Monday, June 6, 2011

What Should the Teenagers Read?

I pondered whether to respond to the Wall Street Journal article, "Darkness Too Visible," and decided that I love YA too much to ignore it.

When I was a young teen, books kept me sane. I was the class scapegoat at my elementary school/junior high school for many years, but books (and summer camp) convinced me that I was not the freak that the other kids said I was; they were the problem, not me. Reading books by Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Betsy Byars, I met other little girls who were independent, impulsive, and imaginative. When I read about other girls like me, I saw that I was actually pretty ordinary, which was a very good thing. Bullying is more pervasive than ever, and also harder to escape after school and on weekends, with social networking and smart phones. (And all these "safe" authors' books are still in print if parents are looking for books for teenagers. While there are excellent new YA books out there, you CAN buy them an old book. See this cute new edition of Sister of the Bride? Lovely old-fashioned values from 1969, teaching girls to get married before they finish their freshman year in college.)

Books also taught me what to do if a tricky situation ever came up. Luckily I personally didn't have to deal with death or illness, but I did with divorce. I remember being given both Dear Mr. Henshaw and It's Not the End of the World when my parents divorced (would it have been better if I'd read Dear Mr. Henshaw earlier, so I already had some of the resources built up?) And thanks to books, I knew what to do when my best friend in 9th grade said she didn't want to dress out for gym class because the bruises from where her father had beat her with a belt were still on the backs of her legs (I told a student teacher that I trusted) and in 12th grade when I went to a party with alcohol (I just kept saying, I'm the designated driver, refusing all drinks even the ones that were supposedly "just Coke" since they tasted funny.) And I'd like to think that no matter what issues came up, I was prepared. If I had read only "safe" books, would that have been the case? Would I have known how to deal with friends who were depressed, suicidal, anorexic, date raped, or possibly pregnant? (And readers, I went to the best public school in the city, where 1/3 of the student body was in the honors program - these problems go on anywhere there are teenagers, no matter the income level or whether or not they live in "the hood." Thinking you can shelter your kids because they won't experience any of this stuff at their white-bread prep school is doing them a horrible disservice.)

One argument the article makes is that NEW YA books are the problem. Those are the books that are all dark and depressing. Really? I remember reading Lisa, Bright and Dark (bipolar disorder), Between Dances: Maggie Adam's Eighteenth Summer (anorexia), and That's My Baby (teen parenthood), among others. Also supposedly YA books today are all unrealistic, dystopian and fantasy novels. Again, examples that I read in the 80s: Many Waters, The Girl With the Silver Eyes, Ghosts Beneath Our Feet, This Place Has No Atmosphere, and Alien Child.

Teenagers DO face problems. You don't have to like it (and if you would like to help stop it, please volunteer to be a Big Sister or otherwise work in reaching out to teens. Just complaining or denying the problem exists, doesn't cut it.) Kids start gravitating towards these kinds of books both so that they are better able to deal with problems, and the fantasy/futuristic books make the problems safely distanced from reality where it's a little easier to deal with them. While hopefully the teens you know won't personally go through any of these problems, knowing how to deal with Problem A doesn't only equip a teen to deal with Problem A. Sometimes, having read about how kids deal with Problem A and get through it, coming out the other side wiser but in one piece, can help a teen extrapolate when Problem B happens to them, and maybe they'll think they can get through it too.

TALK to a children's bookseller. Talk to librarians, to other Moms, to friends who are big readers, read book reviews and book blogs. If after reading the backs of 87 books, you and a bookseller still can't find a single book that is remotely appropriate, I might recommend some Amish romances to you as perhaps your expectations are a little out of sync with what will interest and be appropriate for a teen, not a small child.

Oh, and a small detail to pick at with the last paragraph: no one suggests that a parent limiting their own child's reading material is censoring. That's parenting. Censorship is when parents insist on parenting other people's children and pressure schools and libraries to remove or limit certain books.

YA books are perhaps the most important books out there. I don't know how I would have made it to adulthood without them. Before Young Adult, children read novels simply to read cool stories, to learn to read better, maybe learn some manners, and for distraction. YA novels are the first (and perhaps only) books we read that really try to teach us about the world, our place in it, how we can change things if we have the courage, and how to find that courage within ourselves. You might want your children to keep reading books that are only distracting, but without arming your kids for the real world, you are sending them out at a disadvantage. I can only hope they're sneaking them behind your back.


Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

You did a nice job on this post!

Anonymous said...

Amen and amen to this post. Bravo! You said it very, very well and I especially liked your next to last paragraph about parenting vs. censorship.

You also pointed people to a plethora of excellent reads. Well done!

Jen said...

YES!!!! well put. :)