Friday, June 10, 2011

Follow-up to #YAsaves

I wrote earlier in the week about the wrong-headed asshattery, ahem, article about dark YA books in the Wall Street Journal, and I wanted to follow it up with some links to pieces that have sprung up in answer. 

First, thanks Adrienne for leaving this link in my comments. It goes to a piece on entitled "Seeing Teens the Way We Wish They Were: the Debate Over YA Fiction," by Linda Holmes. Good reading, good points.

Today, Publisher's Weekly posted this piece on the issue, including comments from the asshat writer herself, as well as many comments by YA authors, librarians, agents, editors.

Also today, author Sherman Alexie has an opinion piece in Speakeasy, which from what I can tell is an online arts magazine affiliated with the WSJ (anyone?), and it's terrific -- "it" being the Sherman Alexie essay, that is. It's entitled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written In Blood." (If you have not read Sherman Alexie's award-winning YA book Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, you should. Seriously wonderful book: hilarious, heart-breaking, desperate, awesome, hopeful, hellish, and deeply deeply resonant.) 

Basically, there has been a huge response to that stupid WSJ article, and while it's great that these wonderful voices have been inspired to speak up against idiocy, it's so disheartening that the debate persists year after year, and it feels like the idiots are gaining strength. These people are so scary. 

The most preposterous thing to me is their inability to consider context and value in a book. I mean, to them, if a book contains "darkness" i.e. drugs or rape or cutting, etc, they immediately jump to the assumption that the book is somehow condoning drugs or rape or cutting. Hello. This is never the case. I would hope that really anyone could make that distinction. A nuanced story that shines light into a dark subject is very different from a celebration of that dark subject. And yet these people cannot make that distinction.

Or. They're being disingenuous. I don't actually think their real fear is that their young people will be made dark by reading about darkness. I think their real fear is that their young people will be made free. There's a story that sticks in my head from way back in college when I worked at an independent bookstore. An author was doing a reading from his book, which was nonfiction and was about Albania under the dictator Hoxha. I knew nothing of Albania, and was enthralled. A lot of details from that reading stick in my memory, but the relevant one is this. It was (true or not, I can't say) that the people of Albania had been kept in utter isolation up through (I think) the 1980s, and ignorant of the outside world. Hoxha had taken pains to make his subjects believe that Albania was the garden of the world, and everybody else wanted what they had, and they had to keep it closed and protected.

Well. The story goes that on the day that the first television transmissions -- the truth -- reached Albania from Europe, the ships in the harbors sank under the weight of Albanians trying to get across the Adriatic to Italy.

In short, I think what "they" fear -- the book censorers -- is that their young people are going to jump on ships and get out of Albania. Once they learn, from books, all that there is to choose from in the world, all the many ways to live and things to do and be, and places to go, and ways to be free, they'll be outta there. That's what I think the real fear is.

Here's the thing about fiction that I think is so huge and important. I've thought/written about it in the context of fantasy before, but this debate has made me think about it more broadly, and I think it really applies to fiction in general. It's this: in our real lives, we (and most particularly young people) feel very powerless. Most of us aren't especially resourceful or brave, not in the way fictional characters are. We don't have, say, Lisbeth Salander's genius, or Harry Potter's magic. Or, what there is in us of power, we may not have accessed it yet. 

Characters in books can make us yearn to be powerful -- some of us become fantasy junkies because of the exhilaration of embodying that power vicariously -- but they can also teach us to be brave. In the general sense, they can impart values like persistence, self-belief, integrity. And in a specific sense, they might actually teach a young person how to seek help for abuse. They might send such a powerful message of "you are not alone," as to prevent suicides. 

Fiction has a power that a news article can never have, because readers inhabit fiction. We experience novels from the inside, and they change us. And those who yammer about "darkness" have probably never read these books, because in these stories, characters struggle with and overcome darkness, they don't roll around in it and slather it on themselves going "Yummy yummy evil! Young impressionable person, lick my awesome evil and become evil too!"

I mean really. 

In summary, don't be dumb and don't be mean. Read lots of books and give lots of books to young people and fight the good fight. Because the scary people are getting dumber, and meaner. And they're getting louder too, and that's a very bad thing.


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite posts you've ever written. Extremely well written. I think I'd once heard something similar too about Albania. A good book that illuminates the very real hell some of their fellow teens must endure sparks an understanding and empathy that would likely not be there otherwise with the same depth. The more widely you read, especially of well written fiction, the less judgmental, ignorant, and isolated we are from each other.

