Volume 90 Number 4 March 2001
Young Adult Literature
Reproduced by permission
Chris Crowe, Editor:
Before he graduated from high school last May, my son Jonathan, notorious for his deep dislike of all books, complained to me about the negative and depressing books he’d been assigned to read for his English classes during his high school career (notice I wrote “assigned to read” not “read”): I Am the Cheese; Romeo and Juliet; The Great Gatsby; The Grapes of Wrath; The Scarlet Letter; Night; Dawn; and The Portrait of Dorian Gray. He wondered why English teachers like depressing stories and why they want to inflict them on their students.
“We go to school to learn how to succeed in life,” he said. “But we have to read books that aren’t uplifting.” Then he came up with an apt analogy: “When you’re trying to learn how to swim, you don’t read books about drowning.”
What really bugged Jonathan is the “Dark Is Deep” philosophy that seems to guide many English teachers as they create reading lists for their high school students. Some of the basic principles of this attitude toward literature include the following:
- great literature deals with serious issues
- great literature examines the human condition
- characters – and readers – are most moved when faced with the greatest dilemmas
As I pointed out in my last column, many social critics are concerned about the dark or bleak trend in YA novels. As I’ve thought about the bleak turn in YA books, I’ve wondered if one explanation may be the desire of publishers and writers to emulate the classics, the Teflon-coated traditional works of literature that, with few exceptions, epitomize the “dark is deep” philosophy.
Not all books, of course, are dark and/or deep, and certainly there is room – and need for – all kinds of books in YA literature and in English classrooms. Faced with all the recent media attention to bleak books, I wanted to hear an argument for YA stories on the opposite end of the spectrum: books that offer hope to teenage readers. Author Kristen D. Randle graciously agreed to my request to write an essay contesting the “dark is deep” attitude and calling for more hopeful YA stories. A former high school teacher, Randle is the author of several YA novels, her most recent being Breaking Rank (Morrow 1999) and The Only ALien on the Planet (Scholastic 1996)
Let it be Hope
Kristen D. Randle
This is probably not the place to admit to such a thing, but I really, really hated English in school. Not the Shakespeare—I’ve always been fond of that—or the Beowulf (especially in the original). It was the modernish stuff I hated, books and stories my instructors were almost liturgical about—literature that was relentlessly dark, depressing and self absorbed. My instructors evidently found these things Deeply Significant. I found most of it repulsive.
I was a normal kid (read: insecure, scared to death of being laughed at, confused most of the time and really, really wanting to be liked). I came from a good family (not perfect), but before I turned seventeen, we’d moved from LA to Kansas City to New York to Dallas—six public schools, four completely different planets. The new kid. Never knew the rules. I always had the wrong clothes, the wrong accent, the wrong religion and very often, the wrong attitude.
Mind you, I was fairly sure my parents loved me. But that didn’t help much when the kids at my eighth grade bus stop decided I was the goat; they made my life life a living hell every morning at the stop and every day in the halls. It didn’t matter to these kids that I was actually funny and smart and kind – or that because of them I was having nightmares every night. They didn’t know this stuff and they didn’t care: I made a good target.
The point here is that even “good” kids from “functional” families have their moments of primal misery. Nobody lives in bliss.
I’ve known a lot of young adults—I’ve gone to school with them, taught them, chaperoned them. While quite a few of them have been happy people with a lot going for them, some already knew more about hell than anybody on the outside—including authors and teachers—could ever teach them. But out of both these groups came teenagers who’ve made courageous choices—honorable, moral, difficult, sometimes wrenching decisions to live well. And some of them, including young adults from the worst of circumstances, turned out to be heroes. From these I learned: there is nothing panty-waist about sweetness. I saw this even in high school. I learned a few things about joy back then, and a few things about pain.
But I wasn’t interested in reading about pain. I had enough problems to deal with in my own life. It really galled me that I should be “required” to read about wimpy characters with impotent lives, who waste their stories whining and eating each other and dying deaths of despair—as if I had something to learn from this. I hated Great Expectations; Pip was an idiot and Miss Havisham was worse. I wasn’t waiting around for somebody to hand me a life, and I knew almost nobody who would keep a mouldy wedding cake on the dining room table for more than about ten minutes. But here was this dreary tale, presented to me (by teachers in two diametrically distant states) as A Vessel Full of Things I Needed to Know About Humanity. The book would have put me off Dickens entirely if it hadn’t been for the fact that my dad read A Christmas Carol out loud to us every year.
