A familiar face in today’s paper
The way we were; The American author John Green writes big books for youths. Thus about and for all of us
“It’s not bad to have never heard of John Green, if you are older than 15, anyway. John Green writes books for 15 year olds. At first glance. At second glance John Green is one of the most important American writers of the present day. Because he writes for 15 year olds. Namely books that in turn have no age at all, that somehow hover over the present time, so you could not say in which year they are set, just the moment that begins and never stops: the one when you become self-aware.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 22.05.2011 [German, excerpt translated]
(submitted by michaelbaer)
I like the part where he calls me one of the most important contemporary American writers. I love this reporter. He is my favorite reporter ever.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the “depraved” state of YA novels…
…and it made me incredibly angry, for a number of reasons. Not least of these was the fact that this was listed as an article, not an editorial, when the language is rife with blatant bias, and when the journalist is so obviously uninformed of the culture she is trying so hard to condemn.
I will agree, there are a lot of violent teen books out there. There are also a lot of violent adult books out there. Our culture is simply more accepting of violent imagery as entertainment than in previous generations. Yet with the proliferation of slasher films and bloody video games comes the understanding that these media are just that: entertainment. There are always those who get their knickers in a knot over the latest “horrific” media package, but there are always plenty more consumers who are just looking for entertainment.
Unfortunately for this journalist, there is no way to practice her notion of “good parenting” that involves protecting kids from the scariness of the real world. News channels and events are constantly part of our reality, whether those events are rape, suicide, murder, governmental atrocity…I could go on. Our culture is deeply aware of these sensational stories; there is no way to “protect” kids from that. Nor should you try. Teenagers are at the point of life when they are trying to find their place in the world, and many books deal with issues they might be facing. Yes, these issues include self-mutilation, rape, beating, and hate crimes. The article brings up Lauren Myracle’s new book Shine, which centers on a serious small town hate crime on a young gay teen. The novel also deals with meth addiction and the narrator’s childhood rape. Yes, these are very dark subjects to be writing about, for kids or adults. But dark stuff like this really happens all over the world, and sometimes happens to people we know. Sometimes, it’s something kids go through on a daily basis, and they need to know that there’s someone out there who understands. These are issues teenagers are very much aware of, and to try to shove the problems down and ignore them is doing a great disservice to people who are in the process of growing up in our world.
But what really set me off was the journalist’s willful and blatant misunderstanding of the YA genre. It’s not like the market is flooded solely with guts-n’-gore material; there are plenty of novels for young readers centered around romance, family tensions, interactions with friends, travel adventures, cultural identities, medical complications, self-discoveries, etc., and it is grossly unfair to grasp at any suggestion of “objectionable” material to throw in parents’s faces and urge them to restrict their kids’ reading habits.
Two novels also discussed in the article are Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Although the journalist doesn’t have all that much to say about these books (aside from a throw-away description of The Hunger Games as “hyper-violent”), the implication is that they are sending bad messages to our youth. The Hunger Games involves kids fighting each other to the death, true, but the novel is remarkably non-graphic considering its subject matter. Indeed, the story is more of a political commentary on the dystopian government that forces the teens to commit such atrocities. As for Absolutely True Diary, I found that book extremely affecting for its depiction of a kid trying to make a place for himself between two difficult and contrasting cultures. There is practically no violent material in the book. The only parts the journalist could have possibly construed as such include off-screen accidents (such as car crashes and guns misfiring) and the characters getting beaten up by bullies, both of which are scary realities that happen every day. It is in no way fair to lump that brilliant novel in with “objectionable” material, and in that way prevent it from reaching kids who could be positively influenced by the story.
Of course parents have a place in guiding what kids are exposed to. But as a former teenager, I can say that I think I did a fine job in directing my own interests and opinions. If a book was too dark for me, I stopped reading it until I was old enough to come back to it. There are tons of ideas that parents might consider “depravity” that will in turn forever affect a kid’s life for the better, including ideas that touch on sexuality, religion, identity, or one’s understanding of an inherently violent and unjust society. (I’m thinking Harry Potter, The Amber Spyglass, Catcher in the Rye, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and plenty of others.) If this particular reporter wants to prevent her kids from reading violent and offensive books, that’s her prerogative. But she has no right to attack an entire genre of beautiful, affecting literature out of hand and pass off that faulty assessment as fact.
This is not me pulling up my petticoats and shrieking “censorship!," Mrs. Gurdon. This is me calling out your uninformed opinion, dismissing any authority you pretend to have on the subject, and telling you, in the words of YA novelist John Green, to "Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers.” Trust me, they can handle it themselves.
I just spent several hours in the library snagging and cooing over relevant materials, and oh lordy, I don’t know if I can wait more than a year to write this thing.
I need to start narrowing my focus. Right now I’m thinking:
I’m thinking I want to include John Green, Markus Zuzak, Sherman Alexie, M. T. Anderson, probably Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Phillip Pullman, Lois Lowry, Avi, Walter Dean Myers… so many. And looking through all these bibliographies is reminding me how many of these books I haven’t read yet (Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton most of all).
Gah. Despite all the stuff I need to figure out, I cannot wait to get started.
I believe that as writers and educators, we have a shared responsibility to give teenagers every opportunity to encounter everything that books can do.
This is the business, right? It is not just reading for the sake of reading. Literacy is important. Literacy is vital, but literacy is not the finish line. Literature is not just in the business of See Jane Run. Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people.
This is beautiful.