As a writer and avid reader I am always interested in how people (and media) view the literary world. Most of the people who know me as a writer and reader know that I read a lot of reviews, that I am pretty in touch with the literary community at large. There isn't a whole lot that surprises me anymore. However, this article by The UK Daily Mail really threw me for a loop.
Now, because I am all about source material, I suggest you take a moment to read it. Go on. I'll wait. Back? Sweet. For those of you who know that I'm going to surmise the article and didn't read it- bravo. It says, in essence, that there is a disturbing trend in Young Adult (YA) literature of books that involve harsh and realistic situations in teen life-- suicide, self-harm, terminal illness, etc. It further says that these books have a harmful effect on their readers, that children will read them and be emotionally damaged by them. Not only that, but they are more likely to engage in self-harm, suicide attempts and inappropriate sexual behaviors. It cites several young adult books, though the two most often referenced are The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. It is a cautionary style article that almost reads as an open letter to parents and educators warning of the dangers of what they call "sick lit." Let your kids read this, it says, and they'll turn in to sexual deviants, drug users, cutters- they'll even try to kill themselves. Stuff like this, they say, is just too depressing. Especially since these books are being marketed to12 year olds.
I completely disagree with this article. Completely and whole-heartedly. In part, I think this sort of opinion treats young adults as though they are stupid, mindless lemmings. The idea that just because a teen reads about a character committing suicide means they'll want to is silly. Give the kids some credit. While you're handing out that credit, give them some for being able to handle emotionally difficult situations. By the time you are twelve you've likely had some sort of real-life experience dealing with grief, suffering, unhappiness, sex, poverty or low self-esteem. They know what sex is. They know what cancer is. If they've even caught a glimpse of the television they know there are bad things in the world. They aren't morons. Young people are usually far more observant that adults give them credit for. Moreover, I think there's been some sort of disconnect, because I don't know that they're technically paying attention to the difference between Middle Grade literature, YA12+ literature and YA14+ literature, all of which have very different content.
Laying those things aside, though, I'd like to know why it is the Daily Mail feels that other YA books might be preferable to the ones they object to because they are too "real life" for the kids to handle? I think there's a strong argument to be made, using their logic, that you shouldn't let children read at all. Let's work with this theory that kids are gullible and they can be emotionally damaged by what they read. Let's also agree they might choose to act out in a particular manner because they identify with a character. Running with these assumptions, lets look at other popular YA books and see how they might affect the children.
Let's just jump in with the most obvious. Harry Potter (JK Rowling). Great, intelligent, healthy books- right? Heavens no. Harry Potter teaches children to subvert authority. Harry, Hermione and Ron are constantly breaking rules and disrespecting authority figures and they are constantly rewarded for it. It teaches them that its okay to do bad things if your parents do it too. Draco Malfoy makes out like a bandit at the end of the series, no nevermind that he's responsible for the deaths of several people, the mauling of Bill Weasley and any other number of bad things that happen throughout the books. It teaches our kids that smart people like Hermione, Luna and Ginny are really only worth having around if you can get something out of them or if they're good looking. What's that you say? Harry Potter teaches kids witchcraft? Oh, well, let's just abandon them for something more suitable.
How about Twilight? (Stephanie Meyer) That's a popular YA book. Here's a nice healthy love story about a girl who falls for a good looking guy. She likes him even though he treats her like crap. She likes him even though he's emotionally manipulative and controlling. We'll just ignore the fact that he wants to kill her at first. Or that he's almost 100 years older than her. Or that he's dead. Barring those things, Twilight also teaches us that it is okay to lie to our parents. They're probably overbearing- what with the caring about us and wanting us to be safe and all. It teaches us that it is okay to take unnecessary and stupid risks for the people we love, especially when they've done something stupid that puts their life in danger. Moreover, it teaches us that if the boy/girl we like doesn't like us back, or dumps us, its okay to act like life is over. I mean, there's nothing to life as a teenager outside of having a boy/girlfriend. Right? And those people who actually love you, who want to take care of you, who want to make you feel like you're the most special person ever? Screw them. They don't understand who you really are. Oh, you don't like Twilight either? Too much vampire and werewolf action? Let's move on then.
How about The Hunger Games Trilogy (Suzanne Collins)? Now there is a cultural phenomenon. I hear a lot of schools are assigning it to their students to read. Well, they shouldn't. First off, this is a post-democracy North America. We should never suggest to teenagers that there might come a time when democracy is not the accepted world-wide governing standard. Also, this book is set after ice-caps melt and nuclear weapons have been used. That's too upsetting to the kids. We don't want them to think about the social or political or environmental consequences of their actions. That's too upsetting for them. Worse, this is a book where kids kill other kids. Yes, I am aware that the main characters will die if they don't kill the other kids. It doesn't matter. Killing is wrong and they should take the high road. Reading this will cause children to think it is acceptable to kill people. Worse, it will breed in them the desire to use weapons. It will. What's worse, one of the heroes (Haymich) is an alcoholic. It glorifies drinking. And it paints an undesirable picture of people who want to live in comfort, and who care about fads and fashion. These books clearly are trying to impart socialist lessons that are anti-consumer culture. We can't have that. This book also blatantly glorifies sexuality. Katniss and two different boys kiss. Sometimes more than once. And Katniss and Peeta sleep together in the same bed, even. The end of the series is also wildly inappropriate. All of that death and war is upsetting, and Katniss being medicated with the future equivalent of Morphine tells children its okay to use drugs, even prescription ones, to deal with depression. They will eventually draw the conclusion that using drugs for other purposes is okay. Didn't you see how they painted the morphlings from District 6 in a completely sympathetic light?
