Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The YA Show Down

If you missed it, go now and listen to today's broadcast of Radio Times from WHYY. The debate over Meghan Cox Gurdon's assault on dark YA literature continues and I must give a standing "O" to Maureen Johnson and to Madeleine Kemper for their eloquent, informed, and well articulated response.

Let's just set aside the fact that there is a lot of wonderful YA lit out there this is funny and smart and full of hope.  As for round 1 of #YAshowdown, a few points stand out to me as I thumb through the highlights in my brain:

Let's start with an attitude.  Not only is Ms. Gurdon's tone condescending to the writing community, but to teenagers as well.  Teens get talked down to enough without literature taking the elitist stand that it knows best and will present a carefully prescribed view of their world no matter what the teenager is going through.  Her cloying remarks to Cheryl Rainfield were quite telling.  "I'm filled with pity...however, your book could be...extremely disturbing to children...who haven't encountered the phenomenon of cutting." I certainly hope what she went through disturbs people.  Cheryl wrote the book in hopes of letting kids know they aren't alone, that healing is possible, that their world is real rather than the sugar-coated bubble-gum culture Ms. Gurdon grew up in.  Don't condescend to kids.  Don't dismiss their experiences.  Don't belittle their response.

Let's talk about the "fun-house mirror" aspect of YA lit, as Ms. Gurdon referred to it. Adolescence is one big fun-house mirror where the world is trying to come into focus, but is drawn askew by so many influences.  Emotions are bigger, problems are scarier, no matter what the cold reality in relative terms gives you.  YA lit recognizes that and doesn't criticize young people or tell them that they are blowing things out of proportion.  It gives them a safe place to explore those emotions.

And the last caller who said, "The job of the writer is to teach the reader...."  As Paul Acampora tweeted, "NO. NO. NO. NO. The job or the writer is to tell the truth."  Good books do have a clear and consistent moral compass, but that does not mean that their primary purpose is to instruct, no matter what Alexander Pope thought. There are truths that ring hard and clear to teenagers even if adults are afraid of them.  We want to protect our kids from the truths of this world as long as possible (and believe me, I do). BUT, kids will go looking for those truths and I am glad there are YA writers out there who will offer it.  Those kids can see through the Newspeak and the propaganda.  Give them more credit and be a part of that journey rather than a bystander.  Read with them.  Talk to them.  

It should not need to be said, but "correlation" does not mean "cause and effect."  Don't assume that if a kid reads a book about cutting, she'll go out and cut herself.  Ask why she picked up that book in the first place.  Something drew her there.  Our world isn't perfect.  It isn't always funny.  It isn't always nice.  It doesn't even make sense half the time, especially to a teenager who is still trying to discover who she is and what kind of power she wields in the great big world.  Explore it with her.

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