Yesterday the blogosphere was all abuzz about this article in the Wall Street Journal called "Darkness Too Visible." The author makes the claim that fiction for teens is too dark and disturbing. The internets disagree.
My Master's Thesis was a YA novel. (Plug: As completed it was called After Graduation, but you can see here the revised version called Trendy Poseurs Go Home.) My thesis defense committee was made up of three professors who have all published YA fiction. They were each helpful mentors and facilitated my writing in every way they could. When I went in for my official defense, however, the first thing they asked was how I could uphold my novel as literature. I stumbled around for a few minutes muttering something about how Adolescent Literature (as it was called back then) is a valid sort and, um, meaningful to a--ahem--variety of people, when they stopped me. I was embarrassed and confused because I thought they were belittling my choice of genre when they themselves write the same sort of fiction. They, of course, weren't trying to embarrass me, and they quickly told me they understood the importance of YA fiction.
(I still sometimes wonder why they passed me, though, because I clearly had a hard time defending myself.)
That was fifteen years ago. Since then Harry Potter happened and Twilight and The Hunger Games, not to mention Sarah Dessen and Jodi Picoult and Meg Cabot. Which is to say that Young Adult Literature (as it is called now) hardly needs defending any more.
So let's talk about the criticism that YA books are brutal and violent and full of sex and expletives.
It's all true. But it's nothing new. And neither is the criticism. Catcher in the Rye and The Chocolate War and To Kill a Mockingbird have all been deemed obscene and immoral or for years. What I think is new is that so many people care. And they are staunchly opposed to censorship.
They argue that YA novels depict teenage life like it is. That reading about an issue, even if that problem isn't something you deal with, can expand your worldview. If it is something you personally connect with, you understand better that you are not alone.And that suggesting teens shouldn't read certain books about these problems because of vulgarity or violence is censorship.
A censorship argument like this seems to lead to the idea that everything out there is equally valid. My issue with this "anything goes" attitude comes from the point of view of a high school English teacher. In another article, Julie Daines suggests that there's a difference between being "edgy" and "trashy." It seems to me that too many YA stories are provocative just for the sake of being provocative. People will read if you just give them the right kind of hook. And I've seen that my students are no different. Hook them, and they'll read anything, even if it's just garbage.
Don't get me wrong. I love YA Lit in realistic or fantasy form. I love books, period. Most of what I expect all year from a regular high school student is that they understand that reading is good for them. I believe that all high school students should read and study each of the controversial books mentioned above, along with dozens more. But I also think the jury's still out on books like My Bloody Life and A Child Called "It."
(Full disclosure: I have not read these two books, and I probably never will. However, I have read sections of these texts and have had enough students read them and tell me about them that I feel confident in discussing them as examples here.)
In the high school curriculum where I teach, students are encouraged to choose what they want to read. It's a reading workshop where choice is supposed to lead to engagement with a text. And these books are two of the most popular choices.
In these cases, I wouldn't say the gritty darkness, the "edginess" is worth it. I hope my students can graduate to more complex books with more difficult ideas to think about. And that they're not just choosing books because they're full of sex and violence.