For context, a certain post went up last week sometime (I’m assuming this will go up next week) and while it was obviously engineered to be polemic in order to garner a hue and cry (and many clicks), the article is just one example of the attitude prevalent among the “serious” readers where YA, and I would go so far as to say, children’s literature is concerned. The contributors to this blog are all very passionate about children’s literature, to the extent that we have spent two or more years of our lives studying it, writing it and about it, and most definitely reading it. So I thought that it might be interesting to respond to that article, keeping our tone civil (because we are either Canadians or pseudo-Canadians and we’re always civil, even when we are not). I’m not going to link that post because we’ve already linked it once but we will quote the parts we want to respond to. Let us know how you feel about the topic.
(the slideshow below is just a sample of the books “for young people” that don’t make me, an adult, “roll my eyes”)
Upon reading the Slate article, I must admit that I nodded, but that I also rolled my eyes.
When chapter after chapter in Eleanor & Park ends with some version of “He’d never get enough of her,” the reader seems to be expected to swoon. But how can a grown-up, even one happy to be reminded of the shivers of first love, not also roll her eyes? (page 2)
I nodded for two reasons:
- I have heard it all before. Within the first few lines I knew what the article was going to assert – and *sighs* I’m over it. I have studied Children’s Literature in my late twenties, I still expect to work in the field. I have endured questions like, “Why?” and “What are you going to do with that?” and “Don’t you get tired of reading about kids?” and “Doesn’t it all read the same to you after a while?” Criticising adult fans of young adult and children’s literature as being underdeveloped escapists is old news, and, it’s simply untrue.
- I agree. I do roll my eyes at quite a bit of YA lit – but that’s the stuff that doesn’t make it onto the blog. That’s the stuff that doesn’t take being a young adult seriously enough, or “real”-ly enough. In these instances it is the author (an adult, most likely) that has failed the teen audience, underestimating them or over dramatizing. This is not exclusive to YA, “books for adults” aren’t always good and often make me roll my eyes too! Yes, truly, one of those things that leads me to write negative reviews or shut the book instantly are those “eye-rolling” moments.
I have always had an issue with classification in terms of age range – read what you darn well please! The Slate article discusses how silly it is to want to regress, that adults should feel ashamed of reading about a younger audience because it is predictable, because the adult has already been there and done that. Basically, the adult is a different state of being, almost a different creature altogether, and should grow up. Well – stop handing out the should’s missy – we’re all people and dangit people like stories! (And what the heck is a “satisfying” ending anyway?) The heart of the issue here is classification and the idea that being an adult is, simply put, distinctly better than being a teen. And, hand-in-hand with that, that adult literature is simply better and more sophisticated, than young adult literature. That is simply incorrect. YA houses a variety of genres, themes, tones, authors and who is to say which books are good and which books are bad and who can read this and who can read that. There are some truly great books out there that are labelled “YA” or “Children’s” and they are darn good stories, with substance and characters and stories that endure and escape the limits of “appropriate age” (see above slide show).
I read the article.
Graham has probably been told, ad infinitum if the comments are anything to go by, how everything she has said about YA literature and YA readers is so wrong. However, I want to point out that had she chosen a less polemic and better researched manner of making her points, she could have initiated a timely dialogue about the problematic elements, of which there are many, in YA fiction. Instead, she chose to shame people about the stuff they choose to read. I will not respond to her entire article as I think the four of us, in one way or another, will end up doing exactly that as a whole. I will respond to some of her points and I will quote them before I do. For your pleasure, of course.
But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.” But the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable. There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.
First, let’s talk about how YA affords “escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia” when “adult fiction” does not. Before I move on to how constrictive Graham’s definition of YA lit is, let’s talk about how she ignores an obvious elephant in the room. That is, most adults do not read literary fiction. I have no statistics to prove myself (but then, neither did she) but judging the popularity of adult genre fiction and fantasy, and comparing this popularity (and sales) (of genres such as romance and fantasy) to literary fiction will reveal which is better (and wider) read. For most people, reading is a form of escapism. And while there are some people who escape through troubles besetting fictional characters, the vast majority want the fluffy happy endings that are not available to them in their own lives. Not all of the adults have the privilege of having cushy jobs and health benefits – for some, the so-called books propounded by Graham have less to do with fiction and more to do with the reality they get up everyday and face. So how dare she begrudge people their small pleasures? It also occurs to me that Graham has only chosen books with the happier endings to focus on, ignoring books that deal with difficult themes such as abuse, bullying and identity crises, books that do not necessarily have the smooth ending that she paints YA as having. Books such as Plain Kate, Sorrow’s Knot both by Erin Bow, Forbidden by , Hunger, Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous. Heck, according to Graham, Anne Frank’s Diary would be considered YA and not recommended reading for adults. YA novels are so much more than the books with the white girls in pretty dresses brooding on the covers. So much more.
