Young Adult Novels: giving voice to the voiceless #yasavesAuthor: petercoyl | Filed under: Uncategorized
A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published
Ms. Gurdons main point, is summarized by her this way: “Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”
What Ms. Gurdon fails to take into account is the history of young adult literature. While she does mention S.E. Hintons’ 1967 The Outsiders which deals with street gangs and a few other “controversial” works, she fails to mention some others: Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning “To Kill A Mockingbird” which deals with the false rape accusation of a disabled black man, J.D. Salinger’s 1951 “Catcher in the Rye” in which the protagonist drops out of school, smokes, swears and generally pontificates against “phoneys”, or Pulitzer Prize Winner William Golding’s 1954 “Lord of the Flies” about a group of boys who fall into a kill-or-be-killed mob mentality. Certainly these topics are not Instead Ms. Gurdon focuses on more modern titles that deal with real work issues: cutting, suicide, rape and other topics. Yes, these are not for the squeamish but they are real world issues.
She also neglects to take into account the audience and what they want. Young Adults want authenticity. They don’t want to read “Pollyanna” because to them the world isn’t that way. They live in a world where terrorism is now in our daily vocabulary, Viagra is on the front page of national magazines, where a President has lied about oral sex in the Oval Office, where a congressman has tweeted a picture to a co-ed of his underwear clad crotch. This is the world they live in, this is what they read and see in the news. There is a reason this audience is called “young adults”, because they are. They want to be treated like adults because they live in an adult world. They want to be heard and understood. This literature does that. It allows them to feel like someone understands, someone hears them. For whatever reason this literature speaks to them.
This past summer I had a chance to go to a book signing with John Green and David Levithan who were signing their new novel “Will Grayson, Will Grayson”. I expected a handful of people: maybe 15-30 teenagers. I arrived an hour early to get a good seat. As the clock ticked on more and more young adults arrived. The bookstore moved us to one location. The time got closer, more young people arrived. They moved us a third time. By the time John Green and David Levithan arrived there were over 200 teenagers in the room waiting to hear them speak and sign copies of there books. When they went up to them, many of them handed them notes, or little gifts. Some spoke of there favorite part of the book or related a story to them. I was amazed at the level of interest these young people had. It struck me at this point that these young adults needed these stories. It gave them a sense of purpose, a sense of community. Later, I learned that fans of John Green gave themselves the nickname “Nerdfighters” and have banded together in a loose federation, but together they have raised money for projects worldwide. If Ms. Gurdon wants to see the power of young adult literature, she needs to look no further than this group of committed young people.
Ms. Gurdon’s last salvo comes in her closing: “So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”
Perhaps Ms. Gurdon doesn’t realize that the desperate attempt to keep books relevant for the young, is the same attempt to keep them relevant for the old. Louis L’Amour was in vogue for many years. Now? Not so much. I can’t remember the last time I saw an old style western published. Is this a bad thing? No. It’s called taste and style. It comes and goes in music, in art and yes, in publishing. She does have a point, however, that no family is required to read a book. But to accuse them of bulldozing coarseness or misery? Young people want to understand the world around them. They are curious and so they do things that we often think are crazy, stupid, or that we know better. Why do we know better? Because we are older, have seen more, and probably have done some of the crazy things ourselves. But that is how we gain understanding.
Young people are insatiable. They need to know, they need to feel. Imagine reading on the news about a student your own age (14 or 15) who was caught having sex with a teacher (age 24 or 25). What goes through your mind? Is this event the publishing industries vast conspiracy to bulldoze coarseness or misery into your life? No, its front page news. But what has the publishing industry tried to do: explain it in a way, from the perspective of a young person so that the audience (readers age 14+) can understand. It’s called “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga published by Houghton Mifflin in 1997. This is just one example of how young adult authors try to help their readers have a voice, an understanding so they can contribute to the conversation of life.
Certainly, Mrs. Gurdon is allowed to have her opinion about books and publishing. I think they are wrong. No author, no publisher has set out to foist misery, darkness or evil upon the readers of their books. It’s already there. They don’t want more young adults to cut themselves, or have bulimia, or be raped or abused or molested, or have friends murdered or disappear, or overdose or get pregnant, or be made to have an abortion or give a child up for adoption or be kicked out of their house because they are gay. These are dark things that exist in life. Young adult literature seeks to shed light on this darkness, to give hope to young people who don’t have the benefit of life experience to give them the perspective to deal with it. It gives them a voice in the darkness that says: you are not alone, other people understand you. Yes the voice might have to speak through hard, uncomfortable topics, but the topics were there before the books were. Rather then castigating the publishers and authors, Mrs. Gurdon should find someone else to castigate. Young adult authors are not the enemies, they are the heroes. They are the ones who have heard the desperate voices seeking hope, help and answers. They have answered. And what has Mrs. Gurdon done? Well read her article and see for yourself.