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The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature

29 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Although “Heather Has Two Mommies” caused quite a stir upon its 1989 publication, a case could be made that the book was a reasonable reflection of the gay-rights zeitgeist as well as the latter-day realities of American domesticity. If nothing else, “Heather” was uplifting in theme and execution, likely to make young readers more comfortable with an evolving culture.

The same can’t be said for a list of “socially aware” books featured prominently at the inaugural Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in June. The four-day summit convened nearly 50 presenters—top educators and authors from across the land—and focused nominally on “Rising Up: Socially Relevant Texts, Critical Literacy, and Identity.”

But “rising up” might not be the first phrase that comes to mind when one surveys a representative sampling of the marquee fare:

• “How It Went Down,” a novel by Kekla Magoon, presents 18 different perspectives on the shooting of an unarmed black youth. (This is the second prominent young-adult book on the topic published recently. While not featured at the summit, Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give”—also about the shooting of an unarmed black youth—contended for a National Book Award in 2017.)

• “Shout” is author Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir of her sexual assault and struggle with eating disorders while growing up with an alcoholic parent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ms. Anderson’s debut novel, “Speak,” examined sexual assault from the viewpoint of a ninth-grade girl.

• In “Losers Bracket,” family therapist Chris Crutcher introduces young readers to the heartbreaking lives of children who continue to love and depend on their parents “no matter how badly treated” they may be.

. . . .

It is difficult to understand why educators would so determinedly insist on immersing students in an unsavory worldview, portraying life in terms of its anomalies and unorthodoxies, as if there’s something wrong with you if there’s nothing wrong with you. Of course teachers want all children from all life circumstances to feel accepted, to belong—but belong to what, exactly? Classroom discussions that celebrate this or that fictive martyr, tragic figure, antihero or other outlier are bound to create more outliers: Consciously or not, adolescents will seek membership in the group that appears to be getting all the attention. And if indeed it is psychologically debilitating for the young people depicted in today’s YA literature to inhabit a world of virulent racism and interminable bullying and sexual abuse, then why make the vast majority of students, who don’t live amid such conditions, feel as if they do?

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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21 Comments to “The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature”

  1. “It is difficult to understand why educators would so determinedly insist on …”

    Hmm, and ‘who’ is telling those educators to push these books? That’ll help explain why it’s being pushed.

    ‘All in all it’s just another brick in the wall …’

  2. “And if indeed it is psychologically debilitating for the young people depicted in today’s YA literature to inhabit a world of virulent racism and interminable bullying and sexual abuse, then why make the vast majority of students, who don’t live amid such conditions, feel as if they do?”

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that “vast majority.” I used to be very naive about the number of school-age children who are suffering from hunger, abuse, bullying and myriad other difficulties. Then my wife began working as a School Psychologist. Yeah, it is bad out there. All that bad news we see? It happens somewhere, even in nice neigborhoods. Stats vary by location, but I’ve frequently seen a stat suggesting about 50% of kids show up to school each morning with some issue that is interfering with their learning and/or social development.

    Readers want honesty amid the fiction. They want characters they can relate to who are dealing with conflict and navigating a dark world, usually successfully in the end, but perhaps not. Some people would police YA because of the YA label. (I’ve seen that with YA I’ve written.) The adults’ problem is that they’re too focused on the Y. The actual young readers are focused on the A. They don’t see themselves as little kids. Most young readers tend to gravitate to fiction with a main character two to three years older than themselves.

    As for what’s being pushed, there are plenty of books in the world and sugary alternatives in most school libraries. Some stories will be sunny but the darker books can be no less aspirational. If kids want to read about darker subjects, it’s not the greater culture they’re necessarily relating to. They see themselves in those pages. Resonating with a work of fiction allows exploration, promotes empathy and ultimately assures at-risk children that they are not alone. There’s an author out there somewhere who gives voice to the pain they feel, articulating what’s often kept secret.

    Let’s not slap too much icing on the poop cake and sing happy birthday quite yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

    • Stats vary by location, but I’ve frequently seen a stat suggesting about 50% of kids show up to school each morning with some issue that is interfering with their learning and/or social development.

      What stat is that, and why does it carry any more weight than that “vast majority?”

    • Despite that, The Pigman was perhaps the most remarkably depressing book I read that summer, which was also around the same time I was chewing through the Slammers series (aka psychological horror masquerading as mil scifi)

      Art, good art, shows one how to get through horrible things. All to much YA lit only shows you how to succumb to horrible things.

  3. Ashe Elton Parker

    In my experience, the so-called “anomalies and unorthodoxies” are actually much closer to being common and if not orthodox, at least overlooked by people who are supposedly “normal.” Not everybody, especially of the age group YA is aimed at, seeks therapists to learn how to deal with their problems; most, I’d say, don’t even realize they probably should do so. Teachers, because they spend so much time with their students, are probably in a far better position to see what their students are going through, and are thus better able to determine just what students may need out of their reading materials.

    • Possibly. On the other hand, they may also be infected by the “if it’s not dark it’s not deep” virus, which is a most pernicious bug.

  4. I’m old enough to remember parents being up in arms about them teaching us Romeo and Juliet in high school because it could lead to kids wanting to kill themselves over broken hearts.

