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The debate about what teens should or shouldn’t be reading isn’t new. In 2011 an article in the Wall Street Journal claiming that YA was too dark, prompted a massive outburst. The article was headlined: “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” A slew of articles and blog posts appeared, and US YA author Maureen Johnson started the #YAsaves hashtag by tweeting: “Did YA help you? Let the world know how! Tell your story with a #YAsaves tag.” Within hours it became the third highest trending topic in the US, and received 15,000 responses from regular readers and big-name authors like Judy Blume and Neil Gaiman.
Two years later and #yasaves still exists on Twitter and the debate continues. In recent Facebook conversations with Burgess, Blackman and my pal Vanessa Harbour – an academic whose PhD thesis is entitled 'The Issues of Representation/Representing Sex, Drugs and Alcohol in British Contemporary YAF’, we’ve lamented how it seems the publishing industry is trying to keep young adults “safe” from the reality of life.
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It struck me then that perhaps publishers who don’t want to put gritty, realistic books into the world are being driven not by the needs of the target market – a target market which #yasaves revealed to have a very real need and desire for honest fiction - but the views of the market that funds the target market, i.e. parents. And that begs some worrying questions about responsibility.
This where things start to get murky - and annoying - for me. As someone who chose not to have children, I accept I neither face the same concerns nor have the same outlook as a parent. I do, however, remember painfully well what it was like to be a teenager – especially a teenager in a time when YA fiction didn’t exist. I also remember how my parents tried to shield me from all sorts of things – and how much of that shielding failed. The reality of the thing is this: one can’t protect kids from reality and one shouldn’t. Before the tirade begins, let me clarify. Yes, of course you should protect your kids from harm, but that doesn’t mean wrapping them up in cotton wool rather, it means equipping them as best you can to deal with the things life may and will throw at them.
Parents, like the mums I lunched with, and the ones who complain about the darkness in YA and who fight for book banning, are misguided. I’m pretty sure they’ve conveniently forgotten what it was like to be a young adult: the language they so colourfully used, the impact of rejection by peers or pressure at school, the wild parties at friends’ houses when parents were away, the times they snuck off to make out in the back of a car and then worried they’d got themselves pregnant, the times they drank alcohol and threw up, or smoked grass and choked their lungs out. More importantly, they seem to have forgotten that they, just as their own teenagers are doing, experimented and broke boundaries. It’s how they grew; it’s how we all grow.
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While I appreciate parents don’t want their kids to take drugs, and they may prefer it if they didn’t have sex or question their sexuality, and they absolutely don’t want them to be raped, abused, suffer depression, cut or contemplate suicide – these things can and, more critically, do happen. To deny it, is to live with one’s head in the sand. Moreover, we live in a world where the internet has made everything instantly accessible to young people - porn, recipes for cocktails and drugs, ways to commit suicide. If you want to find something – turn to the ‘net. With so much information so readily available, the argument that then says teens should be protected from “depravity” in literature, is just nonsense. And to refuse teens a safe way to make sense of everything they’re faced with is irresponsible, short-sighted and, even, cruel.
It has never been easy being a teen, but teens in
today’s world have to deal with so much more – and no one parent has all the answers. Given that, the best thing adults – parents and publishers alike - can do is equip them and support them in that world. I certainly wish I’d had access to some of the books that are around today when I was a teen. I might have made fewer daft mistakes and I might have felt less isolated and alone.
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In the initial #yasaves Twitter outburst novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig tweeted: YA “…brings meaning & context to the hardest time of life: adolescence.” Author Neil Gaiman added: “I get letters from readers – 2 or 3 every month – telling me how my books got them through hell. & the Teens have the worst hells.” And Maureen Johnson who started #yasaves has been quoted as saying, "YA reassures teens that they’re “not alone” and that what they’re experiencing is “survivable,” There’s someone like me. There’s someone this happened to.”
As adults, as writers, as publishers, booksellers and librarians we owe it to the teens we once were, to the teens facing not only what we once did but so much more, to provide a safe and hopeful place in which to learn and grow. Let YA fiction be one of those places.
For a compelling and detailed article on the 2011 debate, go to Publisher's Weekly.
Lucas J W Johnson's blog post lists some of the powerful #yasaves tweets from 2011.