Really not much is going on in my world now that school is out for the summer. It's ironic though that school has just concluded, but the conversation is kicking up about teens and reading. I wanted to take a second to respond to the much discussed article by Meghan Cox Gurdon "Darkness Too Visible," that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the 4th. The article basically outlines what the writer sees as a trend in current YA fiction as being too dark and abnormal for teen readers.
I'll admit that I hear this complaint from adults on a frequent basis, as they fear that their teens are reading the equivalence of smut. What I don't understand from this article is the blanket idea that this is the majority of what is available for teens? As a teacher of a Popular Fiction class, I would say that I've tried to stay familiar with what is available for teen readers. While there is a current trend towards paranormal, dystopian, and angsty types of reads, there are plenty of heart-warming, wholesome reads for teens to choose from. Let me just share a few of my own observations though, based on what I see my students reading.
First, teens are more discerning than we give them credit. If a teen doesn't like a book or is offended by it, they really will stop reading it and return the book. I don't think adults believe that teens will stop reading a book that might be salacious, but they really will. I've watched them time and time again, return something they felt wasn't worth their time.
Second, and I don't mean to make an excuse or whitewash adult fears, but teens are exposed to a lot on TV, in movies, and in real life. One of the most checked out set of books at our high school were the Ellen Hopkins' books that contain issues of drug use, mental instability, and a general struggle with self identity. Inevitably I have two or three students who present one of Hopkins' books during our "Book Show and Tell" time in my Popular Fiction class and I always ask, "What did you learn from this book and who would you recommend it to?" They almost always say something about how devastating these issues are on people's lives. I still remember one girl saying, "I just realized how good my life really is." In some ways, if thoughtfully presented, books provide an opportunity and experience with something so that the readers don't have to go through it themselves.
Third, kids hate it when adults tell them what they should like. I get that a teen should have protection from a list of things they know not of, and in sheltering their innocence and joy as long as possible, but I will admit that a lot of times it's the "why" behind not reading something that we miss sharing with them. When we censor what they read or avoid subjects, they become more curious and will seek them out to find out the "why" for themselves. I'm just suggesting that a conversation or dialogue needs to continue. Teens really do appreciate honesty.
Fourth, I'm not sure it's the evil publishing industry out to make money to corrupt all teens. With more and more reluctant readers coming up the ranks, writers and publishers are looking for reading experiences that will snatch them away from the television, movies, computers, and music that is all vying for their attention. It's a known fact that if you can get a reader absorbed and excited in a reading experience just one time, they will seek that out again by reading even more. Is there salacious reading material out there? Of course, but I don't think the goal of writers and publishers is to see how much they can get away with and still make money. In the end, they are trying to fill a demand to provide good reading material for their readers.
Finally, I wanted to acknowledge my own agreement with one aspect of Gurdon's article which was parental involvement, "No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives." I think that this is an important point. It is essential that parents talk about good books and teach teens (and much younger children) to question not only content, but also rhetoric, in general. When we help teens become better readers, with a more developed sense of problem solving, we set them up for greater success as adults. You don't have to be exposed to the "ick" (as I call it) of the world to be a more savvy person, but maybe teens should be given a little knowledge about how to situate themselves to it?
In the end, I want to acknowledge the good going on in YA literature. I'm fine with discussions that create a dialogue and some understanding, but I hope that this doesn't create more fear than anything. The fact is that our teens have much more to read than ever before. The bridge is there so they don't have to jump directly to adult literature, with its complex themes and issues. I'm glad they have stories that can help them move into adulthood. And if a discussion needs to happen, my hope is that teens feel safe enough to bring up what they have read to good parents or teachers who are sensitive to their needs. Thank you to authors who work hard to create good, validating reading experiences for teens, and to parents, teachers, and librarians who try to guide them through this point in their lives!
Take this as you will. These are just a few of my own thoughts and opinions based on a variety of students I've run across over the years. I'd love to hear what you think! Maybe this article has great timing in encouraging a conversation, or is it sending out a much too negative vibe about YA fiction that will only stir up fear? What do you think we should be doing as adults to help teens select good reading materials?