It seems like every other day, there’s a new op-ed in some major publication about how young adult literature is destroying the world. These op-eds are, of course, never written by YA authors, and they usually aren’t by critics or people well-read in young adult literature, either. They primarily seem to come from either concerntrolling parents or fearmongering morals police who want us all to know that young adult literature is the invention of the devil, out to corrupt our youth, ruin literature, fill children with foolish dreams, and fray away the moral fibre of society.
From my perspective, it seems like the incidence of such opinion pieces has increased, though perhaps earlier eras had their own commentators going on tirades about how fiction for children and young adults was ruining everything. Somehow, though, I doubt it, because YA as a genre has really exploded in recent years, and as it’s done so, it’s become much more adventurous and edgy. And it’s this, of course, that these commentators can’t seem to stand; they’d be fine with saccharine moralising books featuring nice, well-behaved characters who don’t do much of anything, but they can’t handle books in which people encounter real world situations with high stakes, or in which the drama of a fantasy or science fiction world cuts close to the bone.
They want Perils of Our Girl Reporters, not Unspoken. Most of these pieces seem to focus on how YA is ‘too dark,’ citing the fact that, uh, bad things happen in it sometimes. Yes, characters die, have their hearts broken, are injured, and live in dark, dangerous times. So do many young adults. Other characters struggle with their own internal emotional battles as they come to terms with issues like poverty, non-normative sexuality and gender, and abuse. These things have always been present to some degree in literature for young adults, even if people don’t want to accept that fact. And they’ve always been present in the lives of young adults, too.
And YA is not uniform, at all. There’s lots of light, fun, excellent YA that gets lots of attention and press because, simply put, it’s good times. 13 Little Blue Envelopes, for example, or the works of Meg Cabot. I tend to read darker YA because that’s what I like, and I tend specifically to read books that probe into social and cultural issues because I’m fascinated by the ability of fiction to serve as a vehicle for complex conversations when it’s artfully done. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing out there, nor does it mean that it’s all kids are reading; if it were, Meg Cabot would have been cut loose from HarperCollins long ago, trust me. And Maureen Johnson wouldn’t have been able to get a little dark and experimental with The Name of the Star.
Seated behind all of these opinion pieces about how books are ruining kids today and how will we ever preserve our society in the face of such things seems to be a deep fear of growing up. Of adulthood. And of the fact that these kids today live in a very different world than kids 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Young adults in the US at the moment are living in the midst of multiple brutal wars and military interventions around the world. They’re watching the economy crash down around them. They’re seeing a tide of racist and sexist legislation and sentiment in the United States rising up around them.
And throughout history, some kids have experienced dark, harsh lives, and sometimes books made a big difference. There’s no such thing as inappropriate literature, because readers find and read what they need to be reading. It might not be to the taste of the adults around them, but that’s beside the point. You can’t put training wheels on books; you need to set readers free and let them find the resources they need, or be led to them by helpful friends, librarians, teachers, and other mentors. The shy gay teen who gets slipped a copy of Ash needs to read it, even if a moralising op-ed says it’s morally bankrupt for twisting the Cinderella story. The kid struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts needs a copy of 13 Reasons Why even if it is dark and it doesn’t end happily.
If we genuinely care about children and we want them to grow up in a better world, one that is not so dark, we shouldn’t be focusing on what they’re reading, but what’s around them. Young adult literature isn’t responsible for the social and political upheaval we’re experiencing right now. Books aren’t setting IEDs, making bombs in basements, beating up kids for being gay, exploiting the lower classes, or trying to pass legislation to limit access to reproductive health services.
Reading books can change people and thereby change the world. And yes, those changes are not always good, but they’re not always bad, either. Reading dark books doesn’t turn you dark. To the contrary, a dark book can be the light at the end of the tunnel that someone needs to survive, a message in a bottle letting you know you are not alone, a signal that there is something more out there. Something worth it. If only you can hold on just a little bit longer.
Why people would want to take that experience away from readers is beyond me, and it says a lot that many of these handwringing op-eds are written by parents horrified that their children should be reading such things. I feel sorry for children growing up in houses where every book is carefully scrutinised and must be vetted before reading, where the very things you might need most are made inaccessible by moralising overseers who think you shouldn’t be exposed to naughty things. The world is a naughty place, whether or not you read books.