This weekend my Twitter feed, which is a hodgepodge of writerly folks, bloggers, queer and indie movers and shakers, blew up with the hashtag #YAsaves. The outpouring came in response to a deft article the Wall Street Journal published, titled “Darkness Too Visible,” which shamed the sometimes gruesome and serious subjects of YA fiction as not right for young readers:
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
The article includes recommended YA books that will challenge readers without being too dark, but these lists are categorized by gender (groan). Anyone who writes Young Adult, reads Young Adult, champions Young Adult, or, especially, survived their own adolescence because of a few brave and frank books, will likely take issue with this morose portrait of YA literature. There’s a limited and incredibly judgemental perspective shared here, and it dismisses the tons of important, daring, confident and valuable books that have been written and published for YA over the last several years.
In my own experiences, I know that when I was a teenager there were a lot of adult things going on around me, and within me, that I didn’t have vocabulary for. I wanted stories I could measure my own judgements of the world so far against. I wanted validation. I wanted hope. I wanted perspective. I found these things in YA novels, and while I took great pains to draw a thick line between adults and teenagers (“Being a teenager is so awful that adults must forget about it as soon as their old enough, and then in turn have no reference for how terrible being a teenager can be,” I once wrote in an English paper in the 11th grade), I was relieved to read these books about teenagers I admired, by adults who seemed to be able to honor how tough this period of life could be.
One of the best responses I’ve seen to the WSJ piece is Malinda Lo’s blog post on the matter, where she points out that as a YA author, she’s not writing lessons for teenagers to take away, she’s writing books.
The idea that morals are required is the thing I hate the most about YA. It’s the thing that makes writers of “adult fiction” look down on YA: the idea that YA’s only purpose is to teach a lesson, not to tell a damn good story. I think this idea is pretty much the most harmful idea out there about YA — not that it’s too dark or too full of “aesthetic coarseness” (Gurdon’s words). Because the idea that YA is primarily about lessons strips it of the possibility of being art, and therefore of being taken seriously. It turns it into moral pablum.
Beyond darkness, appropriateness, adult content or other controversies, Lo is pointing out the thing that I think often makes Young Adult the super beloved genre that it is: damn good stories. Here’s to hoping that nothing keeps these damn good stories from our shelves.