(Originally posted 5/06/2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)
I woke up this morning to find my Twitter feed being eaten alive by
references to an article in the Wall Street Journal about YA literature,
my first reaction was confusion, because that article came out ages
ago. Didn't it? Oh, no - this was a NEW article from the WSJ, ANOTHER
article belittling my genre and chosen medium as an artist. Did a YA
author kick the editor of the WSJ in the ankle on the train recently or
something? These guys just don't seem to like us. But then,
thinking about it, no one really seems to like us, do they?
Pretty much every other day YA writers have to put up with another
condescending article in which the entire field of young adult and
children's writing is compressed down to the sparkly vampire elements so
that the journalist can smirk. Or a comment from some lauded adult
literary writer who thinks anyone who bothers writing for people under
the age of eighteen is mentally defective. Or an article like this one,
that bemoans the debauched, depraved tone of YA literature and compares
it unfavourably to the books of the writer's own childhood.
first thing most of these articles do is to point out how new YA is.
And they're right. Young Adult only got its own shelf in the library or
bookshop sometime in the late eighties or early nineties. Before that,
there was just children's and adult's. And not long before that, there
was adult, all on its own, and children read the Bible and classics and
that was it. A lot of people seem to wish for a return to this state of
affairs - or, at least, that's how it seems to those of us who keep
finding ourselves under attack for daring to see young adults as a
worthy audience with high intelligence, enquiring minds, and their own
particular experiences and concerns, who deserve books specifically
written for them.
In the minds of these
article-writers, new = bad. Just as, apparently, truthful, intense,
dark books which explore the real world young adults share with the rest
of us = bad. The YA haters, whatever their stated concerns, always seem
to be looking back, longing for some past Golden Age of Innocence, when
books for younger readers were bright and cheerful and happy and
uncomplicated. A hazy, non-specific 1950's lite period, when kids were
respectful to their elders, no one had to lock their doors, child abuse
was unheard of. When children never cried alone, or hurt themselves or
others. When, presumably, young people themselves were bright, cheerful,
happy and uncomplicated.
Here's a little newsflash for you. That time never actually existed.
It is a product of the adult imagination. Nothing more than convenient fantasy. Weak and feeble nostalgia. And kids know it.
world has never been 100% cheery and happy and uncomplicated. Tragically, kids
have always been abused. They have always suffered in silence, hurt
themselves and others. Children have always, always, always
partaken of the pain and agony of humanity, as well as its joy and brightness. They have always had to live
with the same darkness, the same wars, the same nightmares as adults
do. In fact, they've normally caught the worst of it. Take a look at
childhood and infant mortality rates in any third world country if you
don't believe me. Actually, take a look at child poverty statistics for
the U.S. right now. Still feeling nice and cozy there on your moral high
One of the most heart-breaking parts of Meghan Cox Gurdon's article is the way that she dismisses Scars, a novel by Cheryl Rainfield.
Ms Cox Gurdon thinks the subject of the book - a girl who cuts to help
herself cope with years of systematic abuse by her father -
'normalises' self-harm. That the topics it covers are 'lurid'. She
criticises the cover with it's photograph of a 'horribly scarred
forearm'. Apparently all this stuff is just too 'depraved' for teens.
Ms Cox Gurdon realise that Cheryl Rainfield herself was ritually and
sytematically tortured by her parents as a child? That the forearm she
dismisses as horrible actually belongs to Cheryl? Here, the
author uses her own experiences to write a book that reaches back to
her childhood self, reaches out to the thousands of other children who
are going through what she went through, and tells them 'You can
survive this. Don't lose hope.' Scars is an artistic act of the highest courage possible and one I admire more than I can say.
Ms Cox Gurdon, like others of her kind, does not care about the
children whose lives might be saved by this book. Or the thousands of
other children who, through reading such a book, will gain
understanding, empathy and compassion for the survivors of abuse and
become better, more rounded individuals. She wants to pretend that bad
things don't happen to anyone real - especially kids - that 'normal'
people don't find this stuff relevent, that no one she knows or cares
about could be damaged and hurting like the character in Scars.
me now address the YA haters directly - for my own satisfaction, but
also in hopes of getting through some seriously thick skulls:
reason you feel free to attack YA this way is because you think it's a
soft target. You think it's valueless. You think no one takes it
seriously. You think the YA field is a fleeting flash in the pan,
getting undeserved attention and success. You think if you sit in
judgement in your safe little corner, it'll all go away and proper
literature (that's the stuff you like) will eventually take its place.
Unfortunately for you, this attitude betrays you. It makes clear your true feelings about young adults,
the very people for whom you profess to have such concern.
think young adults are valueless. You don't take them seriously. You
dismiss their feelings and experiences as fleeting and shallow. You
think if you just din your own personal values and beliefs into young
adult heads hard enough, you'll be able to drown out their questions,
their inconvenient new ideas, their worrying complexity, and produce a
Mini-You, an adult in teenage clothing.
is too dark for you? Too bleak? Too sad, and challenging and REAL? You
think we should all collude in some kind of mass hallucination in which
we pretend bad things never happen, and kids exist in a perpetual
state of rosy-cheeked glee and laughter? Well, I'll tell you what. You
build yourself a nice spaceship, find a new planet and create that
ideal, shiny world. Invite your family and friends. I'm sure it'll be
just swell. So long as everyone represses their real feelings forever, of course.
But the rest of us are live HERE. Including those of
humanity who are too young and vulnerable to have voices of their own.
They look to the writers of YA fiction to speak to them, to speak the
truth. To write books that are brave enough to touch them in their
isolation and loneliness.
In spite of you,
and everything you do to tell young adults that they don't get a say,
that their experiences are lesser, that if they just ignore the pain it
will go away, that none of it matters and in years to come they will
look back and laugh? They will grow into the people they should be.
They will grow into new writers and artists, trail-blazers, kicking the
status quo in the teeth and telling things like they are.
Young adult literature is new.
It's raw and brash and brazen. It's trashy, silly, funny and
beautiful. It's stomach-churing, harrowing and dark. It's subtle,
complex, transformative and brave.
It's ART, for God's sake. What do you expect?
And when young adults dive into it, they will find all these horrors and wonders - and they will find themselves.
If you don't like it? Your spaceship awaits. Bon voyage!