World is Doomed! Teens Read Trash, News at 11.

girls reading

This summer, Salon featured an article wherein an adult reader takes to task other adults who like books written for young readers. This caused a spinoff furor that included the time-honored cane thumping about the garbage teens are reading, and how Civilization Is Doomed because of the young generation’s taste for trash.

That sort of condemnation is sometimes aimed at this or that popular series (Hunger Games, Divergent), and sometimes a blanket condemnation. I usually skip such fulminations. They aren’t new—my first exposure was from teachers in my freshman year of high school who would not accept Lord of the Rings for a book review because we should not be sullying our minds with such trash.

But in the way that some people have to slow down, stomachs clenched and eyes squinted, to look at the details of a highway car wreck, I can’t resist screeds about what young adults “should” read, or what “values” YA novels “should” include. I’m sure nobody will be surprised at how wide the spectrum can be on that score.

Ever since my own teen days, including the years I taught teens, I have been consistently aware of young readers tackling sensitive subjects in their chosen fiction. Sometimes they get burned, either that sense of a book betraying them, or encountering material that hurts in a way that makes them retreat to safer books for a time.

Kid reader 1

And I’m a firm believer in letting them do that if they are curious enough to try, because aren’t we doing the same thing when we watch yet another cop show about serial killers, rather than the news, or the latest award-winning angst-fest on PBS?

Kids are intensely curious about the world, both the real world (however you define real) and the possibilities of imagination. I’ve taught those kids. I’ve loaned books to them, and recommended books I don’t have. Sometimes the kids take to books I consider to be great, and there are few pleasures more intense than seeing an echo of one’s own sense of wonder in a new reader.

But young readers also love to pieces stuff that the rest of us think is drivel. Does that really hurt them? I’ve spoken to a number of adults who think John Green writes manipulative hogwash. I’ve also encountered young readers who adore his work, who find fresh and exciting other authors whose prose I find pedestrian at best.

teen reading 4


I’ve watched when kids respond after an adult tries to guide them toward what they consider better works ask for recommendations that are well-written, not with boring descriptions and old-fashioned words, like those dull classics they have to be tested on at school.

What do you say to a fourteen year old who adores the wonderful writing of a popular vampire series? Either you pedantically disparage the swathes of cliches in word choice, plot, and characterization . . . or do you smile and suggest similar works, in hopes that one day she will discover Jane Austen?

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 Harry Potter.

We know that kids vary just as much as adults do. We can be talking to other adults and discover to our delight that they are readers. What do they like? One reads only romance novels, and the third loves what he calls “literature”—authors like Dan Brown.

Everybody has different tastes. Are we going to tell them what they “should” be reading? So why, when the subject of young adult fiction comes up, do we shift into “should” mode?

kid reader 2

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. We want them to discover truth (however we define it) and to be exposed to the best that art can offer.

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.

One of the most pernicious tragedies of my teaching years was dealing 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. Too often 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 kids lied to them in self defense.

African American girl reading

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 isn’t going to accept them without thinking hard about them first, and above all—just like adults—they want to be entertained.

Kids’ tastes are going to evolve, though we might not be able to predict the direction of that evolution. But I am still a firm believer in holding back that condemnation in favor or keeping channels open for dialogue. The best way to insure that kids respect adult values is to respect their questions, and give them a safe environment in which to discuss the wide range of questions going through their minds.

And when they want to relax into (our trash, their treasure), remember that most of us are doing just the same.



World is Doomed! Teens Read Trash, News at 11. — 29 Comments

  1. My mantra as a parent was: “they’re reading.” Sometimes my kids were/are so enthusiastic about a particular work they want me to read it too, so we can discuss it. Whether I like the book or not (Maze Runner: ick) I figured that reading in the wild, as I did, and as they did, was the best way to make them life-long readers of everything. Still waiting to see how that turns out, but I have hope.

    • When I was a teacher, I had to practice my enthusiasm face for when kids would rush to share their wonderful discovery, books like Eragon . Here were future readers, that was my mantra.

