Does YA Exhibit Enough Variety?

All readers, including teens, are not the same

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Darkness Too Visible,” written by a children’s book reviewer, has many Young Adult (YA) authors riled up. The subtitle sums up much of the article: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds…
Now, whether you care if adolescents spend their time immersed in ugliness probably depends on your philosophical outlook. Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it…

As the author of the opinion piece predicted (“let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks ‘censorship!'”), YA authors immediately countered. Jackie Morse Kessler, whose YA book Rage was mentioned in the WSJ piece, wrote an entry titled “Making the Darkness Visible

Heads up, WSJ: Life isn’t always beautiful and joyous. That’s not the real world; it never was. We just know more today about the issues that have been around for a long time — and we’ve come to a point where we’re not afraid to talk about these issues…
…Ignoring ugly truths doesn’t make those truths go away. Silence is never the answer. Granted, there may be those who will always advocate censorship rather than frank discussion. But the more that people insist on limiting the books we read, the more those books need to be read. Learn about the world. Read a book.

Both “sides” make valid points and these quotes address the obvious, that YA books have been getting darker. I had assumed that this is what YA readers want, but the WSJ piece raised doubts. Now I’m troubled; where is the variety in Young Adult?

The Young Adult category is fairly new. I went through Junior High and High School in the 70s, and I don’t remember any “Young Adult” category. In my Junior High library, there were books we could check out for our own pleasure (usually adult fiction, cheap mass market paperbacks), books assigned by classes/teachers (classics and non-fiction resources), and an “easy reader” section that I wouldn’t have been caught dead in.

There were, of course, books we knew our parents probably didn’t want us to read. For instance, a friend brought her parents’ copy of The Betsy, by Harold Robbins, and we passed it around between classes and let everybody read “the dirty parts.” Those scenes are pretty tame by today’s standards — but the point is, I guess we maintained a don’t-ask-don’t-tell protocol with our “gatekeepers” regarding books.

My parents would often glance through my stack of books on my nightstand. They never raised an eyebrow at my voluntary reading: a collection of bodice rippers, gothic romances, historical romances, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction and Russian literature (yes, I had a thing for Russian authors, choosing to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace not once, but three times in three years). Kathleen Woodiwiss, Mary Stewart, James Michener, Frank Herbert, Phyllis Whitney, Mary Renault, Tolkein, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Asimov, Robert Silverberg—all mingled together. The best description of my choices: eclectic and escapist.

That’s why I was confused and saddened when I recently looked through the YA section at Barnes & Noble. Rows and rows of books with similar artwork, colors, mood, even subject matter. Where was the variety I experienced during my school years? There was a dearth of escapist books, but tons of gloom and twisted violence — providing nothing different.

[Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, ] had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.
… [Ms. Stoddard, bookseller,] notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.

After re-reading the WSJ piece, I suspect the issue may not be subject matter, since many High School classes assign depressing/hopeless/soul-sucking material to read (John Steinbeck, for instance). I think the problem stems from lack of choice. Perhaps young adults, if they don’t see what interests them in the specialty YA section, would be better served in other sections of the bookstore. There’s a whole world of complex stories and characters out there — which beat what’s in games, movies, and TV — hands down.

Any opinions?

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