In the WSJ, Meghan Cox Gurdon, wrote a piece about the current state of Young Adult (YA) Fiction. She points that YA is filled with supernatural novels, violence, rape, drugs, and vile language. This might be true, but she’s completely wrong in saying that these books don’t belong in teenager’s hands.
I find it distressing that Ms Gurdon is their children’s book reviewer- perhaps they should have someone evaluate YA books that isn’t going to throw the book down, arms flailing and screeching “won’t someone please think of the children!”
I admit, I didn’t read YA much as a teenager. I was reading books for adults by that age, devouring Agatha Christies, James Bond novels, and working my way through the classics. I did read more than a few in middle school, and honestly… I know they aren’t the same as the books being published today.
That said, books helped me navigate my teenage years. I was in the honors track at my school, and took most of my classes with the same kids. I’ve written before about my high school and how fortunate I was that we had a large group of honors/AP students. So large that we couldn’t be looked down on as nerds. I wasn’t an outcast because I was in the drama department either. One of the girls who got a lot of the parts was a cheerleader. Most of the social circles were pretty open and wide, and that was fine.
I felt like I was on the outside for other reasons. I was petite, and a grade younger than the kids in my class (I skipped kindergarten). While it didn’t make a difference academically, socially I was still “little Whitney” to a lot of the boys. My lone high school boyfriend was a guy I dated from the grade below me. He was a nice guy, but we had little in common other than our mutual love of James Bond.
I read anything and everything with love stories or sex stories in them, desperate to try to understand that. I longed for books about gay or bisexual teens, but in the late to mid 90’s, that just didn’t exist. I read books filled with pain because despite my wonderful life- I felt lonely and conflicted about myself. I read books to escape.
The world today isn’t the world it was in 1997. I lived in a little beach town, filled with conflicting qualities. It was both conservative and a hippy/surfer town. Both supportive of the arts, but afraid of anything outrageous. Still, it was a great place (if not a little boring) to grow up.
Yet even in this fairly idyllic town, I still knew girls who got pregnant in middle school, girls who hung out with gang members, and a girl who had a drinking problem by age 16. While some of these things seemed completely foreign to me- books helped me at least try to understand them. We’re a lot more open with kids these days. I knew one gay kid in high school- a boy in the grade above me who was out (but who didn’t dare bring a boy to prom) and a girl in my grade that I was kinda sure was out (it actually turned out she wasn’t, and is married to a nice guy these days).
I was 14 when I realized I was attracted to women. I had no idea that you could be identify yourself as bisexual. I had no luck with guys in high school and there was a time I seriously wondered if it was because I was forcing myself to find a boy to fit in, that I was really a lesbian. (I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of people who know me, that this is the first they’ve heard about it) Books at least helped me feel normal, like someone out there understood me.
My point is that books were crucial to getting myself through high school. As the issues teens face today change and become much more open and common, the books should as well. Books help start conversations. Parents of kids who read YA lit, shouldn’t be just handing their kids books and expect them to be able to understand everything- they should be reading them, too, so that if their kids have questions or want to talk about it… they can.
My lovely hippy dippy home town? When I was in high school, they introduced the Kitchen God’s wife as part of our reading program. I was in one of the first classes to read it. But concerned parents found out that there was a rape in the book (as well as an abusive husband) and said it was inappropriate and wanted it taken away from students. And the school did. It was a lovely book, and I still feel as though the rest of the grade missed out on the opportunity to learn and discuss how people deal with that sort of trauma as well as pointing out how differently modern society (vs China in the 40s) handles domestic violence.
Parents need to give their children more credit. They need to remember that school isn’t the same as what it was, that yes, childhood tends to be over a lot earlier than when we were kids. We shouldn’t limit our kids from reading, learning, and understanding. A lot of kids are quietly in pain, feeling like they’re alone- books let them know they aren’t. It helps give them tools to cope. Again, these books should be used for opening discussions.
I know this isn’t my most coherent blog post, but a large part of it is that it upsets me when people try to say that teenagers shouldn’t have access to books that explore darker themes. Or try to limit access to any sort of a book at all. You can’t shield your child from the world forever- better to let them explore the darker parts of society safely between the covers of a book than in the real world.