I also think though there are some book banners who feel they are protecting teens because they can indeed be very easily influenced by peers and circumstances around them. I think they fail to understand maybe that being exposed to the darker aspects of life through a well written novel is something else entirely. And I still remember reading Go Ask Alice around 12. It did expose me to a lot of horrible realities I hadn't known existed in my suburban bubble, but it scared me away from drugs, running away from my problems, and allowed me to have an empathy for the plight of addicts I'd not have otherwise. Well written YA books and great fiction in general make us into deeper, better human beings.

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks! And though I never read Go Ask Alice as a kid/teen, I had the same experience with the German book Christiane F, autobiography about teen heroine addiction/prostitution. Yeah, that book did NOT sexy up drug use. It was surely the first thing I'd ever read about heroine use, and I remember it as I do not remember anything else i might have read at the same time.

Johari said...

Excellent post. Many people need fiction to survive. One person I know used fantasy lit as an escape. An escape from an emotionally abusive mother, an absentee father and school bullies. Without the life-raft of books he probably would have drowned. I had another friend who cut herself in high school (early-nineties) almost to the point of killing herself. Poetry helped her.
I think if the censors want "happier", less "painful" books for teens, first they need to help make their world less violent, less hostile, more compassionate, more tolerant and more loving.

I had relatives that sheltered their kids from every bad thing. No damaging literature. No ruinous TV. No unwholesome movies. They controlled everything. In the end the kids grew up and found themselves exposed to the darker sides of humanity--only they weren't prepared for it. One isolated herself even more--keeping only to the society she knew. The other went wild and is still having a hard time dealing with reality.

Hiding teens away only makes them weaker and more isolated. Instead parents should use YA literature as a catalyst for discussing the hard topics. Parents should read the books their kids read and engage them instead of turning their head and pretending that shadows don't exist.

Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Jennifer Morian Frye said...

I loved whomever it was (sorry, I've forgotten) that said "Oh yes, it is those kids that read that are in danger." or something like.
So, apparently there is going to be a Pt. 2 to the WSJ 'article'?

I think what bothered me most was really the fact that she lumped the entire YA spectrum together, as if it is ALL dark and ooky.

Also, I like the word "asshattery", thank you. : )

Karen L. Simpson said...

This is so well written and so on point. Thank you!

xegbp said...


Beautiful, thank you--my HS English Teacher had a list of banned books and we read everyone of them on the list as part of our class assignements, she absolutley wanted us to read and think, she would periodically ask us " How far away is the World of Farenheit 451." This was the Reagan era and she was a woman in her 60's not your typical radical. She was inspiring.

Christine Fletcher said...

"Don't be dumb and don't be mean." This is my new all-time favorite quote.

And I agree with you that the fear is (at least, in large part) that kids will read a book and learn that there are other ways to be in the world than the one they were taught. That the world itself looks different, through different eyes... and that's not a terrible thing.

Beautifully written.

Emilie said...

Fiction reflects life. If there are things like drug use and rape in teen books, it's because teens experience them. Shouldn't we be trying to help those teens who go through all that in real life instead of beating up the books that can become lifelines?

(And personal note to Christine Fletcher, who posted above me, your book "Ten Cents a Dance" impressed me so much because it didn't sugar-coat what it's like to fall for a bad boy. She didn't "find his good side" or anything, she eventually saw him for who he was and protected herself. Plenty of people I know would have hated that there was a bad boy at all, but your story was so excellent. Thank you.)

Love, Chelsea said...

I love your words. You give me confidence in the smarties outweighing the dummies. Here's hoping.

Cynthia Lee said...

I think the asshat that wrote the article just wanted some attention and, perhaps, professional advancement. Very disingenuous, indeed.

I've always lived in the Deep South and nonsense like this flares up and then fades away. Maybe I'm being too nonchalant but I'm not too worried about this particular kerfluffle.

Elizabeth said...

love it.

i'm 30 and i read YA frequently, and don't plan to ever stop. teenagers are still a part of our society, and there's a lot stuff, dark and light and in-between, that happens as you are learning to be an adult. validation is important.

Amber said...

Very very very good post.


Katie Anderson said...

really great post Laini!

Bri Elli said...

I agree with everything you say. But seriously, has that woman (the asshat) and her followers not read the classics, not seen the novels that we're assigned to read every year? Shakespeare is FILLED with sexual innuendo and darkness--suicide, murder, etc. The Lord of the Flies is filled with insanity and various murders. 1984 contains both sex and torture. I'm in 9th grade, and all of these books were assigned to me.
And Judy Blume? Seriously? I couldn't stand that stuff. I wanted to burn the book, and throw in a bra or two just for fun.
Every book requires conflict to have a plot, and so what if YA authors are using esperiences from many YA's lives as the pivotal conflict? It's entirely relatable, helpful, and entertaining.
Although I must say, unhappy endings are very unsatisfying. (Though I myself have written some.)

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