What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

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18 responses

  1. hello Siobhan…this is my first visit to your blog..and i really found it interesting…im sure going to keep coming back for a more thorough read…
    about this particular blog,i really like your approach.i think to know what is good,we must know what is bad!!! And i guess teenage is the best possible phase where we need to learn to differentiate between good and bad on our own!

    • Earthymind:
      This is a good point – seeing unpleasant things reflected in the books we read can help us learn how to deal with them in real life. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Agreed, but with two reservations: 1) when teens read nothing but dark stories, I worry. Their reading, one would hope, would have enough variety so that they get a more balanced diet of fictional or non-fictional reality. There is such a thing as wallowing in darkness, and let’s face it, teens can have that tendency. Darkness is, after all, more intense and dramatic than light or even shadow, and teens like adults really go for drama. And, 2) this is a good reason to have teacher-chosen selections. I can name plenty of novels and YA novels that are realistic, enjoyable, and have literary value but deal with subjects that ar less fraught.

  2. JB: When teens read nothing but dark stories, I worry too, but not about what they’re reading. I worry about what’s going on in their lives that is steering them toward such literature exclusively. And yes, I agree that introducing teens to books that are more positive can definitely be useful, as long as we show respect for their own choices as well.

  3. Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. In my experience, teens (and I’d have to say this begins in Middle School, or grades 5-8 in the US) who are perfectly normal can still end up reading all “dark” novels and stories. Just as boys that age are attracted by violent video games. The darkness/violence does have a grip on even the most well-adjusted (and I include myself!).

    The market produces such a large amount of darkness/violence, and much of it is so appealingly written, and with such an aim of sucking you in to the next installment, that I don’t wonder that young people end up reading/consuming an awful lot of it.

    • Yes, point taken – the most well-adjusted among us can be drawn to darker stuff. However, if a kid is happy and healthy, I don’t think I’d worry too much if he/she went through a phase of reading a lot of disturbing fiction. That said, I’m not sure I’d be as relaxed about violent video games…so that gives me something to think about.

  4. I don’t worry (or not too much) that the dark stuff will make a happy kid unhappy or afraid; I do worry that there is an opportunity cost — all kinds of other stuff passed up in order to get to the most attention-getting themes. And I also worry that very challenging situations become the default themes. Teenaged girls, in particular, have a tendency to seek peer attention by presenting themselves as the center of dramatic situations. There can be a feedback loop that rewards them for amping up the drama in their own lives (which are often quite dramatic enough even withouth this assistance, as we know). It is a life skill to be able to find stimulation and reward in situations that are not outwardly dramatic. Maybe my years of experience with Middle School and younger high school-aged girls gives me this perspective, while you’re dealing with older teens who have come through that phase.

    On the video game issue — yes, absolutley, there is much more to worry about there. And, the violence video game habit persists later into adulthood than I ever imagined would happen.

  5. I think what people enjoy reading about in these stories is HOW the hero/heroine FEELS about whatever situation is presented in the book, and HOW the hero/heroine ends up dealing with the problems. Hopefully, in most of these books, something positive comes out of the ending in terms of the character’s personal growth.

    Lynne Diligent, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor
    expattutor.wordpress.com

    • I agree, Lynne. As a child who felt alienated a lot of the time, I took great comfort in books that described emotional difficulties and characters who made bad choices, as it made me feel less alone; I suspect most readers are the same.

  6. The one thing about this article that I found outrageously offensive, so far has not been pointed out. In the suggestions of suitable readings on the side of the article, Ms. Gurdon has split her recommended books into “books for young men” and “books for young women”. Beyond that, every book that she has suggested for girls has a female protagonist. This type of thinking is horrendously old-fashioned and, quite frankly, rather ridiculous. There should be no difference in the books that young men and women are reading other than the differences presented because of personal taste and preference. However, it is made clear through her article that that is not something Ms. Gurdon believes teenagers should be allowed to have. This entire article is faintly ridiculous and the offensive recommendations make it even worse.

    • My instinct is to be offended by that too, AM, but to be honest, when I put together my reading lists I find myself thinking quite specifically about books that might appeal to girls and, especially, boys. A lot has been written about how boys are often alienated from reading in primary school because the majority of primary teachers are women and they assign books that they like and that they liked as little girls. In some of my courses, students choose books from a list; I try to balance between male and female authors, protagonists etc. and I find there are definite trends in the boys’ and girls’ choices. So as a teacher, it’s a reality I have to be aware of if I want to reach all my students.

  7. Hi,
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed. I’ve been looking for other teachers. My masters degree specialized in YA lit– happy to supply some titles /authors for you. I wrote about William Sleator just recently. Not all my posts are about education, but it seems to creep into a lot of topics!

  8. Hello! I am so glad to find your blog. I also teach college courses, one in humanities and one in music. I am always trying to improve my teaching. I also have four children, all of whom I have schooled at home at one point or another. I love literature and I love the power it has to change lives. You will not get that with “feel good” literature where everything is wrapped up perfectly at the end. For sheltered young adults (like my kids), literature provides a way for them to develop empathy and understanding of experiences outside their reality. For kids who are struggling, I would imagine that reading about others’ problems and how they often rise above them would be empowering. My rule for literature is to avoid garbage. To me, garbage is stuff that is poorly written or that actually endorses immorality or that does not show consequences. You mention Twilight….great example. I don’t care for the messages of that either. But take Kite Runner, 1984, Night, Life of Pi….these books are examples of literature that tackle problems and at the same time make a real and lasting impact. I will be following your ideas…..thanks!

    • Damommachef: The condition that literature has to not only tackle problems but must also show consequences is an interesting one – I’ll have to keep that in mind as I put together my reading lists!

  9. I’m wondering, what are the top-10 or so books that you recommend for young adults, from your experience as a teacher?

    I’m 19 yrs/o and I love reading, mostly nonfiction. My reading list is almost 400 books long because I just dump anything in there that looks interesting. I usually find books via others’ reading lists: Tucker Max (who is actually a pretty smart guy), Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Anthony “Dream” Johnson, and any author or personal friend that recommends a book.

    From your experience, it would be interesting to see what you think is best for young adults. I’ve looked thru your archives briefly but didn’t see anything like this.

    Thanks for this blog. It is fascinating.

    my to-read list: http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/2127724?shelf=to-read

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