Perhaps the problem with these books is that they're too recent. We should address the classics we read when we were growing up. There was nothing upsetting in those books. I mean, nothing that would scar a child like these current ones do...
Except that the March girls in Little Women (Alcott) are poor. And Beth dies. And several times in the book its rather implied that they're on the brink of starvation. In Hiedi (Spyri) one of the main characters is a cripple. Ditto The Secret Garden (Hodgeson-Burnett). On top of that, it teaches children its okay to be brats if you're ill or you've had bad things happen to you. Good lord, A Little Princess (also by Burnett) teaches children that if you're smart and good and well behaved and rich you'll be well loved, but that if you are smart and good and well behaved and poor you'll be mistreated and you'll live an unhappy life because of it. Woodsong (Paulsen) is far too graphic with animal violence and only teaches children escapism- what kind of person actually lives in the woods and raises dogs for sled racing? No normal person. You definitely can't let them read fairy tales. Not the real ones! They're graphic, violent and full of inappropriate language and witchcraft and such. I'd tell you to let them see the clean, Disney versions of them, but since Disney loves gay people, we can't have that either.
Yes, indeed, children's literature is clearly unhealthy. What we really need is to get back to good old-fashioned morals. Children should read the Bible. After all, the Bible has no graphic violence, sexism, racism, or blatant sexuality. Nope, none at all. Wait- what? It does? Well, hell.
I think its clear, then, what has to be done. We can't let children read anymore. Nope. Can't do it. If we do there's no getting around it, our children will be damaged. Or so goes the logic of the UK Daily Mail.
Honestly, I read a lot as a child. Not just the books I mentioned (well, the classics, the others hadn't been published yet.) but many others. I wasn't scarred by The Goosebumps books(Stein). Sweet Valley High (Pascal) had no effect on my burgeoning sexuality or my self esteem. I was not irreparably damaged when I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Schwartz). The Boxcar Children (Warner) didn't make me want to run away. The first time I stumbled across a romance novel at 13 I didn't immediately run out and have sex. I wasn't scarred by the trials and tribulations of Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew made me no more nosy than I already was. James and The Giant Peach (Dahl) didn't cause me to cuss, or want to run away, it didn't make me afraid of bugs. Honestly the only effect that book had on me at the time was a propensity to try a rhyme all of my words and sing like the bugs. By the time I was in 4th grade I was checking out books from the Jr. High side of my school's library. I remained unscathed. As I got older I branched into more adult, more graphic books. I've survived all of those as well.
Here's the thing, children are generally aware of the world around them. Give them a chance and they'll surprise you. Its amazing what they learn, what they absorb and their capacity for compassion, love and internalizing the life lessons that books like the ones I mentioned teach. Literature is a tool in which writers reach out to the world. Sometimes it is to make a connection, to teach a lesson or to share an experience. But all of those reasons contribute to our world view as we read. All of them give us the ability to live through others, to experience that which might never happen to us, or give us the opportunity to see that we are never quite as alone in our trials and sufferings as we think we are.
As a child, books were one of my greatest companions. I came from a broken home. I had an alcoholic, abusive father. My mother, bless her, worked all the time to support us and was often from home. By the time I was the age of a YA14+ reader I knew all about terminal illnesses, death, sexual abuse and poverty. I'd seen through other school mates first hand what drugs, violence and alienation could do to a person. I knew what it was like to be poor, a little strange, and unpopular. Through all of this, though, I read. And I read. And I read. I was in seventh grade the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee). As a 13 year old girl it didn't horrify me, or hurt me or scare me. It spoke to me, in a way I could hardly express. A year after I read Oliver Twist (Dickens) and the violence, poverty and sadness in that book hurt me no more than any other book I read.
What I discovered as I read was that I was not alone in the great human experience. I was not the only one who had felt the things I was feeling. I found comfort. I found acceptance. I found peace reading those books. That, to me, makes every word I read during that time worthwhile.
It is my sincere hope that people will not take this article to heart. What I do hope happens is that parents, teachers and other adults become more aware of the widespread and positive experience that literature can provide. That they realize that their young adults can relate to these works and that they should be not only encouraging them to read, but encouraging them to discuss what they're reading and how it makes them feel. Maybe, just maybe, if we take the time to do that we will emerge with a well-read, emotionally healthy, well-adjusted generation who can reflect well on their place in the world, and how they are connected to it at large.
We can hope, right?
I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts.
A note and disclaimer: I obviously do not own any of the books I mentioned. I did not write them. That is why I put the authors' names in for you. Additionally, I would encourage you to read any or all of these books if you can. Most of them are great works of literature, and I am proud to have read them. Also, in case you had not caught the tenor of my arguments, I actually quite like most of the books I mentioned.
Also, the title comes from a lyric from The Daily Mail song, which was John Greene's only response to the article. Having followed the link, I can only suggest you do so as well. Its worth a good laugh, anyway.