I spent yesterday morning listening to the indefatigable Maureen Johnson. She was on the radio with a Wall Street Journal writer best known for decrying the state of young adult lit. You know the drill: “YA is too dark, too depressing, and is bad for the kidz!”
I am not here to argue against fact-free trend pieces, however. Maureen and the internet have already done that and done it well. And, you know, haters gonna hate, and shoddy journalists gonna shod. There’s no way to stop that. Here’s the problem I would like to address instead:
When these issues arise, we writers, librarians, booksellers, teachers, and editors know that the media is overblown and out of touch. We know that the huge boom in YA is helping young readers, because we see it in our in-boxes, our libraries, our stores, and our twitter feeds every day.
Sure, some books aren’t right for some kids. But it’s not like that challenge has recently grown insurmountable. In fact, connecting the right book with the right reader has never been easier. There are more specialist teen librarians than ever before, teenage readers are relentlessly networked, and book reviews from all perspectives are more plentiful than at any other time in human history. (Thank you, the internet.)
But someone has to think of the parents. Especially those who randomly turn on the radio or read the WSJ and are exposed to this alarmism. They may not know how to check out all those amazing stories tweeted on #YASaves. They probably don’t follow comment threads on blogs like this one, where bookish teens prove hourly how smart, supportive, and savvy they are. Many parents don’t know what “DFTBA” means, and thus may not realize how awesome their kids are not forgetting to be.
And the other side in this debate sounds perfectly reasonable. “We just want a conversation! We just want parents to be aware!” And they couch everything in that scary questioning tone: “These books MAY be turning your kids into cutters.” Like when local news promos ask, “Are your cleaning fluids making you hate America? Story at eleven!”
Here’s my problem with this brand of “reasonableness”: Conversations have contexts, and awareness is always flavored by its catalyst. Let’s take two examples . . .
A parent goes into a teenager’s room and says, “I just heard from the wise people at the Wall Street Journal that the books you kids read these days are mostly dark and horrible and will make you cut yourself and take drugs. Let me check your books so I can make sure this is not true!”
Seriously. How do you think that conversation’s going to go?
Eyes will be rolled, tempers will rise, and more than likely this parent will be made to feel dreadfully foolish. (Teenagers are good at this last bit.) Frankly, being easily manipulated by alarmists in the media is not a good look for anyone.
But let’s say a parent goes into that same kid’s room and says . . .
“Hey, I just heard that young adult lit sales have grown by double digits every year for the last decade. You teens read so much that it’s the only profitable part of publishing! And now Hollywood wants to make everything you read into movies, and more adults than ever before are reading YA! And I heard that huge crowds show up at bookstores and rented venues when popular YA writers are in town! And that many YA writers have tens of thousands of followers on the Twitter machine, if not hundreds of thousands! And that every November countless teenagers support each other in WRITING THEIR OWN NOVELS! Holy crap, we didn’t do that in my benighted day of juvenile sloth. It’s just awesome how dedicated you and your peers are to reading. Can you please lend me some of these great books?”
My guess is that this conversation will go rather better. And, unlike the Wall Street Journal, this opening gambit is full of verifiable facts!
Make no mistake, we writers want parents to talk to their kids about books. But don’t do it because some newspaper uses fear to generate web hits. Do it because reading is awesome and your kids are awesome.
There’s a problem here, though. The parents who are reading this post (on a YA writer’s blog) probably don’t need this advice. They can see through the malarky without my help. They’ve already noticed that the only “science” referred to in the WSJ‘s articles was a study of 1970s anti-drug public service announcements. (Because nothing is more relevant to 21st-century young adult literature than 40-year-old TV ads.)
But how do we reach those other parents, the ones whose innocent minds might be corrupted by these fact-missing anxiety-mechants? Parents can’t be expected to protect themselves these days. A recent study of hair cream ads from the 1920s proved that the media’s coverage of YA has gotten 37% darker in the last year alone!
Now, I’m not advocating banning the Wall Street Journal. It has many fine articles in it I’m sure, some of which no doubt cite actual facts instead of the vague impressions of random people wandering YA sections. There are always exceptions, after all, even in newspapers named after the street that recently stole $700 billion of our money.
All I’m asking is that teenagers take an active role in discussing young adult lit with their parents.
Kids, you don’t want your parents’ first exposure to YA to be in the dingy recesses of a fear-mongering financial newspaper. It’s your job to help them understand how twitter hashtags work, what NaNoWriMo stands for, and how to do the nerdfighter hand signal. It’s your duty to introduce them gently to the lighter sides of fan fic, before they stumble across a cache of Snape dub-con Mpreg epic poetry. (Um, maybe just wait till your parents are older before tackling fan fic.)
In many cases, of course, your gentle persuasion may not be enough. Some parents are too easily influenced by frightening images of teenage culture gone awry. Darkness sells, after all. For these, a simple call to the Wall Street Journal will cancel your subscription, saving both money and heartache for your beloved parent. Be sure not to leave an empty space in their lives, however. Ease them over to something more wholesome, like, say, the School Library Journal. They’ll hardly notice the difference.
My main point is this: you understand young adult lit. You get how much it’s grown, how much it means to you. Make sure that your parents understand that too, and they’ll be ear-plugged against the profiteering panic-peddlers wailing like sirens on the rocky shoals of our culture.
Thank you for listening.