Thursday, April 12, 2012

I'm not embarrassed to read teen books

I kept waiting for the punchline in a recent New York Times online debate. Joel Stein, columnist for Time magazine, wrote, "The only thing more seeing a guy on the plane reading The Hunger Games." He compared YA fiction with books like Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg in lacking complexity and depth. He then acknowledged that he's made this judgment without ever having read any YA books. Maybe he's too mature for teen books, but my children are not yet 10 years old and they already know you shouldn't make up your mind about something before you try it, whether it's broccoli or a book. Frankly, I'd be more embarrassed to be caught making decisions based out of ignorance than to be seen reading a book. 

Joel Stein seems to miss a few distinctions.  There is a difference between YA and children's fiction.  YA, or teen fiction, does not in any way resemble the picture books Stein references. (Incidentally, there are also great books written for children that I've read as an adult for my own enjoyment, not for my kids'. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle are two that stand out in my mind). Of course a Dr. Seuss book doesn't have the same impact on adults as David Foster Wallace does.  That's not its intent. Teen books, though, are not picture books.  They often tackle some of the big questions in life -- how to live, how to love, how to find your own path in the world.

Sure, some teen books -- even some of the most popular --are simplistic and shallowly treated but some are truly complex, intricately-plotted, and have well-developed characters. Couldn't you say the same thing about fiction marketed to adults? Let's acknowledge that there are good writers and...less good writers across the age spectrum. Some of the most compelling stories I've read in the past few years have been shelved in the YA area.  Don't believe me? Try reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and not being affected by it. Read Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver for a fascinating consideration of the worth of love and the government's role in our personal lives. And, yes, you might want to try The Hunger Games trilogy. 
Joel Stein claims that he doesn't read teen fiction because he wouldn't get anything from it.  If he judged a book by its character rather than its location in the library, he might find that there is often more in a book geared toward children or teens than he thought. I can't find a better way to say it than to leave with a quote from Madeleine L'Engle.  When asked, "Why do you write for children?" she answered, "My immediate response to this question is, "I don't." ... If it's not good enough for adults, it's not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words. Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it's perfectly true. Children still haven't closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security..." Mr. Stein could learn a lesson from this.


Kristina said...

Great post. I absolutely agree. I often find myself browsing the chapter books in the children's section and have recently developed a love for middle grades novels. I love authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Vivian Vande Velde. I am currently reading *The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making* by Catherynne M. Valente, and I am loving it. I am often amazed at the profound thoughts Valente relates as her character makes her way through fairyland.

Another middle grades author that I absolutely love is Kimberly Griffiths Little, author of The Healing Spell and Circle of Secrets. Her books are absolutely amazing and teach so much about life, love, emotional healing, and forgiveness. I don't think anyone can read these books and say they came away with nothing.

wcpl said...

Thanks, Kristina! I'm going to have to check out "The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" on the title alone -- I love it!