In defense of YA literature

My own response to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s sensationalistic story on the so-called dangers of YA literature, that ran in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday. This piece originally appeared on The Faster Times.

On Friday nights, my mother used to gather my twin brother and me into her bed, and she would read to us. A Wrinkle in Time, years before I would understand the ontological, religious, or scientific references the book evoked, or the controversy surrounding the series and its beloved author Madeleine L’Engle, but old enough to admire Meg Murry’s brilliance and her ferocious love for her family, Charles Wallace’s precocious genius and precious naiveté, the fascinating and mystifying Mrs.’ Who, Which, and Whatsit. And before A Wrinkle in Time there were the zany, inventive poems of Shel Silverstein, there was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, there were the stories of King Arthur and countless fairy tales. Curled up next to my mother, I would enter these worlds night after night. If there was a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by books, when I wasn’t read to, or reading to myself, I can’t remember it.

On days off from school, the favorite destination for the three of us were bookstores and libraries; I would sit in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, plowing through the growing pile of books beside me, or check out teetering stacks of novels from my favorite local library, where the librarians all knew my mother and seemed bemused at the site of my child-self, clutching a tower of books almost as tall as I was. This library happened to have the best YA section, carefully curated by an attentive teen librarian who would purchase all the latest releases.

I was never told I couldn’t read something—I doubt the thought would have occurred to my mother. A former elementary school teacher, and a psychologist, whose love of books and reading undeniably informed my own, she was open to any questions I had and she certainly never tried to control what subjects I gravitated towards.

I discovered Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes and Deenie at my elementary school library well before I knew exactly what masturbation was—and you know, that’s ok. You retain the information you’re ready for and bypass the rest. I devoured Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series—and still do, almost fifteen years later. Naylor’s depiction of sex, teen drinking, menstruation, death, divorce, and childhood squabbles were frank but always handled with care; her many legions of readers who have stayed with her over the past decades are surely testament to that. I fell in love with Alanna of Trebond in Tamora Pierce’s The Lioness Quartet, who was everything I thought a heroine should be: quick-witted, agile, able to defend herself and those around her, but still decidedly feminine: she took lovers without apology (though always used protection—a fact that was commendably made explicit throughout Pierce’s novels) and managed to forge a marriage and a family without compromising herself or her career.

Teens need to have unrestricted access to YA fiction. Reading, especially at a young age, broadens your perspective. It shapes your tastes, your world- view, it reminds you that you aren’t alone, that your demons are not so strange, that there’s no need to suffer in isolation. You have literally thousands of heroes and heroines to choose from, these feisty, brave, not-so-different from yourself characters. They become real to you, and as they do, so do the possibilities they invoke.

Let’s face it. That supposedly dark and scary world Gurdon refers to with such disapprobation is by no means alien to most (not all, but most) teenagers. We are shaped by the same wars, crises, sex scandals and national events that adults are. I was eleven when Monica Lewinsky’s blue-stained dress was on the news every night, twelve when Columbine seared nerves across the country and my middle school went into lockdown after a bomb threat, fourteen when the towers fell. This is the landscape my peers and I have grown up with; for the rising generations, they will have never known anything else.

My friends and I were, for, the most part, undeniably “good” kids. We were straight-edge, we did well in school, we starred in plays and on sports teams, we edited the literary magazine and joined National Honor Society. We also cut, struggled with depression, with abuse, and with eating disorders. We had destructive relationships, lost our virginities, fell in love, fell out of love, saw our parents divorce. We went on to great colleges. We became writers, actors, web designers, burgeoning policy experts. None of us were that atypical, and none of us were “scarred.”

If anything, the books we read reminded us that we weren’t alone. We saw ourselves in them, in their smart, capable, and yes, teenage characters. To take that opportunity away from kids, to deny that yes, there is dark in the world, that a teenager’s life is often complex, hilarious, difficult, and moving—is to do them a dangerous disservice. And yes, it is censorship.

During a stretch of my college career, I worked at Anderson Literary Management, under the wonderful Michelle Humphrey and Rachel Hecht (if any of you are in the market for agents, go seek them out!) and was placed, by my own interest, as well as happenstance, more or less in charge of Anderson’s YA section, reading and vetting manuscripts, and hopefully helping to launch a few authors’ careers. Barry Lyga is a great YA author, and an Anderson client; if I hadn’t worked there, I probably never would have been turned on to his work. A year later, while interning at Clarion Books, I discovered Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, read the manuscript in an afternoon, and told the editor I was working under, Lynne Polvino, that I thought this was something special.

Now I’m out of college, a young professional, carving out a writing career of my own, and my bookshelves and floor space are still stuffed with YA lit. Suzanne Collins. Francesca Lia Block. Laurie Halse Anderson. Sarah Dessen. Megan McCafferty.

“When a concept is too complex for adults, I write it for children,” Madeleine L’Engle was wryly fond of saying. “This is a difficult and dangerous world, and no amount of sticking our heads in the sand is going to make it any easier.”

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 10, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This is great and I read and enjoyed many of the books you mentioned growing up. I’m curious though, what was the argument against young adult literature in the first place? Can you give a link or a summary?

    • Posted June 10, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much Jenny! Sorry for that, should have included a link to the WSJ article that spawned this debate that’s been going on for the past week. You can find it here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html

      • Posted June 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Urgh. As much as I wish I could unsee this deluded and privileged claptrap, I thank you for posting the link and giving this some context. Someone should get this lady a ticket to Egypt, cuz she’s Queen of De-Nile!!! This is exactly the kind of thing I despise, the kind that made me fly into rages and yes—practice self-mutilation as a teen. She’s upset that YA novels aren’t all fluffy and happy. Well I’m glad that maybe HER youth was as la-di-dah as she comes across here, but as a teen I was dealing with rape and mental illness. Friends of mine were dealing with equally grim issues, drug abuse, depression, homosexuality hidden for fear of reprisal from family or peers. There was the boy who blew his brains out with his father’s gun, the girl who disappeared from school and was hospitalized for attempting the same. The boy who ultimately died from his eating disorder (a problem often wrongly assumed to only afflict teenage girls.) Should teens like these not have books that reflect the issues and realities that they’re struggling with? Should we just pretend the world is shiny and happy, and that those troubled people don’t even exist? Should everyone just read “Sweet Valley High”? (Is that even still around?)

        Yes, I loved the stories of Madeline L’Engle and Judy Blume, I also loved The Outsiders, Go Ask Alice, The Diary Of Anne Frank, and other things I’m sure would be just a bit too scary to make it past this author’s glistening picket fence. Oh well, at least I’m glad to see that on the poll people overwhelmingly voted that this subject matter was helpful rather than harmful.

  2. Posted June 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    An excellent post! Thanks very much.

    Funnily enough, I know and have frequently visited two of the bookstores mentioned in the original article. And like you, my mother was an elementary school teacher who focused on reading. I remember that boxes of books from Scholastic and other publishers arrived weekly. I always had something to read.

    YA literature was pertinent to me until I reached high school. I had occasionally read “adult” literature up until that point, but I was finally emotionally and intellectually mature enough to get it. And what I read did trend towards the dark, but I was miserable and depressed.

    I don’t doubt the quality of current YA, but I can’t read it anymore. I too closely associate it with painful periods of my life. But I am glad it was there for me when it was. Otherwise, I might have felt even more isolated and alone.

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