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