Sunday, June 5, 2011

YA Saves

I'm sure by now all of you have heard of the article posted by the Wall Street Journal, condemning today's YA books as nothing but darkness and something teens should be protected from. (Today they posted a rebuttal, which is better, but it and the YA community still don't quite see eye to eye.)

That article made me angry. It made me so angry that I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. I love YA, and I have loved both reading and writing YA for years now. The YA community is filled with friendly, intelligent, wonderful, and talented people that I have had the privilege of getting to know.

YA is always deemed lesser. Questionable. Something not to be trusted, in spite of how well YA is doing. In spite of how many people love it. It's hard enough to receive rejection letter after rejection letter, wait endlessly for internship news that never comes, but to have people who think that my dreams are somehow lesser because it involves fiction for teenagers? Not. Cool. And articles like this do nothing to erase that stigma. They add to it.

The problem with that article is twofold. The first is that the mom shown at the beginning of the article did not even bother to look past the covers. I cannot imagine anyone going into a bookstore and not being able to find one single thing that would suit their tastes.

Because here's the thing. Not all YA is dark. Not all YA SHOULD be dark. Yes, darkness has an important place (more on that later), but so does fun. People need books that are lighthearted as much as they need books that will make them think (my favorites are books that combine the two). Fun is important. Not everyone wants to or feels ready to read books about rape or suicide or drugs. And that's okay. That is completely and totally okay. It's great that there are parents who are concerned about what their kids are reading, and whether or not they can handle it. What is NOT okay is for someone to say that because their child does not want to read about the issues of death or anorexia or incest, EVERYONE'S children should not read about those things.

Something the first article leaves out completely (and something the rebuttal is strongest in) is the idea that it is important to talk with your children about the things they read. I talk to my mom about books all the time. If parents are concerned about reading materials, don't simply say no: TALK. Talk about books, and the things they're saying, the things they mean. Talk about the darkness in them, and the lightness too. In instances like this, communication is key.

The other thing that bugs me about the article is that it writes the darkness in YA off as depravity, when that is so far from the case. The darkness in well-written YA books does not exist to be dark. It does not exist for shock factor alone. Any dark book, YA or otherwise, is trying to get out of that darkness. To make things better, both for the characters and the reader. The point is not to linger in darkness forever, but to move beyond it, to heal.

This is where the real strength of both YA as a genre and as a community shines through. It took twenty minutes for the tag #YAsaves to become one of the top trending topics on Twitter yesterday, and it was still going strong this morning. In response to the first article, authors such as Maureen Johnson, Libba Bray, Robin Wasserman, and Hannah Moskowitz prompted us all to write our responses and tell us how YA has helped us. There were thousands of responses, everywhere from "YA helped me to become more empathetic" to "YA kept me from committing suicide."

There is darkness in the world; the article bemoans the fact that today's YA is nothing like the sweet, Judy Blume-esque fiction of days gone by. And you know what? There was darkness then too. But now, we're not afraid to speak up about it. We're not afraid to write about it, because these dark issues are things that teens face every day.

I was lucky - I AM lucky. I have a wonderful, supportive family, I was never bullied or abused, I did well in school; I lead a safe, sheltered life and I am so grateful. Dark books for me teach me to empathize - they show me worlds beyond my own and help me to relate, help me to understand. And for the people to whom such darkness is a reality?

It can - and does - help to show them that they are not alone, that they have hope, and that they can get through it.

I write YA in the hopes that someday, something that I love will make someone else happy. That one of my books will make someone laugh or make their day or make them think. And yes, there is sometimes darkness in what I write. Because there is darkness in the world, and we should not try to hide it.

Because those dark and terrible YA books? They often have moments of stunning beauty in them, and the light of those moments shines all the brighter for the darkness they had to overcome first.


  1. Hear, hear! Beautifully written! I don't need to tell you how completely I agree with what you've said--you already know. What I would like to tell you is that you definitely have the empathy down. I had some troubles growing up--first a serious illness in my immediate family, later struggles with bullying and depression--and YA fiction helped me get through all of that. The characters in the books I read faced different struggles than my own, but they did struggle, and they persevered, and that's how I knew I could as well. I guess what I'm trying to say is brava! (And also, I would LOVE to read your novels!)

  2. Thanks, Sarah! Books are wonderful, wonderful things. :)

    And surely! Perhaps once I'm finished with editing this particular wip I could send it off to you and you can tell me what you think of it. :)

  3. "Dark books for me teach me to empathize - they show me worlds beyond my own and help me to relate, help me to understand. And for the people to whom such darkness is a reality?

    It can - and does - help to show them that they are not alone, that they have hope, and that they can get through it."

    Exactly! These were my (not as well-verbalized) thoughts when I read the WSJ article.

    And yes, not all YA is dark, but even light and fluffy YA has some mildly dark moments in it. Otherwise there would be no story -- no tension or problem to resolve.

  4. YAY Caitlin! Thanks for commenting about this. I still have to read the rebuttal, but I think allowing that first review without a proper and objective voice was the worst thing they could have done. I'm so grateful for all the YA authors and readers that rallied together to disprove the lies printed on WSJ.

  5. Ellen: Yes, exactly! Books would be so boring if there was nothing but lightness and fluffiness in them!

    Marilyn: It is great that we could all come together and give the WSJ what for!! :)