Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When Educators Think YA Is Too Dark

In recent weeks, young adult literature has been under scrutiny by everyone from readers to writers, parents to media, and any customer who walks past the book section in Wal-Mart. No one can deny YA sells. Its authors have sometimes surpassed bestselling adult authors on New York Times lists. But when Wall Street Journal columnist Megan Gurdon wrote her now infamous article about how violent YA fiction has become, teens and adult fans of YA jumped to their feet in defense of the dark, edgy writing. Millions heard their battle cry, YA SAVES, as it echoed across Twitter and the news, as people spoke out about their experience with why YA literature was so important in young people’s lives.

I wonder how long the support will hold out. Last weekend I attended a session of a state librarians’ conference in which YA fiction was discussed. Many of the librarians in the audience were devoted readers of YA. They spoke favorably of beloved dystopian novels and gushed about their favorite new fantasy stories. Yet some complained that recent ALA and School Library Journal recommended YA novels had content that was inappropriate for 8-9th grade readers. Granted, this audience had many librarians who worked in the pre-Judy Blume days when Little House on the Prairie ruled the shelves, and students didn’t see a printed four-letter word until they reached senior English class. But this particular group is my state’s main defender of censorship. One of the most progressive leaders of the state’s ALA and educational factions stood before this particular session and said she thinks YA is “becoming too dark.” Now I’m left wondering: are we losing some of our best advocates of YA fiction?

As a writer, I know I want educators in my corner. I want them promoting my future books to teens, sharing their passion for my stories with youth. But have we painted ourselves into a corner with our increasingly edgy stories? At what point will teachers and librarians say, “Hey, this is too violent and realistic for our youth to read in school?” As one public librarian at the session noted, “If you’re uncomfortable putting it on the shelf in school, send the kid to the public library,” and then the student will have access. However, as an educator, I want the joy of being the one to put the book in the student’s hands, and to be able to say, “here is the key that will make you a reader for the rest of your life.” If we, as educators, buy lighter books, would our students balk at reading them, saying they’re too unrealistic? It’s a fine line. I walk it daily—in both the library and as a writer. Will the darkness in YA eventually eclipse the value of the reading?


Brinda said...

I think the dark, edgy stories today reflect the concerns and experiences of our youth. Educators are fooling themselves if they believe censorship will shield young people from these "troubling" topics. If you turn off the television, hide the newspaper, unplug the internet, and stay home, you can stop delving into these emotions and situations that scare people. I don't believe the trend toward these stories reflect anything more than the times we live in.

Sandi said...

Good point. When I first came to my school library, there was a "censored drawer" for everything from LGBTQ books to Stephen King. Once we started allowing students access to those, as well as popular, self-selected YA titles, circulation increased by more than 5 times.

This tells me that what we were doing before wasn't helping them develop as readers. Probably the opposite.