Last night, Twitter blew up (check the hashtag “#yasaves”) over this WSJ article about modern YA literature. Apparently, it’s not full of happy fun kids scampering through meadows or whatever.
There’s a lot to be annoyed about in the article (which is why it has a rel=”nofollow”) including a list of books the writer thinks would be appropriate for kids–which naturally is split into a boy’s list and a girl’s list.
Whatever. There are quite a few writers, readers, and publishing people taking the article apart and pointing out the power of downbeat, even grim, stories. They’re more knowledgeable and more articulate on the subject that I could be. I just want to address one thing:
The article writer manages to nod her head toward the fact that books about, say, cutting would be helpful for kids who cut themselves. She thinks they’d show kids how to heal themselves and move on. Instructional manuals, basically, although she’d never say it so baldly. Still, her talk of kids who don’t cut themselves, but who might start to think of it as a legitimate option after reading about it (“normalizing” as it were) makes it clear this is where her argument is going.
This isn’t just ridiculous, it shows that the WSJ children’s book columnist doesn’t understand how books work. Are books about surviving rape only for rape victims? Are addiction memoirs only for addicts?
No one would suggest this for adults, of course. No one would airdrop boxed sets of Lord of the Rings to Libyan rebels. But with teenagers, there’s this idea that someone else’s kids might be screwed up enough to need screwed-up books, but our kids are perfectly fine, thanks, and don’t need to be exposed to helplessness or pain.
Not only is that wrong, it’s as wrong as wrong gets. Everyone, young and old, needs to experience a wide variety of emotions in the safe space that books provide. It’s not about normalizing, or processing your own shit; it’s about being human and understanding other humans. It’s about seeing your own dark impulses–which even your angelic little honor club teen feels–played out through fictional characters.
Personally, I hate the idea that fiction is supposed to be part of some self-improvement project. I don’t hate it because I think fiction is (or should be) fun fluffy nothings that you enjoy and toss aside; I honestly believe that reading fiction enriches us. I couldn’t write it if I didn’t.
I hate the “What do we learn from this novel?” garbage because it’s always trotted out to confirm someone’s pre-existing prejudice. It’s a tool of disapproval, and it’s used against fantasy, romance, downbeat stories, upbeat stories–everything, frankly. Sure, one person might understand perfectly well that his Kindle full of crime thrillers won’t “normalize” bank robbery, but those women and their romance novels have such unrealistic alpha male expectations, amirite? (Because this is the internet, let me say that last sentence was sarcasm. Thanks for playing along.)
And it’s so short-sighted! What if that novel about murder, war, battle, and revolution is not a rehearsal for violence, but a rehearsal for bravery? What if that addiction memoir isn’t spurring kids to give that heroin thing a try, but is simply giving them a safe space for compassion? Why not trust that your own kids, the ones you raised to know right from wrong, to draw something valuable from the books they love?
They won’t do it, but the Wall Street Journal should fire and replace that columnist. Maybe they can even find one who understands what censorship is.