I linked to this Wall Street Journal Article over on my (personal) facebook page, and made the following comment: I don’t know which is more insulting to the teenage reader, this article about how they need to be protected from harshness, or the fact that it is accompanied by a list of books ‘for boys’ and books ‘for girls’. It (also) stuns me that this reviewer doesn’t fully acknowledge the time when children moved straight from children’s fic to adult fic. I clearly remember girls wandering around my primary school reading Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins. Those who gravitated to fantasy and horror went straight to adult fantasy and horror (I went straight to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury etc) Kids will read what draws them, and the YA books today are a reflection of that diversity of tastes. At least they are mostly written with some sort of focus on teenhood and the stresses/consequences of teen life (as opposed to the adult books we used to read)
If you ask me this is nothing more than a case of ‘if it can be controlled, it must be controlled.’
The conversation that this generated on my facebook page is too interesting not to share so here it is:
John: The world is full of people who feel that moral rectitude is something that has to be imposed on people through tight control of behaviour and the material you are permitted to think with. They lack trust in what’s inherently good in human nature and are afraid of what’s bad but in us all anyway.
Marleen: There used to be very little if any YA material available when we were that age, although I seem to remember the Dutch being better at that than the English languages countries apparently were. I did read some books about teenagers getting pregnant, drugs and shock-horror even sex and violence, and my parents actively encouraged me reading them. They seemed to think that it would be good for me to know about the world and the issues I might come up against. Strange thing for parents to do, prepare their kids for the less nice sides of life…..
Anna: There’s no shame in acknowledging the darkness in life in books for young people; there’s plenty of it around and it’s a spectrum, not a binary thing. Also, it can be a good way to broach topics not arising spontaneously in a household.
However, as a bookseller from 2002-2009, I did see, loosely grouped, three major trends take off in YA literature: the resurgence of magic, a la Harry Potter; themes of vampires and other paranormal creatures, usually with a emo-romance element; and powerful social dystopias. All with some absolute gems as well as some less first-rate stuff. Unfortunately though, these were so commercially dominant that they squeezed out equally well-crafted and worthy contenders in terms of bookshop space, and it became apparent that we the booksellers needed to have, at the least, a mental list of quality reads for young adults that fit into none of the above categories – because both they and parents specifically asked for such books. Ultimately, the reader will determine by themselves, by trial and error, what feeds and satisfies them, and our responsibility is to provide that variety on the shelves, listen well and keep the love affair with books alive.
I should add that by the age of 13 I wanted to know EVERYTHING about the world and the workings of the human heart, and so I borrowed books from friends with older siblings and rummaged around in the spaces behind my parents’ bookshelves until I’d found the likes of Henry Miller, Leonard Cohen, Jack Keroauc, Erica Jong. Nothing will stop a curious bookworm in her tracks. The only crime, as far as I’m concerned, is to let the curiosity wither.
Me: Anna, long live curious bookworms! Can you imagine how this article would have portrayed Keroauc, Miller and JOng had they chosen to included them in their list of ‘authors who are sullying our children’s psyches’? It’s a separate conversation , but I do agree entirely that the derivative dross is crowding out the more thoughtful and nuanced works on the YA bookshelves. I think the two subjects are related though, as I think the tide of pale imitations is the other side of the ‘kids don’t know what they want’ coin. If something is a success, the publishing industry will CHURN out lesser knock offs while sending more challenging/different works back to the author with a rejection slip or not advertise them enough to get them known. I think, in that case, it really is the booksellers, librarians* and teachers who are at the forefrount of pushing the subtler and more challenging works – which leads to the question of where those guiding voices will go if the hard copy book dies?
(*though saying that re librarians/teachers I still recall with grit teeth the school librarian who commented that my work would only appeal to ‘the most literate’ of girls (girls, mind you!!!!) and so she wouldn’t bother reccommending them to any of her students. ARGH!!!)
Anna: There’s a librarian sans vocation for you. And tact. The ‘guiding voices’ are crucial to continued diversity and to fitting readers with books as good as bespoke.
I really think that unless reading itself suffers enormous blows, the hard copy book may be slightly diminished but won’t die out. There are too many booklovers who love to touch and smell the books, flick through, see them stacked high, bring them home to display and admire on shelves… for so many of us, they’re objects of beauty.
Rory: throughout the course of that assault on reason, does she actually say (paraphrasing here) that reading about murder wont make teenagers murderers, then later say that it probably will?
Angela: Hmm, that was a scary article, and yes, it does seem to imply that if a kid reads about something horrific or should I say, ‘depraved’, they may be tempted to try it: ‘hey, drinking blood is cool! Where can I get some ‘Uhh, NOT! This line in particular really gave me pause: ‘Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.’ Say what?? Should we not give our kids more credit for having free will and minds of their own?? Now, I remember reading YA novels when I was aged 10-12 on everything from teen pregnancy, alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse, mental illness, teens being wrongly institutionalized, runaways, gangs, etc. (yes, they did write about dark things in the 70’s and 80’s too), alongside S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume. I was a curious kid, and like most kids, wanted to know more about the world, and reading about such things did not, in any way whatsoever make me want to try any of them, in fact, many of these novels served as a good warning. Granted, the supernatural element of current novels ‘darks them up’ considerably, but again, give kids some credit for being able to separate fiction from reality, entertainment from normal behavior.
Me: I was just hopping back after re-reading to say just that Ang! Yes, Rory, she certainly does imply that reading ‘dark stuff’ will lead to the performance of dark deeds. I didn’t turn into a weird, blood-drinking, self-mutilating emo, despite my having read some weird shite when a kid. Indeed I recall my best friend reading the most horrific horror stories back then – I couldn’t even stomach them (the few I read still remain lodged in my mind as vivid and disgusting beacons of the disturbing) – but she was and still is the kindest, gentlest person I know. Environment makes monsters – not fiction. (BTW isn’t this the same conversation that happened re rock&roll and heavy metal and punk? The same that rose up in the eighties re horror on video and the upsurge of the so called ‘video nasty’? Somehow we all managed to survive those things with our moral compasses semi-intact)
So there you have it. A pretty varied (and slightly off topic in places) set of opinions which I found just too interesting to keep on FB. (ETA I would also suggest that it is a strangely near sighted ( or perhaps too narrowly focused??) mother who could walk into a book shop and not find one single book suitable for her 12 yr old – or is Ireland some kind of literary paradise with an unusually varied cornucopia of books available to the teen reader?)
edited once more to add Rachel Krueger’s wonderful response and Linda Holmes’ too and PW’s shelftalker’s terrific response which brings the much ignored bookseller and librarian back into the equation
And ETA again to add Sherman Alexis’s beautiful response, also published by the WSJ