Saturday, June 11, 2011

This not about that WSJ article

I had been planning a post about YA lit and why I read it and what I love about it, but before I could Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote that ridiculous article and I felt like if I was going to write about YA I had to respond to what she said--but I really, honestly don’t feel like it, for many reasons. One is that it’s incredibly infuriating and even thinking about causes a spike in my blood pressure. But the more time went on people responded to her article, saying exactly the things I wanted to say, but saying them far more eloquently.

  • Read Barry Lyga’s response if you want something viscerally satisfying: On the WSJ, YA, and Art
  • Read Gayle Forman on Wall Street Depravity if you want to know how such ridiculous “journalism” ends up in print.
  • And read Libba Bray’s tweets, because she says everything that needs to be said and gives a shout out to librarians, which is one of many reasons to love her.
  • For an excellent dissection of the original article--along with links to many other responses not included here--read Liz Burns There’s Dark Things in Them There Books.
  • Read Maureen Johnson for a wonderful Italian food analogy (and because I sat at the table next to her in an Italian restaurant Thursday night, and we both totally played it cool)
  • And if you want to feel like you’ve been punched in the gut in the best way possible, read Sherman Alexie on Why the Best Kid’s Books are Written in Blood. Actually, go read that one no matter what. Read that instead of this if you must.

But never mind all that for now.

Our graduation was about two weeks ago. This is my fourth year here, so this was the first group of four-year seniors I worked with. It was amazing and emotional in the way that all graduations are, but somehow more so. Knowing that we’d all started at this school together made me feel a special connection to these kids. And now we were sending them off.

It had me thinking a lot about potential (as in “these kids have so much potential’) and why I love working with teenagers so much--and also why I love reading YA lit. It is this really fascinating and frustrating time of life when ANYTHING--good or bad--seems possible, even likely. What I love about YA lit is what I love about working with young adults--there is, no matter how bleak, a sense of potential.

I don’t want to paint adult literature with a broad brush, as I am by no means an expert (I know, clearly, I shouldn’t let that stop me) but one of the reasons I often end up frustrated when reading a lot of adult literature (particularly realistic fiction) is that everyone brings so much. . . baggage to the story. There is a lot of past that needs to be sifted through, and the focus is often on that past and how it got them there. And even when characters in YA bring a heavy past with them to a story, they are more often looking to the future than the past. And I like that. A lot.

There are always more possibilities than past.

I remember a student I had my second year teaching. His girlfriend was his soul mate and the love of his life. As was the girlfriend after her. And the one after her. Yes, it was kind of ridiculous, but there was also something kind of. . . charming about it.

There’s something kind of awesome about the ability to believe with passion and intensity something that is the exact opposite of what you believed the day before. And that happens with love interests and political beliefs and sartorial choices, often with the same level of intensity.

The best teachers and YA librarians and YA authors I know have managed to hang on to a little bit of that mutability. I don’t know if it’s that people with that quality are drawn to working with teenagers, or if working with teenagers keeps whatever that is alive in you.

Meghan Cox Gurdon has made up her mind. No counter-argument (no matter how well-crafted or persuasive) will convince her otherwise at this point. And part of that is because she feels under attack (though I have a hard time believing she didn’t know she was picking a fight) and we all dig in our heels when we feel we’re under attack. And part of it is because the older we get the harder time we have shifting our perspective.

There is the old line about the older we get the more we realize we don’t know, but I think the counterweight to that is that the older we get the more absolutely certain we get that we are 100% correct about the little we do think we know.

And that’s the thing with adults. Most of the time, what you see is what you get. By the time we’re adults, we’ve pretty much made up our minds about who we are and how we act. Habits are ingrained. Sure, they can change, and life happens and we adjust and adapt, but a lot of who we are is set in stone.

Not so much with teenagers. Things are still shifting and forming and developing. Personalities are still being fine-tuned. So much about your life is still up in the air as a teenager; you can try on different personalities and world views with a lot more ease.

Literature can offer a way to try and on and experience different lives without having to take those paths yourself. You can see how other people live, and develop a sense of empathy. Sometimes we look to books to mirror our experiences and sometimes we look to books to experience another life completely.

Here’s the thing that annoyed me about that article that I haven’t seen discussed much--I give those books that Cox Gurdon derided as containing “hideously distorted portrayals of what life is” to students ALL THE TIME. Am I corrupting these students? Ruining their lives? When a student comes in looking for the latest Ellen Hopkins book am I supposed to turn them away and tell them I don’t trust them enough to know what they’re interested in reading? Am I supposed to say, “Sorry, I don’t trust you with your own development”?

I’ve recommended light books, dark books, and everything in between. What I recommend depends on the student and what they're looking for right at that moment. Sometimes my recommendation isn’t quite right, and a student comes back and we find something different. I’m not “bulldozing” anyone. Not to get all Ranganathan on you, but every book his reader, and every reader his book.

Adolescence is, mostly, about deciding who and what you want to be post-adolescence. You are full of potential, but still deciding what direction it will take you. And a lot of the time, reading is a lot safer way to try on those different lives than actually living them. Yes, teens need guidance and help and support--in everything, not just reading selections--but if we’re trusting them to become independent adults, can’t we trust them enough to let them chose what they want--and need--to read along the way?

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