Why YA Matters to Me: 06/05/11
On June 4th the Wall Street Journal published an article bemoaning the darkness in young adult literature. It starts with a mother of three trying to find a book for her thirteen year old at a certain big box book store and seeing nothing but "'nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.'" The article goes down hill from there with a sentimental look back at a more innocent 1960s that was apparently 40 years ago. The article points to S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967) as the book that opened the flood gates to all the depravity that's apparently in young adult literature.
I'm not going to tear apart the article, enough of that's already been done. Instead I want to talk about what I read and why I read it as a young adult and why I read YA fiction now as an adult.
I haven't been a teen or a young adult for twenty years. In a couple more years, I'll be 40. When I was a teen, I was only just discovering reading for pleasure. I suppose I should say, rediscovering. As a very young child I had loved picture books but something happened in elementary school that stopped me from reading. It might have been the bullying — I was teased by a trio of boys and ended up having to break the nose of the ring leader to get them to stop. It might have been the birth of my much younger half brother. Although I love him now; it was hard going from being an only child to a big sister. It was also hard being the child of a previous marriage.
Anyway, by seventh grade, I was addicted to reading. How that addiction started is a whole different story that will take too long to post here. Part of that addiction though involved keeping a list of everything I read. The list, which I am slowly putting into GoodReads, reflects my evolving tastes, assigned reading for school, reading for work and reading with my children.
The very first book on my list: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer. I chose it because I liked the cover art. I loved it for its strange mixture of death, afterlife, alien abduction and depravity. I read through the entire series and other Farmer books. I learned how to self-censor while reading some of his books.
My reading back then was a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, romance (borrowed from my mother), thrillers (borrowed from my step-father), mysteries and classics. I read for entertainment but I came to realize that no matter how frustrated I was with my life, I had it pretty good. I had a safe home. I wasn't being abused. I had access to a good education. I also got to discover good books and good authors through my own process of growing as a reader.
Sometime in my mid twenties probably on the popularity of Harry Potter, fiction for tweens, teens and young adults exploded onto the scene. There is so much more variety than I remember seeing as a child — so much so that there's a separate YA room at my local library. I read it now because: the stories are well told; it's entertaining; my own children will be reading it not too long from now; and it covers the wide range of issues that real teens go through and if I plan to work as a children's librarian some day, I need to be familiar with the literature.
Looking at my own two children, I have three rules for them when it comes to reading. The first rule is: any book in the house is free for them to read but I can't guarantee that they will like it or find it appropriate. They can either stop reading the book or skip the parts they don't like. The second rule is they can check out any book at the library or make requests for any book they can't find on the shelves but the book have to be checked out on my card so at least I know what they are reading and know when their books are due. The final rule is that either child can recommend a book to me and I will read it but in return, they have to seriously consider reading the books I recommend to them.
Comment #1: Monday, June, 6, 2011 at 02:19:00
Good rules. I know I always skimmed what I didn't find interesting or didn't understand.
Comment #2: Sunday, June 5, 2011 at 23:22:21
The rules are based on how my mother let me read as a kid, although she did let me have my own card. I think the difference there was because the library was within walking distance and I nagged her death about getting my own card.
Comment #3: Monday, June, 6, 2011 at 17:34:59
I really need to read that infamous Wall Street Journal article...I think it's unfair of them to lump a huge category into the word "dark" and leave it at that. If that mother had talked to even one children's librarian before ranting to the WSJ, I'm sure she would have gotten a dozen recommendations for age-appropriate, non-dark books. But then again some people would rather be heard than find a solution...
Comment #4: Monday, June 6, 2011 at 15:10:13
Exactly right. A simple Q&A with a librarian could have resulted in a list of targeted recommendations. Of the top of my head I can think of a few authors: Rick Riordan, Louise Rennison and Sarah Weeks.