books?

Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.

She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

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.

Librarians celebrate banned books, and teens read things that are violent or sexual, because parents like the woman who was apparently so stupefied that that she could not flag down a sales associate to help her and authors so pearl-clutchy and condescending that they address their (presumably adult) audience as “dear” exist.

Because those people? Those people are not helping their children when their friends start cutting or they are sexually assaulted and have no one to talk to because their parents are judgmental or because they don’t know how to deal with their friends who are coming out or having sex or being mean to them.

Those people are the reason that their kids are unable to talk to adults about these sorts of things, and I know that because I was the sort of kid who these peoples’ kids came to when that shit happened. I got to read.

There is a hashtag on Twitter going around–#YAsaves. I’ve been retweeting things from it, and contributing some myself, but I thought I’d share my experiences with the genre in more than 140 characters. I was a smart, nerdy kid who grew up in Tulsa, OK. My teachers siphoned me off into advanced reading groups where they just gave me the books that they loved. I got a library card, and sought out adults who’d help me find good books, and got encouragement from my librarians to enter a poetry contest that I won. I looked at places beyond Tulsa.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond let me see a part of my country’s history that no one wanted to talk about. A Wrinkle in Time reassured me that self-conviction and a dedication to my family was worth something. The Dragonriders of Pern, with its genetically-engineered dragons, got me interested in science. Harry Potter taught me and everyone else in my generation that adults are not always right, and faithfulness and intelligence are just as useful as bravery, and that no one is as good alone as they are with friends. Ender’s Game made me think–really think–about other cultures” perspectives and it is part of why I am an anthro major. Bridge to Terabithia was the first book to make me cry, and the first to make me think about what it is to be a good parent. A Summer to Die made me think about how it is possible to recover from a terrifying tragedy, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s books made me better in a crisis. A Series of Unfortunate Events made me funnier and showed that even smart people with the best of intentions can sometimes fail each other, and that no schism is black and white because most people are trying to do the right thing.

YA made me sympathetic to the other weird kids. It told me to try to be nice, and to learn from my mistakes rather than dwelling on them. It told me that sometimes people are mean or petty, and there’s nothing I can do about that except try to be better than that and apologize when I’m not. It told me that the kind of journalists who segregate reading lists by gender probably have their heads wedged incredibly far up their asses and that I should probably ignore them. It taught me to think about problems, and to enlist my friends, and to consider other people. It taught me to stand up for things I believe in.

The article is lazy. It quotes no teen readers, because the kind of people who refuse to acknowledge the depth of teen experience are the kind of people who want to ban books, and who don’t value the opinions of those they’re shielding from things that are already happening–whether it’s rape or cursing. The article is poorly-written. It does not mention the title of an actual book until six paragraphs in. The article is a straw-man argument. Quoting the most graphically sexual YA is not representative of the genre any more than an article about adult fiction composed only of quotes from the Marquis de Sade.

Most infuriatingly of all, the article ignores the tremendous good that young adult fiction does for its readers at a time and place in life where it seems like no one listens to them or takes them seriously. Bad things happen to people, even young people, and books show them that there is some part of their world that is in their control. At a time of life where you can be moved across the country, or abused by people bigger and louder than you, and where your every move is controlled by teachers or parents or school administrators, books are something young adults can choose.

YA books may show a world better or worse or identical, but the important part of the books is that they show a world where kids are taken seriously. That’s why YA matters.

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4 thoughts on “Why YA Matters

  1. Perfectly nailed it.

    And wow. Just read the article – impressive. Angry. Using big words and perfect grammar to sputter a lot. And dead wrong.

    For the past ten years I’ve been part of an organization working to give elementary-aged kids living in poverty the opportunity to build home libraries – short version, they get to choose and purchase new books every month of the school year.

    We do end-of-year surveys asking them what they like and dislike about reading, and annually get a thousand or so responses – and this from 10-12 year olds – talking about reading letting them travel, explore, get curious, be less scared when bad things happen, meet new people, make a quiet place in their minds, learn to be a better person, calm down when they’re mad, etc. Some of those kids are talking about reading the classics, sure, but a lot are talking about Captain Underpants, Goosebumps, and vampires.

    I have no patience whatsoever with the ‘kids are reading trash instead of quality literature’ argument – for all the reasons you listed so well, and because if you’re interested in it, you’ll read it; and if you read it, you’ll learn something new AND probably pick up another book when you’ve finished the first, AND get better at reading. If Desmond Tutu can learn English via comic books (and he did), I think our kids can spend some time reading ‘trash’ and survive quite nicely.

    That doesn’t quite address luridness, but in the end that’s what she’s upset about – books she thinks are trashy. She just chose a few of the more graphic examples to make her point.

    One last bit of my own soapbox: a million bucks says her version of a proper education is heavy, heavy, heavy on skill and drill and standardized tests, especially for the lower-scoring students. I have no idea how such people ever think they can teach a nation of kids to read fluently, curiously, and excited for a lifetime of it without giving them plenty of access to books that interest them, and the time to read those books. Attacking the whole frickin’ genre is about the most ridiculous, irresponsible, and ignorant stance possible. Talk about shrieking and flinging your petticoats around! You WANT them reading, eejit, remember?

    Makes me hope the article was a brilliant ploy with reverse psychology as its centerpiece. But won’t hold my breath for it.

    I had no idea this was going on until I saw your post – thanks. Hope you posted it in the article’s comments section or the equivalent, because it’s great.

    • Thank you for your very kind words!

      I’m glad to know that my experiences with YA are supported by those who are still in the age bracket (I’ve just barely aged out–I’m 20–and most of my reading in the genre was ages 10-14). It’s frustrating to me, because even the lurid YA is almost the only genre that across the board stresses resilience in the face of adversity and focus on friendship rather than romance. Even Twilight, which is awful on many levels, involves a portrait of a close-knit (albeit undead) family. These are the sort of things you want to stress to children and young adults.

      The comic book thing is a great example. It’s an art form that people tend to ignore because they’re uneducated about it, but even the least-nuanced comics are about the triumph of good people over those who hurt others, and that’s worth something. Really well-done comics can be American mythology (Sandman) or can address the issues of grey morality (Batman: Year 1). And they inspire great literature–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is all about how pop art helps minority groups find their own experiences reflected in the media, through the lens of American Jews and gay men in the 1950’s.

      You’re right about her judgement of trashy books. She seems to be bothered by the idea that students are reading books with graphic sexual, abusive, or violent content because of the trash factor, but she appears to be attributing it to kids getting off on violence. She’s got her head stuck so far in the sand that that’s her reason, rather than because the books depict situations that kids can either relate to or are experiencing vicariously if their lives are untroubled but, for example, their friends’ are not. There was a great critique of the article on Twitter which said that it was incredibly privileged, and I think that that’s correct. The author is focused on this idealized, trouble-free teenaged experience which is sadly not the reality for a lot of the people reading these books. It’s great if her childhood was–mine was too, for the most part–but our experiences are not the experiences of others, and I know that I at least grew up with friends who cut or were assaulted or had eating disorders. Just because my life was untroubled didn’t mean that that was true of those around me–even those who came from middle-class, loving backgrounds.

      Given that this is not the first time the WSJ has done this kind of reporting on YA, I suspect that they’re using it as linkbait, since the YA community tends to rise up en masse when this happens. It’s just a sad tactic, since it’s an artificial way to inflate page views for a publication that should know better. If the article was good, I suspect the YA community would have been just as vocal about it.

  2. Pingback: banning books ≠ "guiding what young people read" (or: the pitfall of nostalgia for teen innocence) | Patient, PhD

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