Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Good Taste in YA Literature

Written By: Anachan - Sep• 29•13

Not long ago, I read an article by Wall Street Journal children’s books reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon entitled “The Case For Good Taste in Children’s Books“.

In this article, Mrs. Gurdon tells of a disturbing trend:  more and more, books classified in the Young Adult category, targeting readers between the ages of 12 and 18, have, in her words, “become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.”  She goes on in her article to describe a few of these books in general terms, pointing out that these books reflect “hideously distorted portrayals of life”.

As a high school English teacher, I have to agree.  My students are required to select books from the library or other sources to read on their own and earn “Accelerated Reader” points each quarter.  Often, while they are reading, I move about the room, asking students questions about their books.  What I hear often disturbs me.

Many times, I hear descriptions of books which appear to have no redeeming value in them.  They portray children in prison, accused of murder.  They depict girls with serious problems such as cutting, eating disorders, or unexpected pregnancies.  They speak of the world in dark, hopeless terms.

It’s no wonder so many of my students think reading is “boring”!

Recently, I looked in on the library just after the librarian had received a shipment of new books for her collection.

“How exciting!”  I said, “New books!”

But as I started to look through the titles, I became subdued and uncertain what to say.  One title was one I recognized from Mrs. Gurdon’s article as having content about a girl cutting herself.  Another had a subtitle to the effect of “Life as a Teenage Drunk”.  Yet another referred to “how to” do a crime.

“‘Life as a Teenage Drunk’?”  I looked at our librarian quizzically.  She gave me a meaningful look you might expect to see from someone peering over reading glasses, without the reading glasses, and said, “Maybe it will teach someone something.”

Yea, I thought.  It will teach someone something, but it may not be the lesson we want them to learn.  Mrs. Gurdon quotes another school librarian as saying, “You are naive if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that the behavior must by condoned by the adults in their school lives.”  In other words, all those dark and explicit messages teach teenagers that these things are normal and expected, instead of abnormal and not to be accepted.

My husband tells me I should have spoken up at that time.  After all, as we’ve often heard, “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.”  But I honestly felt so shocked at the selection of books she had purchased with school funds that I was simply at a loss for words.

More recently, I had a conversation with a student, who told me about a book she had read.

“Miss,” she said, “It’s a very good book!  It’s about a boy with cancer.  But it’s sad.  He dies.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Yes, sometimes books are sad.  But I’d like to know this:  what kind of positive message is there in the book?”

“Positive message?  There isn’t one.  He dies.”

I decided I needed to clarify.  “You can have a story where someone dies and still have a positive message.  Perhaps the book leaves you with the idea that people are really good inside, even when they have troubles.  Maybe it could help you think about your own life and how you could help others–things like that.”

“Well, no, Miss.  This book didn’t do any of that.”

“There weren’t any positive messages at all?”

“No.  Actually, when the story ends, we don’t know who killed him.”

By now, I was puzzled.  “What?  He’s killed by someone?  I thought you said he died.”

“Well, he was very sick, so someone gave him an insulin injection.  He wanted it, but the book keeps you guessing as to who gave it to him.”

Mentally, my jaw dropped, and I felt a keen sense of disappointment.  So what this book contained was the story of a teenage boy with a terminal illness who decided to take his own life rather than deal with it.  In other words, instead of a possibly inspiring story, as often happens in real life, of a person who fights cancer, inspires others along the way, and finally loses out to the disease, leaving a lasting impression for good on the people he met, we find a story of a young man who gives in to his suffering and refuses to deal with it, demonstrating cowardice instead of courage.  And the young people reading this book are being given the impression that this is normal, or at least, acceptable.

Some people justify the content of these modern Young Adult books by saying that young people these days are already exposed to a good deal of undesirable things in real life: abuse, drugs, crime, and so forth.  But those mired in these conditions are the minority, rather than the majority of young people out there.  I would guess that those people, especially, would welcome a message of beauty and hope, rather than having their idea that the world is bad only reinforced by the literature they read.

As many teachers do, I have a short list of recommended books I post on my bulletin board, in the event my students are interested in a suggestion.  Even the ones, such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1943), which may have been a little more “cutting edge” when they were published, have some kind of positive message.  In this book, for instance, is told the story of Francie Nolan, a girl from a disadvantaged family living in poverty in the tenements, who despite her surroundings and challenges works hard to educate herself and better her circumstances in the early 20th century.  She is an embodiment of the classic American dream, the idea that anyone can succeed if they are willing to work for it.  This message of hope and tenacity permeates the trials and triumphs of the family throughout the novel.

Mrs. Gurdon’s article leaves the reader with this message from English philosopher Roger Scruton:

Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it does not matter. It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only—or even at all—in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds them and live another way. The art, literature, and music of our civilization remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial.

In other words, just because there is ugliness out there in the world doesn’t mean we have to embrace it.  We can choose the beautiful in life or literature and allow it to raise us up.  Even those children who may have experienced the ugliness on which these books focus do not necessarily want to wallow in its mire.  I sincerely hope they will learn that they can be inspired by good literature to climb out of their situations and reach for something better, like Francie.

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One Comment

  1. Lucinda says:

    YA “literature” is definitely declining. I am fortunate that my kids tend to turn to my shelves when looking for something to read. (I think I just gave myself permission to buy more books.) They also, surprisingly, or maybe not, want me to read what they’re reading so they can discuss the books with me.

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