Monday, June 6, 2011

Oh, Wall Street Journal...

I'm sure most of you have already heard about the atrocious "article" the Wall Street Journal published Saturday. You know the one, where the author claims that YA books are awful, depressing, scary things that shouldn't be read by their target audience? If you still haven't read it, you can find it here. There have been a number of responses to the article, some poignant, some hilarious, but all wonderful. There was even a Twitter frenzy with the hashtag #YAsaves (and today, there's a mock one under #YAkills...hysterical if you haven't seen it).

Many others have already voiced my views on this article. I think there are just as many happy books as there are "dark" or "edgy" books in the YA section, just like in real life. Despite what parents want to believe, life isn't all butterflies and rainbows. We don't always get the things we want in the time frame we want, and life is painful/messy/heartbreaking/HARD more often than not. But rather than break the article down and counter everything the author said with my own views, I'm simply going to tell you what YA books have done for me in my life.

I grew up in a military family. We moved at least every three years, if not more often, from the time I was born until my dad retired when I was 18 (and even since I turned 18, I've moved every year since then). Keeping in touch with friends is hard when you're in middle school and you live in separate states. I still have a few friends from elementary and middle school that I talk to on a regular basis, but for the most part all I'm left with are my memories. Through all of that, I had the consistency of my novels.

I've been an avid reader since I was born. My parents created a strong reader's culture in our house, and I taught myself to read at the ripe old age of two and a half. I have a vast collection of books that I've read anywhere from once to hundreds of times. They've become like friends over the years. I'm secure in the knowledge that I can visit Tortall or Narnia or any other world I've visited, and my friends will be right where I left them, ready and waiting to start up their adventures yet again. It's a wonderful feeling when your environment is constantly shifting around you.

YA books also helped me explore aspects of my personality that I wasn't necessarily comfortable addressing out loud. The strong female characters in many of my favorite young adult novels helped me through my body image issues and insecurity (because really, who doesn't go through those stages as a teen?). Even now, as a 23-year-old reading YA (yes, it's still my favorite genre), I'm learning and exploring facets of the human psyche that I never even imagined. I recently read Laurie Halse-Anderson's Wintergirls (check the archives for my review), a book about anorexia. The Wall Street Journal would deem this as one of those "edgy" books that deals with destructive behaviors, and would say teenagers shouldn't read it for fear of them copying Lia's behavior. I beg to differ. The book made anorexia real, in a way that was terrifying. I would never dream of imitating Lia, because I could see how miserable she was, and I don't think any teenager would read that book and suddenly decide to become anorexic. Give your kids a little more credit, people!

The real issue is this: parents don't know what their children are reading, and so can't help their children confront these issues in a safe and healthy way. In my house, I didn't read anything my mom hadn't already read. If I found something I was interested in and she hadn't read it yet, we read it together. Now that I'm old enough to handle books on my own, I recommend books to her, but we still read the same things. It helps foster discussion, and it helped me make sense of some very difficult subjects as a young child and as a teen. I hope to recreate that environment and relationship with my own children someday. I don't want them reading trash, but I'm okay with them reading tough books. I'll even read with them if they want me to.

Rather than censoring their children, parents just need to take a more proactive stance with reading. When I was a bookseller, a woman came in and asked me if the Gossip Girl series was appropriate for a thirteen year old. I told her my honest opinion: that I wouldn't recommend those books for anyone under 17, because there's a lot of sex, drugs, and partying while parents are away with little to no consequences for those actions. I don't approve of the message of those books. That's not to say that I don't approve of books with those topics, but the way Gossip Girl was executed drives me away. I can't tell anyone what to allow their child to read. I can only encourage parents to read WITH their children. Pick up the book on their bedside table or bookshelf and devour it yourself. 9 times out of 10 you won't be disappointed.


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