I have been an avid fan of Young Adult fiction since the third grade. I vividly remember standing in the library check out line with the rest of my class during “Library Time” eagerly digging into my Judy Blume while my classmates palmed their Judy Moody books. I think that moment can also be pointed to as the precursor to my reading Anna Karenina in eighth grade when my classmates were reading…well, they weren’t reading. But that’s a self-indulgent admittedly pretentious digression.
I think it’s this deeply ingrained love of YA that caused the low grade rage I felt when reading the recent Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon. It’s worth reading (in that it’s a piece of crap but will make the rest of this post make sense) but here’s a short summary: YA is shockingly dark and evil and corrupting the youth of America. If teens read the kind of YA that’s about cutting and rape and depression (oh my!) they will be normalized and thus teens will immediately adopt all self-destructive behaviors and situations presented in YA.
Where to even start?
First of all. To assume that teens will blindly imitate what they read in YA, which I suppose is a possible outcome, is to assume the most basely obvious result. It only scratches the surface of the teenage psyche and expects insultingly little of our comprehensive and analytical skills. It’s also the result that (and I am willing to bet my entire YA collection this) happens the least. Reading about cutting, for example, does not make a teen want to cut. A past trauma, depression, or need to control does may make a teen want to cut. Books are not tools used to create armies of mindless drones.
So what’s the most prevalent outcome of reading YA? It’s an outcome so painfully obvious to me that it almost hurts to have to write it, but since some people apparently insist on remaining blind, I’ll type it out. Reading about the darkness that plagues so many teens’ lives – about the rape, the abuse, the cutting, the depression, the reality for many of us — provides a way for the teens who identify with these situations to feel release, to learn that they are able to overcome these situations. To truly understand that they’re not alone.
And for the rest of us? For those of us who were lucky enough to stumble into a life void of these tragedies? Well, we learn empathy. We learn the invaluable lesson that the path we took through life was not the path that most other people have taken, and thus we learn to shape our world views in a less self-centered, close-minded, ignorant way. And it even indirectly explains to those who bully out of ignorance who their victims really are, and thus how torturing them is wrong. In fact, I’m not sure there is any better bridge for teens to cross into a feminist mind-set then the very type of YA Fiction that the author of this WSJ article so admonishes.
Then there’s this author’s tirade of how these books are grotesque. Well guess what? As a generation that was born into images of terrorist-driven planes crashing into a New York City landmark, of catastrophic natural disasters that rendered our people and even our leaders defenseless, of polar bears swimming desperately to no where because their habitat is melting because we just had to have that Hummer and of soul crushing poverty we’re kind of used to things that are grotesque. And beyond that, we are the ones that will have to throw ourselves head first into the grotesque if we want any chance of ensuring future generations a world with any light at all. If we’re protected as young adults, if we’re shielded from the truth of this world, how the hell can our parents or our teachers or anybody else expect us to ever tackle it head on when we’re actual adults?
But in all honesty, the contents of this article – while I found them appalling – weren’t altogether shocking. There have always been whistle-blowers on progress that doesn’t present itself in a neat little package of political correctness, sunshine and rainbows. Older generations always fear younger generations, at least to some extent. What did kind of surprise me, however, were the books that were missing; the books that I think actually deserved to be criticized and the books that actually are a negative force and threat to my generation.
I’m talking about The Clique. I’m talking about The A-List. I’m talking about Gossip Girl. I’m talking about whatever new vapid series of books is in vogue right now.
Okay, maybe it’s a bit of hyperbole to deem these books as threatening to the future of our generation, but really? While the books the Wall Street Journal demonized may be violent or dark, shouldn’t we be worried about the books that are all shiny gloss? These books, which in my opinion have literary merit equal to a middle schooler’s “What I Did Over The Summer” essay, and probably use parallel language, follow young women as they aspire to nothing more than a hot guy and a shopping spree. They teach young women to aspire to beauty over intelligence, to single-mindedly pursue what you want despite whatever harm it may cause others, and to create shallow, meaningless friendship.
But no, we really should be worried about the effects on our teens of reading the tale of the aftermath of a homophobic hate crime, or a young girl recovering from sexual assault.
Thank god there are awesome people, like the fabulous YA author Maureen Johnson (@MaureenJohnson), who decided to take action against this article, and promoted the twitter hashtag #YASaves, which gave YA readers from all walks of life a chance to defend YA and the positive ways it has impacted their lives. Because — what a concept! — young adults are able to determine and elocute how literature benefits us.
I hope Meghan Cox Gurdon does herself a favor and reads the #YASaves hashtag. Maybe she’ll actually learn a thing or two about how teens feel about YA. And maybe before she writes another article, she’ll ask us.