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Wicked Baggins [userpic]

June 10th, 2011 (12:00 am)

Okay, this article on YA books being too dark has been making the rounds and being duly torn apart. I'll let someone else handle Hunger Games. I wanna talk about Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has apparently been "challenged" quite a bit in libraries. So Alexie says something about being impressed his book has that much power when you can find much worse on the internet. Article writer potshots "It is no comment on Mr. Alexie's work to say that one depravity does not justify another," but the comment is implicit, isn't it? Depravity's a loaded word.

I am really quite curious about why Part-Time Indian was challenged. Possibly it was only mentioned in this particular article so the author could quote Alexie for the purpose of slapping YA authors on the wrist. Possibly she never read it. I can give her the benefit of the doubt. It's a little rough content-wise (although not so rough that my local, quite conservative-town library doesn't carry it proudly in the teen section, like Hunger Games), so let's suppose we removed the swearing, and maybe anything marginally sexually or violently psuedo-kinda explicit (not really present, but we'll pretend). What about the depiction of despairing alcoholism? Is that okay? Interracial relationships? What about the concept that leaving a reservation school for a white-dominated school could have serious social repercussions (repercussions that are, by the by, largely overcome during the book through time and effort)? What about racism?

Depravity is a very loaded word. I haven't read a lot of these books and for all I know, some of them are shock-value style trash. But I have read Part-Time Indian. You would like it. It's engaging, it's instructive, which is what teen books should be, right? Just because the life experience isn't one you recognize doesn't make it invalid. And that is the trouble with hand-wringing about darkness. Some things are dark because the author just thought a bit of nastiness would be awesome and edgy or because angst and torment is deep. Some things are dark or "dark" because not every kid grows up in an idyllic situation where everything goes well (well, does any kid?) and these experiences are worth writing about. You can usually tell the difference between the poseurs and the thinkers.

And not every YA is dark any more than every fantasy is dark. If you go looking for the unhappiest stuff in the pile (which I don't think I would rank either Part-Time Indian or Hunger Games in, frankly), then you will find it. And kids will read what they very well want to read, even if they have some swearing or mention the existence of sex or are kind of downers. Duh. Look, I happily ran around picking up Brave New World and Carrie and Invisible Man (Ellison) in my teens, and I was a really late bloomer. Just saying.


Posted by: Glishara (glishara)
Posted at: June 10th, 2011 10:35 am (UTC)

This idea that it's a major recent shift is kind of ridiculous, too. Twenty years ago, when I was reading YA fiction, it wasn't paranormal darkness, really -- I could hardly find any YA fantasy -- but I remember the reams and reams of books about being kidnapped or sexual abuse or -- the big culprit -- dying of cancer. There were dozens of books on every bookshelf about dying of cancer. Books about kids whose parents were dying of cancer, books about kids who fell in love with kids who were dying of cancer, books about kids with siblings dying of cancer, books where the protagonist-narrator herself was dying of cancer.

Are YA books today dealing with issues like depression and self-harm and sexuality and sexual assault more? Absolutely. Because we, as a society, are talking about them more, and that's a GOOD THING. But YA books have always been emotional masturbation, and to pretend that they're somehow darker or more corrupt because we're talking about topics that would have been taboo twenty years ago -- topics that teens may and will confront -- is ridiculous.

Posted by: Aerrin (aerrin)
Posted at: June 10th, 2011 12:13 pm (UTC)

Amen, and no kidding.

What really kills me is that most of the books they target for being 'dark' are in fact intensely, insanely hopeful. These are the books that acknowledge for kids that there are real demons in life - and that they can be dealt with, survived, overcome.

I've read a few YA books that have no real light at the end of the tunnel - Living Dead Girl comes to mind. But I've read so many more that depict surviving and moving past rape or abuse or oppression or the freaking end of the world, and most of these say 'yes, you can do it even though you are a teenager, you can do it /because/ you are a teenager, you are powerful and have some control over the world around you'.

Dark circumstances do not make dark /books/.

Posted by: Glishara (glishara)
Posted at: June 10th, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)

These are the books that acknowledge for kids that there are real demons in life - and that they can be dealt with, survived, overcome.

This is so true, and really important. Chesterton once said, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Terry Pratchett plays with a similar idea when he talks about how you can never convince children that there's no monster under the bed, but you can convince them that it can be killed and that it can be frightened as well as frightening.

The world is a TERRIFYING place. Objectively, the number of things out there that can kill or hurt you is huge, and teenagers, learning to really comprehend mortality, know that more than anyone. The entire raison d'etre of the young adult genre should be to say, "You're right: your feelings are valid. The world is terrifying. But you are strong enough to deal with it, and strong enough to do anything. You are powerful and empowered, and the monster under your bed is learning to be afraid of you."

Posted by: Wicked Baggins (subsidaryforge)
Posted at: June 10th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)

Yes, yes, yes to everything you guys have said.

Another note on Part-Time Indian - it's a fairly didactic book about all this horrible things. "Here is why you shouldn't drink even if everyone around you is drinking." "Here is why you should do well in school in a school that allows you to do well, even if it isn't hip -- no, even if it is terrifying to do so." "Here is why you should date anyone you want, but not fetishize certain types of people." It is like a very well-written friendly manual with illustrations. Our hero has it rough, but wins at the end.

Speak (and this is my generation, but is still getting challenged) deals with rape and the effects of rape, and our hero has it rough, but wins at the end.

And you know what? I live and work in a very sheltered community, and parents will wring their hands, but kids will always seek this stuff out. Hunger Games was the most popular book in the world for a good while. Hunger Games might not deal with sex and sexuality and depression, but kid being pitted against kid, and our hero coming out victorious /and/ with her soul intact is a metaphor. I don't think the reason kids seek out these books is because they're looking for titillation here.

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