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A Response: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Literature

The Background
Here’s a secret: Christie, Heather, Robin and I have become really good friends as we have traveled this co-blogging journey together.  We often email each other throughout the day, bouncing ideas off of each other, talking about books, complaining about patrons (and sometimes our children).  So yesterday Christie sent me a link to an article that got us all talking.  Rather than writing out a response to it, we thought we would just share our behind the scenes conversation.

Here a link to the original article: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books

Heather’s Take
 
Just like in every other aspect of life and culture, there are options that are roundly understood to be exceptional, classic works, shining examples of virtue and grace, and options that serve other purposes.  They’re easy to access.  They’re entertaining.  They reflect contemporary situations.  They are escapist, providing contrasts to everyday life.  Books, even books for young people, are no different.  As a parent, I’m urged to make all of the “right” choices for my children all of the time, and berated by certain factions when I don’t.   (For these folks, there is only ever one right option.) From food to bedtimes to medical care to educational opportunities, someone always knows better, and parents never win.  I’ll take this article with the same grain of salt I use for others in a similar vein.  

I stand by my longstanding assertion that teens read for escape, connection, and information. Sometimes what they get from reading those “horrible” books with bad things is an appreciation for what they DO have. Sometimes they get the reassurance that they are not alone in their nightmares.  Sometimes they are gaining an understanding, in a fictional context, of the horrors that surround them daily in the news. 

She asserts that parents should steer their children toward more edifying work.  Fine.  Parents are welcome to do that.  But what’s even more powerful, potentially life changing, and affirming than reading that virtuous book is deliberately choosing to do so.
Robin’s Take
 
Exactly. My Mom chose to shelter us from violence, but not from sexual content. That definitely shaped who I am, and that was her prerogative. She didn’t see any need to restrict what other people’s children were exposed to. It’s quite interesting living in the heart of the Bible belt, where most of my friends were sheltered from sexual content but not from violence. 
This is the part of the article that disturbs me the most:
Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to-18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?”

I don’t think she’s in touch with the average teenager today. She sounds like she’s cut off from the realities of daily existence for so much of our population. I understand how that can happen, but perhaps that makes a case for those of us who are ‘in the trenches’ to be better judges of what is appropriate in Young Adult literature. It is often this same mentality that causes people to believe that those who aren’t making it financially are ‘just lazy.’ And that it will ruin our economy for everyone to have access to adequate healthcare and nutrition.
Does it serve children living in devastating circumstances to offer them stories of people in hard situations that they can relate to and maybe learn coping skills, or see hope that they can survive their current difficulties? I think so. Does it serve them to offer them stories so engaging that they can momentarily escape from their current troubles? Yes, we all need that. Does it serve them to only offer them stories of realities that are so unlike their own that they can’t even begin to relate to the characters? No. We need to meet the readers where they are. We need to feed their diverse interests. We need to empower them to tell their own stories. Limiting their exposure to only things that a part of society finds beautiful and ‘redemptive’ will silence these voices. It is another way of telling them that their experiences don’t matter. That they don’t count. That they are worthless.
 
There is great beauty in the midst of every tragedy. Friends sacrifice for those they love. Societies come together to protect the weak and disadvantaged. Can you really understand the enormity of what Denmark did for its Jewish citizens in smuggling them to Sweden without first comprehending the horror of the Nazi regime? Can you understand the importance of the idea that you are not defined by the evil that others enact upon you and your body without discussing those evils and the havoc they wreak in lives on a daily basis?
Karen’s Take
I guess it depends on where you live as to whether or not you believe a vast majority of teens are living in hell.  I have spent way too much time with far too many teens that were starving, both for food and love.  Statistics indicate that 1 out of 3 girls will be the victim of some type of sexual violence by the time they reach age 18.  For boys it is 1 out of 5.  I’ve watched grandparents raise teenagers as parents were off somewhere dying in gutters from drug abuse or in jail.  I just feel like there is a segment of the population that is happy and living gleefully sheltered lives and they don’t understand that not all lives are like theirs.  But when we write books that open doors onto these different lives, when we recognize that they exist – only then can we begin to acknowledge them and work to make the world a different place.  It’s easy to put blinders on and believe that teens aren’t living in poverty, because once you recognize that poverty exists and what it is like I think the moral response is to work to change that.  And teens that are living these lives, sometimes of course they want escapist books – don’t we all? – but they also want authentic books, books that don’t talk down to them or sugarcoat things.  The greatest turn off for teens when they open a book is to feel that they are being intellectually demeaned; you must speak truth to teens and be authentic.

But honestly, I don’t think it is fair for someone to say look how bad teen literature is and give only 3 examples.  I can turn right around and give her 3 positive examples of YA lit: Guitar Lessons by Mary Amato is a beautiful story of friendship and being true to yourself, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Steifvater is a beautiful fantasy series that has that literary feel to it she discusses, and Going Vintage by Lindsay Leavitt is a fun, flirty book with positive family and multigenerational interactions.  The thing is, 3 books proves nothing.  It isn’t a representative sampling. There are hundreds of YA books published every year, and they cover such a vast array of lives.  I think YA lit has its shortcomings, we definitely need more diversity for example, but I think it is so rich and bountiful and flourishing.


Further, she uses Scars by Cheryl Rainfield as an example, which really negates her point I think:

“This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.”

Here’s the problem with using this example to make her argument: This is Cheryl’s life.  She was suicidal, she was a cutter, she was raped.  She is very open about it.  She writes about it to validate the experiences of those who have – who ARE – living lives exactly like this.  It’s not about framing or building a culture, it is about reflecting the very real lives of teenagers.  Not all teenagers, but some of them.  Yes, their stories make us uncomfortable – they should make us uncomfortable – but we don’t get to say you don’t get to tell your story because it makes me uncomfortable.  And I don’t think these stories normalize them at all, but by exposing them, by drawing back the curtain, we help teens that need it give voice to what is happening, to seek help, to find hope, to stop the crimes that are being committed against them in the dark by bringing them to light. 


But let’s go back all the way to the title of the article: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.  Once again, the title gets to the heart of what the problem is.  What, exactly, is good taste?  Who gets to define that?  It’s interesting to note that in her closing argument she quotes the Bible: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things (Phil 4:8).  The Bible happens to be one of the MOST CHALLENGED books of all time, in part because it is in fact very violent and sometimes sexual.  But also, the very books she is decrying do in fact reflect a light on truth; there are parts of our world that are in truth very ugly.  And just as Jesus spent his time with tax collectors, Pharisees, adulterers, thieves and murderers so he could save them, I believe He calls us to expose the truth in our world so that we, too, can work to change it.  I often find the characters in YA lit to be very inspiring because they are, in fact, surviving the life situations that they are living.  I feel that the “edgy” YA books that I am reading are thoughtful, reflective, uncomfortable, challenging, inspiring,
I think the answer is that there needs to be balance, a balance that I argue does in fact exist in YA literature.  But then again, I find To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that talks about rape and racism, to be one of the most inspiring books ever written. So what do I know?