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.
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.
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?
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.
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.