Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Defense of YA

So, the Wall Street Journal just published an article about how depraved contemporary YA fiction is.
The author, Meghan Cox Gurden, comes down on YA fiction, including some I've read and enjoyed, saying that it's violent and immoral.
She lectures that teens shouldn't be exposed to things like suicide, murder, sexuality, and rape in books.
One of the books she mentions as an example of the current depravity of YA is Jackie Morse Kessler's Rage.
Personally, I think Rage is an excellent book for teens.  It shows how nasty they can be to each other and how the way they act can affect other people.  It gives a face to the 'cutter' who mutilates herself to let out emotional pain, a person who is almost unanimously shunned and misunderstood.  But in Rage, this person is shown as an actual person, not an unwanted diagnosis about which we'd like to just forget.  When I found out this book was coming out, I was ecstatic.  Finally, someone was showing how a self-mutilator felt!  Maybe people who read it would actually develop compassion for this person instead of disgust.
But Gurden does not feel this way.  She would rather have us close the eyes of teens to the suffering of other teens.
Next to the article which shuns YA fiction is a list of books that are supposedly 'okay' for teens to read.  Under this list is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
Just in case you live under a rock and have never heard of this book, it's basically about how we shouldn't censor books.  It condemns people who would have everyone's eyes closed to the knowledge that comes from books.
Does anyone else smell a hypocrite?
I would like everyone to remember their high school English classes.  Chances are, you read or were exposed to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at this point in time.  This play which we have been forced to read for centuries depicts two teens whose families hate each other.  There is murder and hatred in this play, and in the end there's the double suicide of Romeo and later Juliet, who decided that they can't live without one another. I actually hate this play.  I think Romeo and Juliet were stupid because they barely knew each other and yet they still think that the death of the other is a good reason to off themselves. And in the end, this suicide brings the families together, which to me seems unrealistic.  I would think that the suicide would make them more likely to play the blame game with each other like they have been doing all their lives.
There have been couples who have copied the actions of these two teens over the years, but no one ever thinks that maybe it should be taken off the reading list.  And yet, the fact that there are YA books which feature suicidal teens is apparently wrong to Mrs Gurden.  Being exposed to classic suicide is somehow better than being exposed to something many of their classmates actually feel?  Really? Would I be more enlightened if I thought suicide was just something people did for love than I would be were I to think that maybe lonely, depressed, or ridiculed classmates of mine might actually be considering suicide?
I really don't think I would.
When I recall being a teenager, I remember that I didn't read YA that often.  I read books for adults. Also, I was suicidal and a self-mutilator. 
I felt very alone.  It seemed to me that no one understood how I felt.  I never read about people feeling what I was feeling and none of my classmates seemed to feel how I was feeling either. Perhaps if I had read books like Rage as a teen, I would have felt like maybe I wasn't that alone.  Maybe if my peers read that book, they would somehow understand how I felt to some degree.  It seems to me now that Kessler wants her readers to understand this too.  In fact, a portion of the proceeds from this book actually goes to a charity meant to help people with this type of problem.
So should I really think that Kessler's book is a bad thing?  That this book is making teens depraved and full of darkness that they shouldn't be feeling?
Did Gurden not read the author's note in the back of the book?  Or does she think people with mental illness should not be helped because it might have some sort of effect on those children lucky enough to not have mental illness?
I honestly do not know what this woman thinks about people with mental illnesses.  All I know about her is that she seems to think that teens can't handle this sort of thing in book form.   I do know that many teens have mental illnesses and feel utterly and completely alone and that this feeling makes their mental state even worse.
Being a teenager is hard.  It always is and it always was.  This is why we need YA which discusses issues faced by teens.  YA helps us understand other people.  YA saves.

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