  2. We have an awful lot of books in our house (north of 14 floor-to-ceiling steel bookcases). It was idle to try and keep the kids from looking at them, and I did not try. Our only stipulation was that hands must be washed, to keep sticky fingerprints down to a minimum.
    In one famous incident, my daughter selected THE WORM OUROBOUROS, by E.R.R. Eddison. She was ten at the time. Cunningly, but with truth, I said, “Darling, that work is a little mature for you.” She clutched it fiercely and declared, “I am going to read it!” And she did.

      • The unwritten rule around the house when I was growing up was that if I could reach it on the shelf, I could read it. I’m vain enough to think that I turned out okay, so when our kids started reading I went with the same program.

        So far, it appears to have worked.

          • My parents had a similar rule, but no system about where they put books (not to mention, when I was rummaging in my mother’s drawers for dress-up stuff, I found some things that would have shocked me if I hadn’t thought they looked boring). “You can read whatever you want, and if you have questions, you can ask them” was more or less the system. At a certain point, as I grew, I realized there were probably some questions I didn’t want to ask them, but by then the die was cast and I was reading everything.

            • I was an incessant reader as a child and pretty much read anything that wasn’t nailed down, and married a reader. It’s probably why we have around a 10,000 volume library in various and assorted generes and non-fiction and kids. For my kids I generally release books from my childhood collection as they seem interest or age appropriate.

              For books we don’t feel like they’re ready for, for various reasons we ask them just to wait for now. The book will still be there later, and there are lots more to choose from. I’m lucky in that they agree with the request so far. We ended up going with this policy as there were a lot of things that my hubby and I read that we were overfaced with at the time, but later would have been fine.
              It’s such a fine line between making sure they’re not overwhelmed by a book and letting them stretch their reading chops.

  3. As someone who grew up reading Nancy Drew, I don’t think I should get upset over what kids read. In fact, as a kid I read anything and everything, and eventually gravitated toward the good stuff, including Lord of the Rings. (A lot of people have weird ideas about what is and isn’t trash, imho.)

    I once tutored a kid who wanted to write fiction because he was inspired by the Dragonlance series, which I am told is not particularly good. He was a sharp kid and I’m sure he went on to read (and maybe to write) better stuff.

    And at 13, my nephew turned up his nose at Harry Potter — “that’s a children’s book” — but was reading Robert Jordan. Of course, he also read Philip Pullman. This is the nephew who is now teaching Latin and translates classics for fun.

    I’m pretty picky about the fiction I like these days, but I suspect that even the biggest literary snobs need some comfort reading.

  4. What I see as far as adults limiting what teens read, around me, generally deals with religious values. If they think a book violates what they consider important to their beliefs or introduces ideas they don’t want young adults exposed to, they nix it.

    My kids saw a lot of that when they were in high school, too.

    I don’t see as much criticism based on genre. In fact, my kids had some assigned reading while in middle and high school that was genre. That surprised me.

    Did you read that Riverside County just banned The Fault of Our Stars from middle schools because a parent complained? (They did not, however, extend that ban to high schools.)

    • *sigh*

      No. But I’m not surprise. And of course the kids will read it anyway. (But they will be whistling and singing La la la, because they are legally safe. Which is all that matters, sometimes I suspect.)

  5. Kids know what they like, and as many others have mentioned should be allowed to read freely and love what they read as the appetite grows in the feeding.
    The only time I was burned by books as a girl was when some adult who noticed my advanced vocabulary insisted I read what they thought was a great kids book–because it had kids in it, I guess? Smart and curious does not always mean emotionally mature. It didn’t in my case anyway.

  6. Wasn’t this screed more about the phenomenon of such a huge percentage of adults preferring YA fiction, and what this might mean for our culture? It was a quite a long time ago when I read the salon piece — which was quite poorly written, or at least poorly organized, whether by the author or editors — one never knows for certain these days. Except that we can always be certain the titles and captions are not written by the person with the byline.

