Here and there you see earnest advice from people inside and outside the publishing industry who don’t read YA [young adult fiction], but they have firm ideas about what young adults “should” read, or what “values” YA novels “should” include.
I’ve found that teen readers are usually aware of sensitive subjects, and further, they often want to explore serious subjects because they are intensely curious about the world. I’ve taught those kids. I’ve loaned books to them, and recommended ones I don’t have. But young readers also love to pieces stuff that the rest of us think is drivel. Does that really hurt them?
It won’t hurt Christopher Paolini’s sales if I use his Eragon as an example. I don’t think I’ve met an adult who liked any of his books. I’m sure there are plenty who did, I just haven’t met them. I have, however, met plenty of kids who adored his work, and who thought the writing fresh and exciting, which I found pedestrian at best. They thought new and wonderful the tropes that I regarded as lifted from Star Wars, Tolkien, Pern, and bits of Bruce Coville’s work. A few of these kids—when I try guiding them to what I consider better works—think my suggestions boring and dull, and demand more reccos like Paolini, something well-written, they say. Not with boring descriptions and old-fashioned words, like in Lord of the Rings.
When I was a junior high teacher, I had most of the Newbery winners on my classroom shelves, for free reading. A lot of those would sit untouched while kids read and reread stuff like Lemony Snickett and The Day My Butt Went Psycho.
We know that kids vary just as much as adults do. We can be standing in line at the post office with seven other people. In chat, we find out that three of seven like to read. What do they read? One reads only magazines, and not fiction, another reads only romance novels, and the third loves what he/she calls “literature”—Dan Brown, V.C. Andrews, Harold Robbins. Everybody has different tastes. Are we going to tell them what they “should” be reading? Assuming the latter two authors were alive, would we write to them and inform them what they “should” be writing? So why, when the subject of young adult fiction comes up, do we shift into “should” mode?
I guess the easiest response is that we tend to assume that we stand in loco parentis with respect to children. It’s our nature to make an effort to shield them from the ugliest side of humanity if we can, and we’d love to be able to shield them (and ourselves) from the horror of ‘natural’ disaster, war, pestilence, and domestic violence. When we teach, and raise children, we try to emphasize what we consider the best in human endeavor, ethics, etc. The impulse is to extend that “best” to their leisure time activities. The problem as I see it now is, how can you define that “best”? Contemporary society is so very fragmented there just is no answer without a trainload of caveats.
Kids now have access to the world and what it has to offer with more ease and speed than in any time in history. Kids are fast. Kids are smart—they usually figure out new tech-toys way faster than we do. Kids are curious. Speaking as a teacher who dealt with extremely controlling parents who were determined to keep girls, especially, wrapped tightly in Disney films and carefully selected lesson-heavy entertainment, I can attest to the fact that if those innocent angels wanted to share what the other kids were enjoying, they found their way to it. And the sad thing was, the parents, in their hammering, punishing, threatening effort to control the world around the girls, were utterly cut off from communication from their own children. The girls were little simulacra of girls in my own youth. When you could be punished horribly for asking what a fink was, because “ladies keep minds and mouths pure” you learned not to ask your parents anything. You went to books (or the school yard) to get your facts.
Once the kids hit those teen years, they are testing their evolving senses of reality against everything they’ve read and have been taught. We hope they will accept the values we hold dear, but the smart, reading kid just isn’t going to accept them without thinking hard about them first. They tend to gravitate toward books wherein adults demonstrate what they think, without telling the kids what to think; and above all—just like adults—they want to be entertained.