Monday, September 2, 2013

Is there a problem with YA Literature?

I have read some really good YA books.  But I am not in love with the current trend in "realistic" problems in YA lit.  To me they're not realistic, they're sensationalized.  I have teens, so I don't think I'm completely naive or out of  touch when I say that most teens do not drink alcohol, most do not use drugs, most do not party to excess, most are not sexually active, certainly most are not promiscuously sleeping their way through the attendance roster of their school, most are not being abused by a parent or family member, most are not involved in crimes that would make the headlines of the evening news.  However, judging from the titles that frequently fill the bookstore and library shelves these are the experiences that commonly fill the minds of young adult readers.

Why? Why this focus on the shocking and sordid? 

I found out this week that I am not the only one to ask this question.  In The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books, author and children's book reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon presents the argument that children's book have become too dark, too filled with the abnormal and sordid and this is having an adverse affect on children's hearts and minds.  She writes:
This is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.
Instead of writing to merely "validate the real and terrible experiences" some children face wouldn't it be better to offer literature that provided glimpses of a better world, where happy and hopeful experiences are possible?  Granted some children have had horrible, scaring tragedies in their lives, but as Gurdon wrote, "does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?" I think authors and publishers are doing young adults a disservice with this steady diet of blood, trauma, and dysfunction. 

I found Gurdon's article in Imprimis, it was adapted from a speech she gave at Hillsdale College.  She was invited to speak at Hillsdale in part because of an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal entitled, "Darkness too Visible."   The article caused a small firestorm in literary circles.

The question is, I suppose, do we have a right to limit what our teens read?  We make them eat veggies instead of a diet of candy and soda.  We limit their bedtimes, their TV time, and the amount of time they spend on the Internet.  We try to control the level of violence in the movies they watch and the video games they play.  So why shouldn't there be limits to what is appropriate in YA literature?  Why is it the wild west out there with parents having to preview every book?  Some parents just don't know what's out there.  They remember the "shocking" books of Judy Blume and think  that's what their teens are reading.  If only.

Librarians, of course, are caught in the middle.  As parents we might not love the content of the books on our shelves.  As librarians we've been trained to believe that the "freedom to read" is paramount.We give the customers what they want, that's what we do.  I'm glad I work in the Adult Department and not YA, because I am saddened by the offerings we deliver up to our youth.  And grateful that as a parent I have the knowledge and expertise to help guide my teens out of the darkness toward more uplifting fare. 

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