Thursday, June 09, 2011

"Teens are not other; they are us."

Jennifer M. Brown's elegant response to the WSJ article about "dark YA" is posted on Shelf Awareness this morning. If you don't subscribe to the ShelfAwareness free daily email, you're missing the single best source of industry news, book reviews, and pieces like this.

Here's what Jennifer M Brown wrote.

Deeper Understanding: The Dark Is Rising

Is the Dark rising?

I do not mean the series by Susan Cooper,
though it is perhaps an apt metaphor.
In those five books, she explored
the forces of good and evil and
received a Newbery Medal (1976) and Newbery Honor (1974)
for her efforts--through fiction--
to lay out moral dilemmas for young people to ponder.

These past few days many of us have been atwitter about
the piece in the Wall Street Journal
by Megan Cox Gurdon: "Darkness Too Visible."
Gurdon suggests that "pathologies
that went undescribed in print 40 years ago...
are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail."

Most of us trace the birth of the YA genre back to
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967)
about gang violence, and to
Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1968)
In which two misfit teens play a prank on
Mr. Angelo Pignati,
then befriend him,
and then, possibly, unwittingly contribute to his death.
Undescribed pathologies?

When M.E. Kerr wrote Night Kites in 1986,
it was one of the first novels in YA or adult literature
to mention AIDS,
narrated by a teen whose older brother
was infected with the virus.
It dispelled myths that ran rampant about
how you could catch "gay cancer"
as it was then called, just from eating off the same dish.
It also won the California Young Reader Medal,
Voted on by teens themselves.

Today we have books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson
by John Green and David Levithan,
in which a straight guy and a gay guy can be best friends,
and a confidently "out" gay guy can help a closeted gay guy
feel more comfortable in his own skin.
It won the 2011 Teen Choice Book of the Year
(sponsored by the Children's Book Council),
again, voted on by teens.

Yes, The Hunger Games are violent.
Suzanne Collins has said that the seeds of that trilogy
came to her while she was watching reality television
and thinking about the Coliseum of gladiator days.
Teens watch reality television.
The Hunger Games gives them something to
(forgive the pun) sink their teeth into.
What would they do if they were Katniss?
Would they sacrifice themselves for a sibling?
Would they save the boy who kept them alive
With the gift of a loaf of bread?
These are the questions Katniss asks herself.
Teens get to stand in her shoes
and ask themselves these questions.

Teens don't purge or cut because of a book they read.
If they are looking for triggers, they will find triggers.
But they might also find in a book like Patricia McCormick's Cut
or Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls
that there are other people like them.
They are not alone.

We need to trust that teens will set aside
the books they're not ready for or simply don't like.
They will.
Girls will also read Will Grayson, Will Grayson,
and boys will read The Hunger Games.
Teens are not other; they are us.
They read sports books and comics
and nonfiction and romance.
They read literary stand-alone novels
and Vampire Diaries one after another.

They want to read what everyone's reading
or they could care less.

So let's turn away from the Dark for a moment
to the Light.
And by "light" I do not mean insubstantial,
I mean authors grappling with
more "mainstream" situations
like Sarah Dessen and Maureen Johnson.
I mean authors asking teens to examine
the messages coming to them from the media:
M.T. Anderson's Feed and Scott Westerfeld's So Yesterday
and Libba Bray's Beauty Queens.
I mean worlds in books that allow teens to step back
and look at their own lives and moral codes in relation to others:
Joan Abelove's Go and Come Back,
Holly Black's White Cat series.
Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall.

Perhaps the protagonist of Gurdon's article,
46-year-old Amy Freeman,
a mother of three stymied in the YA section of her
local B&N in Bethesda, Md.,
could not find someone to ask for a recommendation, or
does not have an independent bookstore nearby
or a public library branch near her.
Maybe her teen's school librarian was laid off
or the book review section of her paper has been omitted.

That is the darkness too visible in this tale.
I wanted one knowledgeable book-loving person
to approach Amy Freeman and ask,
What kinds of books does your 13-year-old like to read?
Who is his or her favorite author?
Teens have been reading grim books
since the Brothers Grimm and Romeo and Juliet.
I trust them to set aside the books they don't like.
What we need are better ways to reach them.


swedishfish said...

