If you follow book-related news, you may have heard of the Wall Street Journal article published last week about the horror that is YA books these days and how dangerous they are. If not, please read it. It’s hilarious. Because it’s just a wee bit ridiculous.
There have been other articles as ridiculous as this one in the past. What makes this one unique, I think, is the reaction that it inspired. A huge outcry from teens, YA authors, and, well, just about everyone else as well, spread out across the internet. YA author Maureen Johnson started a #YASaves hashtag on Twitter, inspiring thousands of people to share their stories of how YA books helped them, becoming a top trending topic worldwide within hours.
A lot has been written about the article and the responses over the last week; I’m a bit late in actually writing about this one, and by now others have said a lot more eloquently what I would probably have attempted to say. So I thought I’d be better off collecting some of the good bits before trying to say my own piece.
This article from Publishers Weekly is actually a very good summary of the last week’s discussions, and is probably a good place to start.
A lot of the response to the article has been about how the darkest of YA fiction is good in its darkness, that the darkness helps the people who read it. Josie Leavitt writes, also for Publishers Weekly:
There’s a Twitter group right now called #YASaves and its focus is on the good that young adult books can do. They can save lives by exposing kids to things. We had a young man walk six miles round trip to our store once a week several summers ago. Why was he walking to our store? Because he felt safe at our store, and he was exploring his sexuality through our book recommendations. We suggested some Alex Sanchez books, and suddenly this kid didn’t feel so alone, so hopeless. Several years later his mother called us and tearfully told us that we had saved his life because he was feeling suicidal until he started reading those books. We didn’t save his life; reading about other gay teens saved his life.
She also points out, in response to the absurd idea that reading about dark stuff makes kids do that dark stuff:
Kids reading about cutting will not make them cutters. It might, however, make them recognize when one of their friends is cutting and could use help.
This is just as hugely important as the help kids who are cutters might get from seeing through books that they are not alone, and that they can get past the darkness.
The darkness exists. Always has and, [insert appropriate deity here] help us, always will. That we are now able to speak of it in the presence of those that have actually, or could actually experience it is a Good Thing™. For those that have spent time in the dark places, these books often demonstrate that they are not alone, that with strength and perseverance, they can emerge and be free. For those that have not walked that dark path, they gain a degree of perspective on their own problems and also move away from the “blame the victim” mentality that often goes hand-in-hand with silence on such acts. As one fellow author on Twitter brilliantly put it “Because we need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.”
YA literature doesn’t present the world as it should be. It presents it as it is.
Mary Elizabeth Williams writes for Salon that the author of the WSJ article,
…fails to acknowledge the coarseness and misery already inherent in adolescence. She assumes that coarseness and misery — and profanity, and violence, and sex — are in and of themselves unsuitable subject matter, regardless of the quality of the writing. That’s where she goofs up big time.
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.
Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?
Here, then, is why Young Adult (YA) fiction is awesome: because it takes all that hard, nasty, awful stuff and it never looks away. It doesn’t flinch. It doesn’t bullshit anybody — and if there’s anybody who can smell bullshit, it’s a teenager. It has the courage and compassion to not treat teens like coddled pinheads and instead gives them fiction that represents them. These aren’t protagonists who are unfamiliar to young readers. These aren’t stories and situations that seem alien. This is shit that’s happening to them, their friends, their acquaintances online — but here, the fiction allows them to see it, hold it, deal with it both at the ground level and from a sky’s eye view. They see protagonists who are able to suffer the slings and arrows of youth — and Sweet Jesus are those some poisonous arrows — and who are then capable of rising beyond and above, persevering and above all else, surviving.
YA fiction does all that. The darkness that worries this WSJ writer is exactly what is great about a lot of YA fiction. Reading about horrible situations, from abusive parents to rape to drug addiction to self-harm to suicide to alcoholism to dealing with homosexuality and more, helps readers going through the same things to deal with it. It helps readers dealing with other problems to see that they are not alone. And yes, it helps people who are dealing with none of that to understand that it does exist, that other people are going through it, and that perhaps they can recognize it and help, or at least have a better understanding of the world they live in.
Maureen Johnson’s own response in the Guardian is worth a full read (as are all of the articles I’ve quoted only briefly above; they all also deal with a lot of other issues with the WSJ article and YA fiction overall; it’s also worth checking out this response by Harry Connolly, this article in the Guardian by Alison Flood, this article by author Beth Revis, and this article from the LA Review of Books).
But maybe the best way to really get the point is to see some of the responses from the people who actually read this stuff. Here are some of my favourite #YASaves tweets (mostly as retweeted by Maureen Johnson).
Chuck Wendig tweeted:
Author Neil Gaiman added:
And Maureen Johnson finishes up quite nicely:
Here’s how #YAsaves me: every day I get to write stories and talk to readers like you, and I see the good in the world. Every day.