A lot of the reaction to last week’s WSJ article about darkness in young adult fiction was, quite rightly, “Who are you to decide what’s good for a particular kid?” That just because something is dark doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate for some people, that different kids can handle that stuff (and as #YASaves suggested, many need it). That yes, maybe some kids don’t need to be exposed to some of the darkest, most graphic stuff, or that yes, some of the books out there don’t handle it well (or are just poorly written) — but that you can’t make a blanket statement about all YA fiction nor all young adults and what they should read.
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Two years ago, I met a young man attending one of the most elite private high schools in the country. He quietly spoke to me of his agony. What kind of pain could a millionaire’s child be suffering? He hadn’t been physically or sexually abused. He hadn’t ever been hungry. He’d never seen one person strike another in anger. He’d never even been to a funeral.
So what was his problem?
“I want to be a writer,” he said. “But my father won’t let me. He wants me to be a soldier. Like he was.”
He was seventeen and destined to join the military. Yes, he was old enough to die and kill for his country. And old enough to experience the infinite horrors of war. But according to Ms. Gurdon, he might be too young to read a YA novel that vividly portrays those very same horrors.
“I don’t want to be like my father,” that young man said. “I want to be myself. Just like in your book.”
Another big problem with the idea of appropriateness is the inherent fluctuation of any applied standard. Once again, one parent’s idea of what is appropriate varies from another.
And no, not all of it is great literature. Remind me again when there was a time when there was nothing but great literature from which to choose? Critics like Gurdon are forever holding the dregs of the present up against the best of the past, which is an unfair and highly loaded argument. You can’t compare what’s crowding the shelves now with a tiny handful of classics that have endured.
…with teenagers, there’s this idea that someone else’s kids might be screwed up enough to need screwed-up books, but our kids are perfectly fine, thanks, and don’t need to be exposed to helplessness or pain.
Not only is that wrong, it’s as wrong as wrong gets. Everyone, young and old, needs to experience a wide variety of emotions in the safe space that books provide. It’s not about normalizing, or processing your own shit; it’s about being human and understanding other humans.
There were a few notes about what role booksellers and librarians can and should play — with a breadth of knowledge of the material out tehre, they can help identify what a particular kid should read.
Well, if Amy Freeman had shopped at an independent bookstore someone would have asked her if she needed help. The staffer would have offered help and most likely, the indie would have been well stocked in other types of YA…
…Where are the booksellers, the librarians in this woman’s argument? Experts exist for a reason. If parents, or teens for that matter (who actually do a pretty damn good job of self-selecting what they’re comfortable reading), are feeling besieged by what they think are the only books out there, then talk to a bookseller about what you feel is appropriate for your child to be reading.
…I ended up bookselling, too, because people mostly just stood around the YA section not knowing what to get. So I’d politely ask if they needed help. And they’d say, “Yes.” My first question was always, “What kind of kid are they?” Some adults would get that question. They’d say “Oh, they like this” or “They read way above their age” or “Their parents are crazy hippies so they’ve been exposed to everything” or “These are their favorite books.” Other adults would say, “Well they like this, but I want to get something that is good for them.” I can tell you which kid was happy with the book they got for the holidays and which kid unwrapped their present and never wanted to read the book they got (or maybe any other book ever again). A shame really, because putting the right book in the right kid’s hands is kind of like giving that kid superpowers. Because one book leads to the next book and the next book and the next book and that is how a world-view grows. That is how you nourish thought.
There was even a fairly common concession that it is a parent’s duty to choose books for a kid, and that’s fine as long as their not choosing books for other kids.
Parents are under no obligation to buy books that they feel are inappropriate. It is their right and privilege. However, I have never heard of a case where a parent was publicly lambasted as a censor for not buying their child a certain book. The C-Word is usually only invoked when said parent attempts to make that decision for other parents and for other people’s children. For example, when a parent pressures schools or public libraries to remove access to a book for all the other teens or readers, that is censorship and should be absolutely be gleefully exposed for what it is.
It is not censorship for a parent or guardian to decide what book his or her child reads. It’s parenting. I don’t know of a single author who would ever object to a parent dictating what book his or her child should read. What crosses the line into censorship is when you try to parent not just your child, but all the other children, too.
And there is where I hesitate. Not that parents should be deciding access to books for other people’s kids — that’s clearly censorship. But I’m not even sure a parent should necessarily be choosing what their own kid reads.
I’ll make my point by example. A lot of the #YASaves stories were about how YA fiction helped the person understand, come to terms with, and accept their sexuality, often in an environment that was unsupportive. (And like I wrote on Wednesday, there are the kinds of books I would like to have read as a teen, and the kind I want to write.)
If a gay teen needs help accepting their sexuality because of homophobic parents, those parents are going to try to keep that teen from reading exactly the kinds of books he needs to read.
Parents often don’t know the things teens are going through, or actively oppose reading about the very things the teen needs to read about.
I believe good books can do no harm — but a lot of parents believe differently, and in choosing what their child is “ready for” (read: what they think their child is read for, or what they want their child to be ready for, or in fact what they are ready for) they could very well be keeping their child from exactly the kinds of help he needs.
As Castellucci says:
I think that we underestimate teenagers and young people in general. Because it’s not that they become desensitized to violence or anything bad when they read these things in books. It’s that they are growing their world. And oftentimes they only understand what they are ready for. And no one, not me, not you, not anyone, can ever dictate what someone is or isn’t ready for. Or what they might need to find their way. Sometimes darkness leads to light. That is what is so great about all young adult fiction.
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.
Teens read YA books and take away positive, moral guidance. In order to show kids why certain behaviors are dangerous, you actually have to discuss the behaviors. Scary, I know. It’s tough being a parent. But it’s tougher being a kid who has clueless parents.
This should be where teachers and school librarians could be even more useful. This is where maybe we need more resources for kids to access anonymously to find the books they need.
So no, I don’t think a parent dictating what books their child should read is “good parenting”. I think good parenting is allowing your teen access to anything and everything he may need, suggesting books on multiple issues, and trusting that they’ll be smart enough to judge for themselves.
Mary Elizabeth Williams says:
I take my kids to the library every week, and I’ve yet to refuse them anything. Frankly, as a parent I’ve always been a much bigger hardass about their exposure to the Disney princess-to-sassymouthed teen juggernaut than anything involving abuse or a dystopian future…
Darkness isn’t the enemy. But ignorance always is.
And Harry Connolly asks, “Why not trust that your own kids, the ones you raised to know right from wrong, to draw something valuable from the books they love?”
I’m not a parent, but that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I plan on raising my own kids.