Another point Graham insists on making is the simplicity of YA, how it is not critical and that assertion left me confounded. Children’s literature is subversive at heart. Papers have been written about it by smarter people than me but children’s literature affords growth not available to adult literary fiction. Consider this, why do some of the more popular adult novels use child narrators, for example Room by Emma Donoghue and Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m sure there are many other examples of this out there. Children are rarely simple creatures and to assume that their literature is simple is a mistake. Children’s literature as well as adult literature is usually produced by adults and children appreciate good stories just like adults do. And if children can appreciate stories meant for adults, why can’t adults appreciate stories meant for children? Obviously, I am not saying that adults should only read YA fiction. I think they should read whatever they want and if inclined, they should read other fiction or non-fiction for that matter. I just think that shaming people for what they read is not something anyone, especially a librarian, should do.
As for not being critical, let me share an excerpt from a novel I recently read:
Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.
“This” being reading YA literature. I am not. Are you?
I have already made an extensive list of reasons why I don’t much care for Ruth Graham’s article, so let me begin by reiterating those previous seven points. And now, for five more …
- I disagree with the article right in the very beginning when she sets aside the “trashy stuff”. This is an unbearably snooty attitude I cannot stand in people. These are books teenagers are reading. These are the genres that are popular for a reason. If you are going to make vast, sweeping, hand-flappy, peer-condescendingly-over-your-glasses, kind of statements about Children’s and YA Lit, the only way to do an exemplary job is to talk about everything including what sells– why it is good and how it can be improved.
- And for God’s sake try to notice who is making the big bucks instead of “setting them aside”. John Green is an isolated phenomenon, but a majority of the bestsellers are by some rather lovely ladies. (I identify as a nerdfighter, but I am telling you that he is not the YA messiah, okay?) I am not the only one who sees this snooty attitude as a gendered thing:
- On the subject of eye-rolls and the quote from Eleanor & Park, I must suppress my instinct to gag. Everyone who has the ability to eye-roll has, in turn, made someone else roll their eyes. Enthusiastic, genuine affection can make anyone let out an exasperated “Oh brother”, but that doesn’t make the truth of the affection/drama/melodrama any less real. It can make you drop a book, but would you really judge the entire sub-section of literature because of that one moment? Seems unreasonable.
- It also bothers me that this is what makes Graham roll her eyes. Not Park’s insensitive interaction with Eleanor (and her appearance) at first. And not Eleanor’s complete lack of understanding that Park is Korean and does not have “ninja magic”. Instead, Graham picks the one quote that made me giddy with delight because it is so very rare in the history of literature for a fat girl to be the object of affection- an affection that does not ask for the compromising of said fat girl’s identity, physically or otherwise. Her readings of TFiOS similarly miss the mark and I cannot be bothered to make Graham’s every blunder a teachable moment*. Moving on …
- Graham should at least have mentioned that some classic, serious literature makes people roll their eyes. Because they do. Also, serious, classic literature can have tidy endings. And be pleasurable. And be used to “escape”. No shame in that. Just ask J. R. R. Tolkein. Or Ursula Le Guin. Or anyone who ever wrote fiction for the sake of some form of freedom. Basically, there is no shame in reading books for kids. But hey, if it takes a serious, white guy to convince you, *looks churlishly in Graham’s direction* look at what (the inarguably awesome) Nick Hornby has to say:
I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of. – [X]
Now, excuse me while I stop flipping that article off, take a break from my thesis-length analysis of subject-object relationships in fantasy novels, and read the very pleasurable, the very fantastic, Demon’s Covenant. *I am that pseudo-Canadian Nafiza spoke about above, so I get some leeway on that whole “we are nice, polite, people” thing.
