Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What's appropriate reading material for teens?

An NPR blog post today addressed an WSJ article on whether YA fiction is too dark.  Actually, that's a little too nice a description of the WSJ article: It all but advocates banning, bemoaning the fact that dark themes that "were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago" are now to be found in YA lit.  And the article isn't just talking about Twilight knockoffs, either — apparently, novels about abused children should be banned just as much as vampire and werewolf stories.

I'm curious as to what generation the WSJ author grew up in.  I'm 31, so I think what I was reading as a kid qualifies as "a generation ago," and it sure as hell wasn't "sparingly outlined" then.  I remember reading YA novels with sex in them, novels that dealt with abuse and kidnapping and racism.  Let's think for a minute about the books I was reading a generation ago:

  • Bridge to Teribithia: Death.  According to the author of the WSJ article, kids shouldn't be reading anything that threatens their peaceful, innocent happiness, so I think that idea that a friend can die applies.
  • Forever: The WSJ article describes the sex scenes in this book as "earnest practicality."  I think she might have read a different version than I did, because I thought the book was more explicit than most romance novels.
  • The Giver: This was actually published when my sister was in school, but again, killing babies?  Two children freezing to death?  Don't get me wrong, this is one of my favorite books, but it's not happy.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Racism, scam artists, you name it.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank: Hello, the biggest atrocity against humanity in the 20th century? Definitely no happy endings there.

The writer even criticized Banned Books Week, which I am proud to say I try to participate in every year.  I've read some damn good books, thanks to the ALA's awareness campaign.  But the WSJ article has nothing but nasty things to say about it:

Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins's hyper-violent, best-selling "Hunger Games" trilogy and Sherman Alexie's prize-winning novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." "It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power," Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet."

I've read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  All I have to say is that it's tame compared to some of the YA lit taught in schools.

I like the points made in the NPR rebuttal.  Like her, I read V.C. Andrews Kids aren't depressed, or suicidal, or cutters, or anorexic because of adult themes in YA lit.  They don't rebel against adults because they are trusted with adult themes, but they do tend to rebel when they are treated like babies, which is what you are essentially doing if you restrict their reading to only "happy" stuff.  And as NPR's blogger points out, you may actually be sacrificing a future reader by teaching them that reading isn't fun or compelling.

I think the YA fiction being published these days is actually fantastic, evidenced by the fact that I read a ton of it.  One of the comments on the NPR post said that teens are so melodramatic, they don't need to be encouraged to be more so by reading this stuff.  Actually, I think it's the opposite — teens (like any adult) like to read something that makes them forget about their own lives for a while!

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