Friday, November 2, 2012

Here's a Question:

Do YA authors, editors, and librarians promote the idea that YA books have the power to do good, but reject the idea that they can do harm?

The Playroom of Good and Evil by ninjaink

These days every book festival has a YA panel, and every panel has a moment when a well-meaning attendee will stand up and ask: Are YA novels becoming more perverse?

And the answer, from any honest person, is yes. They are becoming more everything, because there are more of them. It’s really quite that simple.

Moving on.

Ah, but we shouldn't move on, because we know that that wasn’t really the question. Of course some YA is getting edgier and pushing boundaries. The question within the question was: What should we do about it?

Each panelist gets roughly four minutes to answer.

Many tie the issue to free expression, or the fact that pushing boundaries helps push our culture forward. Some authors speak about the fact that our puritanical culture needs to widen its boundaries (and point to several instances in history when they did). Others talk about the benefits of cautionary tales. These are all great answers (with which I agree, although it really doesn’t matter what I think).

But several times I've heard authors say, “Well, we can’t take responsibility for what a reader will take from a book. It could be anything.”

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris could have been reading Judy Moody just as easily as The Catcher in the Rye.

It's a tempting idea for anyone who has ever written anything. You write what you write. Readers take whatever they want from it. May the reader beware.

Image credit
No one blame Author X if kids start filleting one another in the woods (or Author Y if they start fellating).

That is absolutely fair. But as any workshop or football coach will tell you, don't accept the compliments if you won't believe the criticism.

And so ten minutes later--still at this hypothetical YA panel—a different panelist will mention all the good that their book might have done. A young fan wrote in with news of recovery, and the author glows with pride.

And why not? Haven't they achieved it? Haven't they saved someone?

After all, don't we believe in the power of writing? Especially the power of writing for young adults? Don't we believe, deep down, that the writing is affective?

And if we do, then why don't we believe that the power can be used for ill, just as it can (and should) be used for good?

We believe in the power of writing, and we accept the good it can cause in the lives of young readers, but we reject even the notion that it can also do harm. Or that the author might be questioned in the barest sense of the material he/she has created. The author is dead, as they say, unless you're sending fanmail.

Perhaps one reason that the kidlit community might be loathe to admit that YA books can do great harm is the perception that reading--in general--is under siege by media that are deemed far more powerful—TV, Internet, and video games. The thinking goes like this: Yes, you might get salmonella from a bad batch of cantaloupe, but eating fresh fruit is better for you than candy. Therefore, we shouldn't advertise a few bad cantaloupes when it's hard enough already to get people to choose the healthy option.

Another approach has been to focus entirely on all the good that YA books have done, as though they offset the bad (an idea similar to a diet of one celery stick to offset every brownie).

It seems to me that these two positions are at odds. But in agreeing that harm is possible, we begin down the long and thorny road of deciding—as a community—what types of harm are worst. Not far down that road are the questions of age-appropriateness, content ratings, and censorship.

But those are questions for a later date.


  1. A brave and thoughtful post. These issues are worth talking about and I think you make some excellent points.

  2. The two positions are not at odds. I've only read roughly 3,000 YA novels, so I can't speak for the whole literature, but the YA novels I've read portray the results of negative behavior honestly, often brutally so. Perversity of any kind, violent or sexual, has consequences which are realistically depicted in YA literature, and this realistic depiction stands in stark contrast to much of the content in more powerful media such as film, television, and video games. YA literature has a profoundly positive effect not despite its edginess, but BECAUSE of it. These books allow readers to imagine--and avoid--darker paths their lives might otherwise have followed. Which is why efforts to censor YA literature do the most damage to those they're ostensibly designed to protect: kids.

    1. Mike,

      Thank you for the response. For the most part, I agree. That tends to be the position that many of us in YA publishing take. But I would expand the examples past sexual or violent material. What about works of unrelentingly vapid subject matter? What about work that pushes nothing but consumerist frenzy? What about stereotypical depictions of race & culture? I would call these harmful elements in work (that last example might have been an unfair plant :).

      I agree that if we put all YA books together, most would fit on the Bell Curve of generally unchallenged material. But I can also name lots of books I wouldn't give to a kid. And I wonder often about my reasoning for WHY I would push those books out.

      My question is: If we acknowledge that their is harm, and if we acknowledge that limitations should be placed on objectionable material, are we then just going down the road of deciding which offenses are worse than others?

  3. Ooh. Now you've got my brain juices churning. Very nice.

  4. I agree that where there is power, there is the potential for good and bad.

    I also agree with Mike that, as a whole, the body of YA literature has a strong moral center. Negative behavior is almost always put in context. Perhaps not every reader will be sophisticated enough to process a given writer's artistic approach, but advanced readers need books that challenge them, too.

    That said, we are not immune to, say, sexism or racism (the latter primarily by omission) on our shelves, and in fact, the children's-YA community has been quite vocal about such issues, their consequences, and the need for change.

    1. Cynthia! First, it is impossible for me to disagree with you. Second, I think I was trying to work out this very idea, of being part of a community that is vocal about issues of racism/sexism. I remember reading the quote below once, and wondering what anyone could do about it.

      "Whatever Conrad's problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as "among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language." And why it is today the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English Departments of American universities." -Chinua Achebe

      Certainly, the institutions could do with assigning Heart of Darkness less (and Things Fall Apart more...or both together, if I had my druthers). But often, I hear people ask for this outmoded voices to be silenced altogether. I'm not so certain.

      In a follow-up post, I'd like to ask questions about what we mean when we talk about censorship. Umberto Eco has written about "the censorship of silence" versus the "censorship of noise." In the former, people try to silence a person or book by silencing its voice. But Eco also sees a form of censorship in the signal-to-noise ratio of a society (or a propagandist institution) blocking out all other voice by sheer volume.

      I hope the thoughts will connect somehow, but I can't promise it. :)

  5. I agree that most YA titles present "perverse" material in a constructive way. This is because a published book is produced through the filter of experienced (and hopefully, not depraved) agents and editors. Self publishing and online publishing creates all kinds of problems, but the online world is rife with harmful material so it's not really a comparison.

    Apart from books that might be too complex or explicit for very young readers, I can't think of a book that my daughter might find in a public library that I would not want her to read EVER (aside from some that I might worry would kill her from boredom). Some books are bleak and dark, some are just bad and shallow.

    I think it's like food. In the end all "food" is food. it's not poison, it's not evil. Some is better for you than other but it will ALL keep you alive on a deserted island. We know we shouldn't let kids eat nothing but junk, but does it follow that the occasional hamburger meal is harmful?