I don't know if that was meant to be a poem (the line breaks)...but it did read like one. Beautiful!

Unknown said...

Amen. I could not have said it better myself. Jennifer M. Brown, I think, captured what so many of us were thinking when we read the WSJ article. Thanks for sharing this, Janet.

Melanie R. Meadors

Jaleh D said...

Wonderful article. Much more eloquent than anything I could say.

pegasus358 said...

This is wonderful, Janet. Thank you for sharing (and for convincing me to sign up for Shelf Awareness!)!

-Beth M

Sarah Cypher said...

Maybe it's worth mentioning one inaccuracy in the post, that when corrected, makes Jennifer's argument even more urgent and right--Suzanne Collins said in at least one interview that the Hunger Games was inspired by reality TV and *footage of the Iraq war.*

Much of the YA audience has been watching war footage since they were just barely old enough to read their first chapter books.

Doug Eakin said...

I find it interesting that certain people make assumptions and tend to categorize people (in this case teens) into a neat little box. There is a wide variance in intellect and so on. Some will read and get it. Some won't. But life is tough. In the United States we over protect our children often times and raise adults who are little equipt to deal with the awful surprises life throws at us.
Can't bubble wrap our country or the people who inhabit it if we want to compete and survive. Reading about real life provides at least a peek at the fact there is tragedy out there even when living the good life.

BP said...

This is very well written, but I don't like to be stereotyped. As a YA, myself, I have never "Wanted to read what everyone's reading or they could care less." I do agree on the point that darkness is all around us and needs to be addressed, especially to teens and the next generation of readers, however, the way in which we go about it needs to be revolutionized. We are a culture that worships dark and gory because teens DO have a pain; a vague emptiness that they long to fill. And while fact is often stranger than fiction (and gladiatorial events, as read about in high-school History 101) were much more gory than the Hunger Games could ever hope to be, I do not believe that worshiping pain and darkness in our literature is a virtue to be heralded as "healing". Dark books are not necessary, but books that discuss dark issues ARE. I just think it's the way you go about explaining things that makes the difference. You don't have birds and bees conversations with preschoolers, just as there are certain things you don't bring attention to during the teenage years. Yes, it's true, and most of it's realistic, but the danger comes when we glorify darkness as something that is the only way out of a teen's "nightmare" life. Healing comes from discussing issues openly, but not from worshiping them in 90% of all literature on the YA market. If teens are turning to dark books and worlds of fantasy as their SOLE source of healing, we have a larger problem than what is on the YA market in the 21st century, imho.

SBJones said...

Thank you for the article. I was not aware of Shelf Awareness.

Tara Maya said...

It's not so much about age as about relationship. That is, parents want different things in books for their kids than in books for themselves.

Tara Maya
The Unfinished Song: Initiate

Laila Knight said...

Who came up with the idea that kids don't have free will? Kids will do what they feel like doing regardless of outside influence. They have no problem with choice. It's imperitive to offer guidance, but there's no way to shield them from the real world.

CathrynLouis said...

What has been forgotten is that we are discussing literature. Writings have always caused debate and the discussion we are having about 'dark YA' is no different. As a parent of a teenager, I can - and do - influence what she reads. I could also dictate, if I so chose. But I don't. Those parents who have a problem with 'dark YA' have the right to prevent their teen from reading it. But in our free society, they don't have the right to prevent mine.

Anne-Marie said...

We are raising children to be adults, and not to remain dependent on us and helpless. If we constantly shield them from what's out there, they will never take the steps to deal with problems and conflicts, and will never be equipped to deal with the curveballs that life throws at them. Why are some adults so afraid to let them grow and be themselves?

Marsha Sigman said...


She pretty much said it all.

Steve Stubbs said...

Wow. Jennifer does not write as well as you IMO.

But she almost does.

The word is awesome.

Thanks for posting.


Standing and applauding. Bravo. Bravo!

Joelle said...

Just last week, the National Post in Canada had this article in their books section. It's about dark YA, but has quite a different take on the whole thing than the WSJ.