    In junior high school (very early 70s) the most checked-out book in the school library was “My Darling, My Hamburger”, which deals with rocky relationships, near-rape, alcoholic parents, pregnancy, and (at the time illegal) abortion. It was dark. We ALL devoured it.

    Harry Potter is exceedingly dark. I think there’s something about that age/time of life, where people need to explore the darkness in life, even if they are living it. Books can provide guidance if it’s needed, teach compassion/empathy towards folks dealing with stuff, provide a safe place to “experience” darkness in the same way a roller coaster or horror movie is a safe way to experience danger and fear.

    There are light books out there to provide balance, and I’d like to see them lauded alongside the darker ones, but I see nothing wrong in the darkness of YA literature.

    • Re: Romeo and Juliet. I would hope the message to get out of it is that killing yourself over a broken relationship is a stupid and futile act.
      I read a lot of dystopian novels that mostly dealt the the world’s overpopulation or the consequences of nuclear war. Most of the messages were the same: This could be our future if we don’t try to change it. There was hope that it could be changed. It feels that that hope is missing in YA. Life sucks, it won’t get better, mean people will be mean. YA’s need better than that.

      • You would hope that, but when I first saw the Franco Zefferelli film, I was sixteen and thought that was the most romantic act in the world, to die for love.

        I have since, thankfully, grown up.

  5. Then again, many young people are acutely aware of controversies affecting their generation and they often seek out such books. This may fall into the -cough-cough- nothing to see here.. move on, category.

  6. My attitude is that the more books and points of view teens are exposed to the better. Indoctrination in school syllabi used to be in favour of the status quo. Now it seems to be in favour of activism and “social justice”. It’s always going to be there to some extent or other. The solution is to equip the students with the skills to recognise and analyse the books they read rather than blindly accepting. Also to have teachers who will discuss the book critically whatever their own views. And finally we need to monitor the books chosen to ensure that whatever bias is there on controversial topics is not presented as the only possible view. As for reading outside syllabi. Let them read whatever they choose.

  7. The good news is that the vast majority of teens can not or will not read these books anyway.

  8. “Consciously or not, adolescents will seek membership in the group that appears to be getting all the attention.”

    Hmmm, that is an interesting observation, kinda goes hand-in-hand with the recent Brown University study on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”

    https://freebeacon.com/culture/brown-university-censors-study-findings-gender-dysphoria-can-influenced-peer-pressure/

    Brown took down a news article about the study on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” a phenomenon where teens in a friend group who never experienced questions about their gender before, suddenly identify as transgender at the same time. This occurs typically after a flood of social media use, and binge-watching YouTube videos about transitioning.

  9. Richard Hershberger

    This is a fascinating piece. On the one hand, it shows the progress that gay rights activists have made: The Wall Street Journal is dismissing the battle as a “stir” and implicitly pretending it wasn’t on the wrong side. Then we get to this:

    “And if indeed it is psychologically debilitating for the young people depicted in today’s YA literature to inhabit a world of virulent racism and interminable bullying and sexual abuse, then why make the vast majority of students, who don’t live amid such conditions, feel as if they do?”

    Ah, privilege! This is practically its definition. Even if we grudgingly admit that such things occur, and are bad, that is no reason why we, the members of polite society, should discuss such unpleasantries. What, after all, do they have to do with us?

  10. So much of my world view was shaped by my reading as a child and adolescent. As a teacher, I offer books that provide encouragement and inspiration, examples of young people who, even when faced with overwhelming challenges, manage to find ways to overcome.

  11. Did my schooling in the 50s / 60s. Let’s see if I can recall what we were reading…

    Gold Bug / Tell-tale Heart / Pit and the Pendulum (Poe)
    Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
    Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
    Old Man and the Sea (Hemmingway)
    The Lottery (Jackson)
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
    The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner (Jarrell)
    The Bridge of San Luis Re (Wilder)
    etc. etc. etc.

    We had some pretty dark stuff too, ya know.

  12. There’s another aspect here that is not really touched on: the impact of adolescent development. The links between the impact of physical development on mental state are mostly discussed by people interested in medical interventionism. Organic influences like chemical physiology on mood, behavior and cerebral processes has become de-emphasized to those inclined towards social interventionism, which is a lower-hanging fruit, certainly.
    I contend that all influences on adolescent’ reading material should be considered when asking the central question here.

    The hormonal melange that governs adolescent physiological development is associated with mood destabilization that trends towards slightly depressive states, or, at a minimum, a slightly antagonistic environment for dopamine production that appears to be inconsistent- mood swings that have a depressive trend. Couple that with owning a brain that is being bathed in a dramatically variable series of chemical baths, and you get struggles with emotional responses, violence, etc. Now add to that a battery of life challenges.

    Now add to that again… demographics. More children are being raised in sub-optimal family situations, which is a MAJOR taboo to discuss currently, but has a massive impact on metrics like success, stability and happiness. We’re not encouraged to dwell on the impact of divorce and single motherhood on adolescent behavior, although socially those are the two single largest contributors towards negative outcomes for adolescents, but we CAN discuss poverty, access to resources and such, which are also important, but seemingly less so.

    At any rate, a more holistic look at the subject seems to be required.

  13. Go back. If you want depressing, read
    CATCHER IN THE RYE
    THE TEMPLE Of GOLD
    A SEPARATE PEACE
    BOYS AND GIRLS TOGETHER
    THE STERILE CUCKOO

    Those were all 60’s books and we survived

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