Attack on Young Adult Books Justified?
First, the perfect YA (Young Adult) book:
Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell [chapter book, for ages 11-18]
My 11.5-year-old daughter and I both agree: we LOVE this book. Labeled as YA book, mostly because the protagonist, Janie Gorman, is a Freshman in high school finding out who she is. She used to be this enthusiastic do-something-different kind of kid; the kind that convinces her parents to sell their suburban home and move to the country on a quasi farm raising goats and making cheese. But high school Janie now wants to fit in and be less nutty-crunchy … like everyone else.
As a coming of age story, Ten Miles Past Normal also has a Middle Grade storyline and appeal. While most Middle Grade plots have kids entering Middle School and wondering who they are and how they fit in, this kind of self-discovery does not magically end upon entering High School. Frances O’Roark Dowell is wise to remember that … of not finding ourselves in High School and even College? And still well into middle age? At least in REAL LIFE.
There are boy interests in Ten Miles Past Normal and Dowell has created one of my favorite boy characters with Monster Monroe. A gentle beast of a humongous person, Monster knows who he is and is living the life of someone with inner zen realized. It takes Janie a little time to realize that her original crush, Jeremy Fitch, is good-looking but shallow and that the really interesting boy is Monster. He, of course, knows to give Janie time and space to figure this out on her own ’cause he’s just kind of guy.
There is no need for bullies, explicit abuse, violence, depravity, or sex in this novel that shines with the bright light of Janie’s funny and wry journey of self-discovery. She manages to look beyond her own agony as the “weird farm girl” to find other stories worth delving into. Set in the South, Dowell deftly carves in a Civil Rights story that actually rings true and is inspiring in that she portrays ordinary people doing brave and extraordinary things.
That Janie’s mom is a blogger was an additional delight for me and my daughter who shares Janie’s annoyance that her mother is blogging.
After reading this gem of a book, I wonder: Why does YA have to be so dark?
I am only asking this question because of the brouhaha which started with this article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon who poses the same question. Specifically, she asks, “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.”
…she [Ms. Stoddard and her colleagues at Politics & Prose, an independent Washington, D.C., bookstore] note that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.”
And therein lies the issue. YA lit is seemingly written for and consumed by adults HOWEVER The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as “someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen”. Wikipedia
Honestly, can you picture a book that is appealing to those ages 12 AND 18 years old?! Ten Miles Past Normal passes the test, but is this an exception? I am new to reading YA. It didn’t exist when I was 12 to 18 years old and now I am reading ahead to select books for my 11.5-year-old daughter who has ventured into YA with books like The Hunger Games and The Uglies but I don’t want her (and she agrees) to be reading books “rife with explicit abuse, violence, and depravity.” She does not enjoy that. I don’t either.
We are not alone. The fourteen-year-old kids in my neighborhood don’t pick these books either. When I asked my fourteen-year-old mother’s helper to put together a reading list for Middle School, she texted her friends — both boys and girls — and came up with this list in about 10 minutes. Absent on their list are violent, depraved books.
This seems reasonable, right? Neither parents nor tweens are seeking out this YA violent stuff. What’s all the fuss? Ah… the backlash. Here are a few of the rebuttals …
A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy She makes a great point about letting the reader make his or her own choice. As for the case of the mother in the article unable to find the right match, she laments the ability of qualified salespeople or librarians to advise. This is a good point!
“What this article ignores is the questions of why people read what they do — one of the areas I find fascinating just because, and also because it helps with readers advisory. Some kids in terrible circumstances read about kids in terrible circumstances and find comfort and hope, even in the bleakest book; others live it, so don’t want to read it. Some read for windows; some, for mirrors. Some kids in crappy circumstances want to read about kids who have it worse off, so they can think, “at least my life isn’t bad as so and sos.” Some teens love literary books; some teens get so much literature during the school year that recreational reading is all about popcorn. Each reader’s “popcorn” is different; for some, it’s vampires and horror, for others, it’s books that make them cry, like books about suicide, for others, it’s books that talk frankly about what is whispered around the school, like self-mutilation. Often, the full diet of what a person reads, teen or adult, cannot be judged by one or ten books, or one month, or a summer. Readers get obsessions — my Sylvia Plath obsession lasted years.”
“YA is written for ages 12-18. That means there are some books more appropriate for 7th and 8th graders and others that I would recommend to my high school seniors. Does that mean all YA needs to be censored? Absolutely not! It means that teens should (and do) self-censor. It means that parents, teachers, and librarians should know what their teens are reading. More importantly, it means those gatekeepers should be reading alongside their teens and reading ahead of their teens. That way they can make knowledgeable recommendations to teens, recommendations that teens will trust…
Barnes and Noble lost that sale because there wasn’t an employee in the store who could recommend a light, funny contemporary YA book for a 13-year-old girl.
But there are happy, funny books out there. Take a look at some of the most popular books in my classroom. They run the gamut from “dark” to hysterical.
- The Hunger Games
- The Knife of Never Letting Go
- Paper Towns
- An Abundance of Katherines
- Going Bovine
- Bitter End
- If I Stay
- Between Shades of Grey
- Life, After
- Spilling Ink
- The Thief
- The Princess Diaries
- Maximum Ride
- Along for the Ride
- The Heroes of Olympus series”
YA Award Winning Author Laurie Halse Anderson: Stuck between rage and compassion
“Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.”
“As a preacher’s kid, and as someone who loves a lot of conservatives, and lives in a rural, conservative community, I understand the adults who are terrified of YA books. I feel compassion for them.
Because it’s not the books they’re afraid of.
They are afraid of their inability to talk to their kids about the scary, awful, real-world stuff that is out there. And they know, deep-down, that even if their own children are blessed with violence- and trauma-free childhoods and adolescence, their kids will daily come in contact with other kids who aren’t that lucky. So they know they should be talking about this stuff, but they don’t know where to start. And when their kid starts reading books about subjects that make Mom and Dad uncomfortable, the reaction is to get rid of the book, instead of summoning the courage and faith to have conversations that make them uneasy.”
YA Award-Winning Author Sherman Alexie: Why The Best Kids Book are Written in Blood
“Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
And, often, kids have told me that my YA novel is the only book they’ve ever read in its entirety.”
What do you think? Please share. My takeaway, from start to finish, is actually the same as the reason why I started this blog. I want to read ahead for my child to give her appropriate titles. If you feel the same but don’t have the time, please check out the excellent YA blogs I have on the footer of my home page. These YA bloggers do a really great job of reviewing books. Librarians, of course, are another great resource. But my secret weapon? Ask your child’s friends what they are reading. This seems to carry the most weight!
p.s. I have some great Top 100 YA Book Lists here and one by Persnickety Snark here.
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.