I am way late to this particular dust-up but thought I’d weigh in anyway. Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece bemoaning YA (that’s young adult) literature as too violent, degenerate, disturbing, etc. etc. I might agree there are a few too many vampires — thank you, Stephenie Meyer! — but the notion that we’re damaging fragile young minds with upsetting content … oh, PUH-LEEZE.
Which is a point many others have made very well, mainly on Twitter through a hashtag called #yasaves (you don’t have to have a Twitter account to search it, did you know?). There has been a lot of response, from writers and others — accounts of the dust-up here and here and one I particularly like, by Linda Holmes from NPR’s blog Monkeysee, here (my favorite line: “I also took an entire class in high school where we read books about killing your family, double suicide, drowning, being murdered in your bed … it was called ‘Shakespeare,’ I believe.”). Another funny piece about trends in YA lit by writer David Lubar dating from 2002 is here. And now the formidable Sherman Alexie, whose YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was singled out for censure in the original essay, has responded in the WSJ.
Literature about adolescence, aimed at adolescent readers, often deals with turmoil. It’s a turbulent time of life, even if you’re not dealing with abuse, cutting, anorexia, vampires or other trauma. And that’s OK, even the realistic turmoil that is the most upsetting, in my experience. I still shudder when I think about the books that upset me the most as a young reader: The ones where they have to kill the animals (The Yearling, Old Yeller). Anything by John Steinbeck. One I can’t remember the title of for the life of me but it was about a family of kids were trying to stay in their house after their parents died; it was set in the ’30s, I think, and the oldest sister was being pressured to marry a creepy neighbor guy. All of these were assigned to me in my wholesome rural public school in the 1970s.
Like many of the commenters on this subject, I also read a lot of adult literature with graphic content when I was pretty young, like in junior high school — Fear of Flying,The World According to Garp, Wifey, other, various paperbacks I somehow got hold of at friends’ houses. I read The Outsiders, the book that the Wall Street Journal writer considers the founding text of this evil trend — and its sequel, That Was Then This Is Now. Conservative family types take note: that book effectively scared me off ever trying LSD.
And even though some of those books were disturbing and upsetting, I’m glad I read them. I would hate to have somehow made it to 18 thinking the world was the one depicted in Anne of Green Gables or Narnia or the Little House series — books I loved and kept reading as into adolescence, by the way. What a terrible shock it would have been, on reaching adulthood, to learn the terrible truth at such an advanced age.
This idea that childhood should be extended through adolescence, and kept in some kind of bubblewrap of niceness and good behavior is delusional and I don’t think you’re doing kids any favors, either. As Judy Blume put it, kids are pretty good judges of their own reading. If they don’t like it, they’ll put it down. That was always my reaction to the insanely popular — and disturbing — Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews. Same thing with the works of Stephen King. I took a look and decided they weren’t for me. Then I went back to reading Jane Eyre and Jane Austen and the gentle sex-free romances of Georgette Heyer that we had around the house. Sounds like a conservative family values book reviewer’s dream, right? Except for the Garp and Wifey parts, I suppose.
Last rant: the aspect of the WSJ piece that REALLY irritates me is their recommended titles for young readers — separated by gender! What the hell!??!!! What is this, 1952???? One of the truly great things about reading is that you can learn about all kinds of experiences from anyone. Pigeonholing kids and their recommended reading, by gender or any other division, is stupid. And, I might add, pointless.