Tuesday, October 29, 2013

YA Fiction - a safe-haven for teens

Following on a recent lunch date with a group of women, all mothers of young adults, I started really wondering about the ongoing debate of YA fiction being too dark and unsuitable for its intended audience.  I’ve been thinking about the question of what’s suitable and not suitable in YA fiction for some time – and many others have too.

Junk, Melvin Burgess' novel about drugs
Recently several UK authors, including Carnegie Medal winner, Melvin Burgess, and Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, spoke in the British media on the topics YA fiction should cover.  In a Telegraph article Malorie Blackman says, “Honest sex scenes in books will stop teens learning from porn.”  While Burgess, who the Guardian states, “built his reputation as one of Britain's top writers for teenagers on the back of a novel about drugs”, is quoted as saying “there should be ‘no actual limits’ to the subjects covered in teenage fiction.”  There are, however, the women I lunched with among them, too many parents who deplore this notion.

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.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, deals with rape
But here’s the thing – for the debate about darkness in YA fiction to exist in the first instance it must mean that gritty realism is being published - it certainly is in the US.  It’s a thought that takes me back to my lunch date – and the horror on several faces when I, the only non-parent in the group, asked what better and safer place than fiction to deal with the reality teens face – and yes, that means sex, sexuality, drugs and violence in a variety of forms.

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. 
David Levithan's new book navigates gender identity

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.

Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman
Malorie Blackman is absolutely correct when she says, “giving children challenging themes [in a book] would allow them to process it within a “safe” context rather than turning to damaging and “brutalising” images.

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.


Keren David said...

Fascinating post, Nicky. I often wonder why the 'suitability' debate only centres on gritty realism, when sex and drugs and violence can all be covered in fantasy. Is there something particularly challenging for some parents in confronting children with a fictionalised version of the real world, perhaps?

Nicky Schmidt said...

Sex and drugs and violence are all covered in fantasy and cop as much flack there as in gritty reality - certainly in the US.
I don't know, but I'd guess that gritty realism puts it too much in the face of some parents - and so the debate centres there. Or maybe they just naively think it isn't happening in fantasy - in which case as a starter, I'd point them to Holly Black and Melissa Marr's urban fantasy.

Candy Gourlay said...

Good point, Keren. And there are also interesting acceptability levels - such as violence being far more acceptable than sex. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nicky.

Sean Cummings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Cummings said...

Excellent blog post. The fact is that much of the push back regarding themes in YA comes from the perspective of parents and we happen to live in a period of our history where I think young people are plagued with helicopter parents who want a bubble wrapped world for their little darlings

Nicky Schmidt said...

Candy, I think acceptability levels depend very much on where and to whom one pitches. On the flip side I've heard that violence is far less acceptable than sex.
I do think, as part of the debate, that what we see is different types and levels of acceptability between the US and the UK. I've seen more violence and less sex in UK YA and more sex and less violence in US YA.

Thanks, Sean - and yes, I do think parents want to protect their children - but in entirely the wrong way - so bubble wrapped is a good term.

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post, Nicky. As a writer who explores darker, grittier contemporary realism, I don't believe in boundaries in young adult fiction, although I do believe that there should be some sensitivity and restraint in terms of graphic description in much younger teen lit. I definitely echo your hope that YA fiction becomes a place of safe learning.

Nicky Schmidt said...

I agree, Savita - one doesn't need graphic description to convey a sense of something - a few, well chosen words can have far more impact then graphic description. The thing is to avoid gratuitous stuff. What I think one wants to convey is a sense of the thing, the emotion of it - and I think that's how one creates both the safety and the reality that need to go hand in hand - and, as Keren says, in both contemporary fiction and fantasy.

Jane McLoughlin said...

Thanks Nicky. Most of the books for teens available in my school library, way back before YA (well, almost before the printing press...) were about "boys" and "dates" and "proms" and "going steady." My friends and I could have used a shot of gritty YA to help us negotiate what the real world was like, even back then...

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Kate Scott said...

Excellent post, Nicky, thank you for writing it. I'm in complete agreement with you and saddened by the parents you know who aren't. I wouldn't dream of book banning with my own children and hope my kids will seek out the books they need to help them navigate their lives. John Connolly makes some perceptive comments in his interview on the Independent's children's book blog (http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/10/31/children%E2%80%99s-book-blog-ask-the-author-%E2%80%93-john-connolly/). He talks of children using fiction (in this instance horror, but it applies to all genres I think) to "begin to negotiate the darkness and complexity of the adult world". He also says "Kids are much brighter and more sensitive than adults give them credit for when it comes to understanding fiction." Exactly!