Friday, July 8, 2011

Dark Matters & YA Literature

I stumbled across this article via Tara Maya's blog. It's from the Wall Street Journal and it speaks at length about the dark and twisted nature of modern YA literature.

I'll let you read the Wall Street Journal Article for a few minutes. Let me know when you're done.


Right, then. Let me explain my feelings about someone who criticizes and seeks to suppress YA literature.

When the Harry Potter novels began gaining popularity and notoriety, I became confused. Here were these amazing books that were so intriguing that they had drawn millions of lazy lapsed readers out of hiding to enjoy a literary love fest! Kids were reading! Surely, this was a sign that the times, they were a' changin'.

But there were these Others, these non-readers who didn't understand the importance of simply getting kids jazzed about reading. Harry Potter was satanic because he was a wizard. Forget the fact that he was fictional, that none of the events in JK Rowling's books had actually happened. The nay-saying Others didn't understand how to process fiction or imaginative thought, so they slapped the Satanic Seal of Approval on Harry Potter and friends, effectively frightening children out of reading.

According to my calculations, that's evil. You strip away a generation's passion for reading and you begin a terrible downward spiral that rarely ends in anything but ignorance.

These nay-saying Others have always been around. And I'm sure they're not bad people. But they do scare me and I become disheartened when I hear a reporter in the Wall Street Journal denouncing another wave of literature that has kept student literacy afloat. At a time when information is accessible literally twenty-four hours a day, when visual stimulation is the preferred mode of mass entertainment, I cringe at irresponsible reporting that essentially advocates book banning and censorship instead of careful parenting and open discussion.

Book banning and censorship, eh? Again, those are activities reserved for the generally ill of heart and despicable of soul.

Interestingly, the Journal's article kept making reference to writing styles from 40 years ago. This was a time when YA literature didn't really exist. The writer seems comfortable with assigning Judy Blume the role of Naysayer Sanctioned Ne'er Do Well. Here's a passage from the article regarding Judy Blume's radical career in the 1970's:

The real Judy Blume won millions of readers (and the disapprobation of many adults) with then-daring novels such as 1970's "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," which deals with female puberty, 1971's "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," which addresses puberty from a boy's perspective, and 1975's "Forever," in which teenagers lose their virginity in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some parents, but it's not grotesque.

Seriously? These books are nearly two generations old. I agree that they pushed the envelope for 1970's America. But the country has grown up (and then some).Despite the nostalgia we feel for simpler times, it's safe to say that we've moved on to a more complicated era where puberty and masturbation are the least of our problems.

Novels like Lauren Myracle's "Shine" or Robert Cormier's "I Am The Cheese" might be dark and disturbing; but a majority of today's teenagers live in that world whether we like it or not. I don't have a solution to that problem.

Some would argue moral integrity is lacking, and I would point at government or religious leaders and say, "I agree."

The world has changed and we have to accept that as adults, children, readers, and naysayers.

When nay-saying Others see something that is different, sub-standard, or simply inexplicable, they are quick to label it and hide it. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe that's the problem? Too many people are unable to face the "dark" emotions, unable to process them or simply reflect on them. Because if something's different or strange, it might lead to even stranger and morally reprehensible activities, right? Like book burning.

So how do I connect this to my writing?

I'm preparing to publish what I would classify as a YA fantasy novel. It is also packed tight with horror elements. When I started writing this novel, I didn't know who my audience was, so I just wrote a story that I would love to read. When I initially submitted it for publication about two years ago, I was shocked by the rejection letter that came back with the manuscript.

The editor told me that I was writing a book for kids, but the language was written for adults.

I thought this was the most ridiculous notion I'd ever read. I remembered the kinds of stories and novels I sought out when I was young (and I'm only 29, folks). I wouldn't say that I was obsessed with darker stories, but I was definitely drawn to them. It wasn't because I had a broken family or anything like that. My family was great. But I saw a reflection of the real world in those books. I saw horrors of real life taken to extremes, twisted inside out, turned upside down, and in many cases, defeated. I was able to read work by authors like Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Neil Gaiman because I saw shadows of the real world in their writing. And I firmly believe this helped me to develop a more defined sense of right and wrong.

I was processing life through the very fiction I was reading. In short, I was a kid and I was thinking for myself.

So the editor who sent me the rejection letter falls into the category of evil nay-saying Others that I mentioned earlier.

Here was someone in the publishing industry who openly stated that she didn't believe children were capable of thinking, processing, and reflecting. And she would keep me from putting my story out there for children to enjoy. Is that censorship? Not exactly. But is it a sound philosophy?

Am I as edgy as Cormier or Myracle or Andrew Smith? No, probably not. But it doesn't mean that I restrict my literary themes to unicorns, puberty, and candy-coated pillows. In my book of short stories, "Prismatica," I write about loss and confusion. There are some chilling, scary moments in that book. But I would encourage any middle school student interested in speculative fiction to read it in a heartbeat. And in my upcoming novel, the main character (a fourteen year old) struggles with even greater degrees of loss, betrayal, and exclusion within his family. Maybe it's not graphic like Myracle's writing, but it's still filled with an ominous darkness that rings true to most young readers. And I'm perfectly fine with this.

Any kind of art, whether it's directed at an adult or a child, must have sincerity.

And sometimes, sincerity comes from confronting the darkness.

Then, maybe we'll have a better understanding of what we once labeled "different."

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