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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fairy tales, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also review children's and young adult books for Kirkus and teach English at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

YA Saves?



A Wall Street Journal article ignited the fury of YA authors throughout the twitterverse this weekend, who thought its writer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, wrongfully accused the genre of being overly dark and hence unsuitable reading material for its target audience. Naturally, author Neil Gaiman immediately jumped in and added his two cents--which was no small thing for a man with over 1,000,000 followers.

The article is quite damning, if we take what it says to be true--which many naturally did not, although not in the way you might thing. Gurdon accuses editors of purposefully selecting works that include such controversial subjects as "pederasty and incest" for publication while refusing to publish more "wholesome" material. She refers to the YA readership as "children," even though she admits that that can include readers as old as 18.

Rather than dispute the implications of her article--that YA readers are negatively and even dangerously affected by titles that contain these so-called "dark" subjects--many YA authors and readers behind the weekend phenom "YA Saves" instead chose to remind Gurdon and WSJ readers that there are plenty of lighter, less controversial novels out there. Others pointed out that infamous "problem novels" (which have long been the target of disdain among some critics, partly for their course content, and partly for their supposed lack of literary merit) have in fact helped young readers deal with or come to terms with "dark" situations.

I find myself agreeing with both parties here, although the tone of Gurdon's article makes it difficult to admit accordance with any of the points she attempts to make. For one thing, she wrongfully suggests that YA literature began with the 1967 publication of The Outsiders; it's more universally accepted that The Outsiders was indeed the first problem novel, but not necessarily the first YA novel--particularly if we accept that the YA genre is intended to reach readers as young as 12. (Tom Sawyer, anyone? Little Women?) She also refers to the current trend of dark literature in YA publishing as "ever more appalling offerings" and accuses publishers of using "the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery" into the lives of young readers. To top off the article's inherently antiquated tone, Gurdon even supplies a list of "safe" titles to the left of her article--and separates them for male and female readers. (...Tom Sawyer, anyone? Little Women?)

But, she's right. In the fourth book in the Twilight series, Bella Swan's unborn child is literally ripped from her belly--by her husband. In The Hunger Games, Katniss witnesses and participates in a gruesome fight to the death with 23 other children. The death of children as young as 12 are described in explicit and bloody detail. So is it out there? Yes. And is it selling? Oh, yes.

But what sort of effect do these kinds of scenes really have on young readers? Furthermore, can such scenes and themes really "save" young readers the way Gaiman and others behind the "YA Saves" campaign are trying to say they can (and have)? Well, every reader is different. This is a given. There are quite a few readers who seem to have missed the point completely after reading Suzanne Collins' chilling dystopic trilogy; even now, the internet is rife with fans claiming the actor for the upcoming film for Peeta isn't handsome enough, or that Katniss' actress is "too pretty." The fact that many of these books share a common romantic theme (one not-so-pretty girl, and two drop dead gorgeous guys who, for some odd reason or another, absolutely adore her) may be the reason why so many readers are eating them up, and why publishers can't resist putting out more of them. Does the darkness play an integral part in the development of the romance? Would readers pine for Peeta and Katniss' "romance" less if the pair weren't forced to make brutal life and death decisions throughout the narrative? Why take that chance?

But not all readers react in the same tried and true fashion. Many, as the "YA Saves" campaign suggests, aren't just in it for the romance and the blood and gore (or both, as the case may be). Many can make the connection between The Hunger Games and the potential danger of an omnipotent state; others raised on reality TV make the disturbing connection there as well: one minute, we're watching Housewives throw wine bottles at one another; the next, we're watching kids bludgeon one another to death. And in the age of tumblr and YouTube, is there really any point in kidding ourselves into believing children--especially young adults--aren't being exposed to sex and violence at far younger ages than we ever were?

Let me be frank: YA does save. My own personal example that I tweeted out in response to Gaiman's call to arms: when I was 14, I read Robin McKinley's Deerskin for the first time. I initially picked it up because it had a beautiful cover: a beautiful white-haired woman and her beautiful long-haired dog. Inside was a disturbingly dark tale of fear, incest and rape. I was utterly shocked. But Lissar was struggling to come to terms with her body, and what was being done to it (both by others and by Nature herself) at the same time that I was coming to terms with my own (as all girls around that age naturally do). Part of Lissar's healing came from accepting her body and womanhood. She also learned to not fear all men, despite being dreadfully wronged and abused by one.

I'd never read anything like it. And I'll probably never forget it. I've tried to read it again, as an adult, but it doesn't carry the same weight. I'm not 14 anymore. But when I was 14, Lissar's story was more influential to me than I could have ever imagined at the time. I needed to read her story. I needed to witness her pain--and her healing.

So what do you think? Does YA save? And is this generation really all that different from our own (or your own)?

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