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Friday, June 17, 2011


For those not familiar with Twitter lingo the # before a word or phrase tags it and is called a hashtag. Using a hashtag makes searching for a subject easier. After the publication of Meghan Cox Gurdon's WSJ article someone, I've heard it was YA author Maureen Johnson, created the hashtag #YAsaves. The entirety of the YA community caught on to the tag and twitter was ablaze with stories of the good that comes from YA. This isn't love, kittens, and sparkly vampires good; this is actual "this book saved my life" good. Today, I'm not even going to talk about how all YA is not dark. I covered that earlier. There's plenty of love and kittens and those sparkly Cullens. All that is well and good but today I've got an answer to this question: "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"

Darkness in YA literature (darkness in any literature, in any art) is a response to the darkness in society. Let's face it, the daily news is a whole lot more grim than many of the books that Gurdon calls out in her article. She calls these dark and violent books smut (she uses that word - without irony. Who does that?). If it's called smut when it is fiction what are we to call the nonfiction? Lauren Myracle's "Shine" is one of the dark and violent books Gurdon specifically calls out, noting that it opens with a gay teenager being "savagely beaten." So, what are we to call Judy Shepard's book "The Meaning of Matthew" about her life (and the world) after the murder of her son? Or, is it okay for Shepard's book to deal with darkness because it was not aimed at a young audience? Are we to assume that teenagers are so oblivious to the world that they don't know hate crimes happen? I should hope not. Then, isn't it right that they should be able to read a book about it? A book that may help them to understand the world even if it's in response to a completely non-understandable situation.

This is the problem with challenging the acceptance of dark subject matter: if you are not interested in it then it is not meant for you. Maybe your life has been relatively free of darkness; you haven't experienced it and you don't want to read about it so why should you? You don't have to. That's a perfectly valid option. But don't judge those who do. As Sherman Alexie pointed out in his response to Gurdon's article:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Life is difficult for just about everyone, especially teenagers. To combat that some people escape into "hyper-violent" dystopias like "The Hunger Games" or maybe they relate to the damaged characters in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian". That's why I think "abuse, violence and depravity" are a good idea in young adult literature. Not only is it a good idea, but it is absolutely necessary. These books are needed; they are doing actual good. These books are saving lives. And really, do I have to say this, are we actually complaining about kids reading?

I know I stated that I don't really read YA, but one of the YA books that I have read is Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak". "Speak" is a genuinely good book and an important book, and Laurie Halse Anderson is awesome. For the tenth anniversary of the publication of "Speak" she wrote a poem in honor of the feedback she received from the book, which is about a girl who was raped. The poem is called "Listen" and you can watch her read it below. After you hear this poem you will fully understand just how #YAsaves.

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