I may as well begin by saying that I wasn’t all that bothered by the article. The subtitle made the whole thing impossible to take seriously. “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
- This begins with an imperative, semi-disguised as permission; in both cases, this sentence situates the speaker/author as possessing a position of authority over me, the reader (only someone in a position of power over another person can give commands or grant permission).
- This self-established authority is commanding me/giving me permission to do something that I don’t need permission (or commands) to do: read. I say this from both a legal and personal standpoint: legally my right to read pretty much anything (barring personal correspondence, private documents, or legal/medical/governmental files) is enshrined in law.
- In essence, someone is unnecessarily telling me what do do.
- Second thought on point three: granting permission unnecessarily is a standard tactic for manipulating others. (Side note: being aware of how effective manipulation works is one of the best ways to make it not work on you.)
- “But” – ha, there is a but! I knew it. See, this is exactly how manipulation (or, in a kinder light, clumsy attempts at persuasion) works: “I’m not saying x, I’m just saying x.“
- “Should.” Side note two on manipulation: “should” is a guilt word. “Should” is used to pressure people into doing something, and making them feel guilt and incompetence if they don’t do it, and (temporary, slight) relief (or, sometimes, resentful acquiescence) when they do. “Should” shoves you against a wall and kicks you when you flinch. “Could” holds out a hand and opens the door for you. Imagine the difference in tone if the subtitle had been: “You can read whatever you want. But you could feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Not quite perfect yet (I still don’t like that initiating imperative or that but), but consider how the subtitle suggests that the article to follow is a thoughtful, well-researched, and articulate examination of cultural norms regarding reading habits, attitudes towards children, adulthood, the teen/transition years, and the literatures marketed towards those groups. Now that would be an article worth reading.
- The second sentence demeans children. The not so hidden implication is that if a book was written for children, and you, and adult are reading it, you the adult should (*must*ought to*are somehow obliged to*) feel embarrassment (*guilt*humiliation*) because (*obviously*) anything written for children (*such little brains*unintelligent*incapable*) is lesser (*how could it not be?*), and you the adult (*capable*superior*practically a different species) are not living up to your reading potential.
So at that point I knew pretty much the points that the article was going to make, and remained undisturbed during the entire reading, and was mildly surprised by the hullabaloo that ever-so-briefly swept the children’s literature world. Can you say tempest in a teacup?
Because this isn’t anything new. Since the inception of children’s literature, almost, certainly since the printing press and the gradual development of books for children (instead of books for adults/the general public that somehow found their way into the hands of children, because childhood itself is a construct, please remember), children and children’s literature have been made Other. And Other almost always means inferior, an odd sort of projection of hopes and dreams and fears. Other means that there is an Us and there is a Them, and They are not Us, and We do not want to be anything like Them.
That, I suspect, is the underlying attitude that some adults harbour towards children, especially towards teenagers, boiled down to a nutshell. The attitude toward the child Other may tend toward the patronizing, and the teen Other toward fear and disdain, but in essence, both are constructed (most bewilderingly, by people who have at some point been children and teens) as somehow sub-par semi-humans that, at some mysterious stage in their development, will cease to be petty little caterpillars and become glorious, significant butterflies.
My apologies to caterpillars and butterflies.
The Stale, I mean Slate (honest typo, but too funny to delete) article isn’t terribly original, and in an ideal world wouldn’t need to be rebutted, since it is neither researched well nor written persuasively. However, as even one more piece of patronizing nonsense that both completely misunderstands and underestimates children and children’s literature, it does need to be put in its place, a job which I feel has been ably accomplished by my fellow Book Warriors, and also by Alyssa Rosenberg, Noah Berlatsky, kittens not kids, all of the feelings, and Amy.
All that I would like to add, or reiterate, is that adopting a patronizing perspective towards children and teens does nobody credit, and reveals how extremely minimal that person’s meaningful interactions with either age group are (standing in line behind a family of five at the grocery store checkout, for instance, is not a meaningful interaction, nor is buying your daily coffee from a high school barista); that an article overtly discussing the dumbing-down of literature (as Graham’s article implicitly laments) would be an interesting and more worthwhile read (although again, anyone in the academic side of the children’s lit field probably already knows most of what she’ll write – that is part of our job, after all – but even so, the discussions that would open up would be thought-provoking and educational as well as fun; that neither children’s, young adult, nor adult literature is monolithic; and that I, too, have reread stories I enjoyed when I was younger and sighed in exasperation and amusement, and then continued reading.