    Anyway, I have seen quite a few others puzzling over the YA fiction and other adolescent nerd cultural pleasures so stoutly practiced by so-called adults, such as A.O. Scott’s in the NYTIMES Magazine a couple of weeks ago.

    • It was indeed. I was responding more to some of the discussions that spun off from that. I figured enough bytes had flown by about how poorly or not the article was written.

    • Frankly, that’s a whole different issue. A *whole* different issue.

      There have always been adults who enjoy books for younger readers. Many of us are them. Have been for decades. What’s the draw? Well, let’s start with story without the distraction of a lot of titilating “adult” clutter. You can overdo the navel-gazing that way too many authors who think their themes are “mature” tend to throw in the way of the reader — because they can. Pull that on a 10-year-old and the book will probably become one of the great unfinished.

      Also, let’s try for some active exercise of imagination which isn’t obsessed with someone’s idea of what is “real” or not. Think outside the box. Which in books for younger readers is fairly easy, because most kids are deliberately packed into very small boxes. And if you are deliberately *playing* with “what’s outside the box?”, you can do things strictly for fun. No one insists that it has to be “real”. Just that it’s plausible for as long as the story lasts.

      Why should anyone give up reading something that they enjoy because they cross some arbitrary age line? And who the hell has the right to roll up the whole peer pressure canon to try to shame them into stopping. Because they do. They oh-but-definitely do. What’s making them so uncomfortable about the idea of reading outside your age group — if the group your reading in is younger than you — is something that probably ought to be given closer examination.

      Because to me, that kind of bullying, and cowardice, smacks of something that looks a lot like thought control. And makes me suspect that there is something pretty nasty hiding in that particular woodshed.

  7. And: how do any of these pundits expect children to figure out what they like and what they admire (not necessarily the same) in fiction if someone else does all of the steering? *sends pundits to reread Milton* 😛

  8. My youngest (7) loves fairy books, and any book about a fairy or a princess will do. What’s wonderful is hearing her random observations…observations that prove she’s figuring out this whole reading/story thing.

    “All of the books I like start in one world, then something happens, and then the kids are in another world to have an adventure. Then they go back. In ____ series, it all happens in one day, every time, but they aren’t all like that.” So I explained that she was reading portal stories, and she was delighted that a) there was such a thing (because she loves them), and b) that there were other kinds of stories too. It was such a fun moment. 🙂 Afterwards, the girls spent a good hour amusing themselves by recalling other portal stories they’d read, and they had a long discussion about why Harry Potter wasn’t a portal story even though it sometimes seemed like one.

    Another time, we were discussing a new series she’d started (Rescue Princess), and she said, “The princesses always go one of the princess’s houses, a different house every time. The princess’s house that they go to is the main character. Then you learn a lot about an animal that she rescues. That’s pretty much how these books go.” And so they do.

    So…simple though these books might be, kids still learn from them. Patterns, genres, characterization…

  9. I’ve noticed that some adults who complain about teens and younger enjoying cliched writing of over-used plots about stereotyped characters don’t seem to be able to realize that for an 11-, 12,-, 16-, or even 20-year old many of these elements are new or nearly-new. Young people don’t have decades of reading and/or cultural experience with which to recognize how old or well-used some of these familiar (to parents and grandparents) things are or that a perception such as “Tolkien got his ideas from Terry Brooks” is the wrong way around.

  10. On a side note, I love the varied images of kids reading that this post has–I don’t know if it was you or someone else who found them, but they’re great.

    Regarding young people and reading, I distinguish between reading for pleasure and reading for some other purpose. Reading for pleasure is reading for pleasure, and people really absolutely ought to read *exactly* what they want for pleasure. It’s pleasure! Then there’s reading for some other purpose. Sometimes the purpose is imposed on you from outside (things you have to read for work or school), and sometimes you yourself have a goal in mind (research of one sort or another, or a desire to get a taste of some different genre or time period or culture). If you’re reading for a purpose, then often you do have to push beyond certain personal barriers.

    But for pleasure? Let the good times roll. Read what you want.

  11. Pingback: All Young Adult Literature is _____________ #yalit #books |