I hated Gene in A Separate Peace for the same reasons, and if I’d been given a choice between MacBeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (tell me that great comedy is less literary than melodrama), there’d have been no contest; at least Bottom was an honest ass.
I was just as turned off by the adult novels I got at the library—most of them over-sexed and over-blown—characters that were thinner than matzo and with a heck of a lot less substance, plots about as inventive as grilled cheese. And then there was the other stuff, the “gritty” books with the brutal stuff in them, the daring “real life” stuff. You know, my heart was wide open back then; what I read went straight inside with meteor level impact. I’d read about the Holocaust. I heard and read about rape and abuse and cruelty and heartlessness in the news and on the street, and the stuff I heard and read hit me in the face and the body like a beating. I didn’t have to see these things in real life to feel horror, to take damage that would last my whole life long. I didn’t have to have some intellectually enlightened person push my face into them before I could learn to feel anger and outrage and helplessness and compassion. My heart isn’t stupid. It never was.
And I will tell you this, too. The teachers who required me to read this kind of thing—me, their privileged, protected, safe little ignorant middle class captive audience—surely could not have understood the damage they were doing. They could not have been so hypocritical,or so sadistic—could they? Because what they were doing was also abuse. Torture of the body is one thing; is torture of the spirit more acceptable?
Perhaps part of the problem is that we’ve become such a youth obsessed culture, when kids who are fourteen, sixteen, eighteen tell us they aren’t kids anymore, we buy it. (Actually, I think we’re eager to buy it.) When all the time, they really are children—tender people who need love and safety and comfort and acceptance and reassurance and who sometimes give up completely when they can’t get it.
So I comforted myself with the wit and wisdom of Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel and Guareschi’s Don Camilo. I read The Prisoner of Zenda and Ivanho. I devoured Tolkein. I wanted somebody to tell me that life could be great. That people could take hold of their lives and make them into something. I wanted true love, honor, self-sacrifice, nobility, happy endings, triumph, justice. Even while I was being sick with nerves every morning, I believed in these things.
I was looking for meaning and hope and a little intelligent dialogue.
Then one day, my sister brought home Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I was kind of embarrassed to be picking up a kid’s book—my sister was three years behind me in school. But what can you do when you just gotta read and the cereal boxes are all put away?
Epiphany. That’s what happened to me as I hit the climax of that book. I’d been raised with a healthy dose of moral and religious education; I knew loads about honesty and charity and family love and angels and right and wrong. But it took that little story, that simple, engaging, fantastical tale, to focus everything I had ever learned, everything I’d felt, into one blinding, exultant revelation. Suddenly, all of it made sense.
Just as suddenly, reading “young adult books” ceased to embarrass me. My sister brought home books; I read them. I’m still reading them, and for the same reasons: I find greater depth of characterization and question in some of the novels marketed as YA than I do in our present run of “quirky,” self absorbed, PC, soup-du-jour adult books. In “kids’ books,” the real questions are often dealt with humbly, questions about the nature of being, honor versus desire, personal and moral integrity. These are questions we adults have to deal with in every professional and personal choice we make. And I suspect a lot of our decisions have their roots in the experience—and resultant patterns of thought—of our young adult selves.
When I got married, even before I had children, I started collecting books—stories that could offer my future kids and grand children an eclectic view of the human experience. I wanted my kids’ reading to show them how the world really works: that while there is evil and horror, there can also be good. That you can’t side step the hard questions, but you can build a good life out of the process of finding answers. That a good life is the result of work and struggle, of making choices—and of making mistakes and then struggling to make them right. I want my kids to know that while things are generally not fair, individual people can stand against cruelty. That choices have consequences—real ones. Most importantly, I want them to understand hope: that you can take charge of your own personal and moral life regardless of the horrible, brutal things that may happen to you.
Stories with this kind of substance reverberate through human history; storytellers were once the repository of the values, laws, and wisdom of an experienced, believing people.
But things are strange these days. The world seems to be going through some kind of accelerated social and moral entropy, a dissolving of the kind of cultural and moral bonds that make and keep a community. We are dis-evolving into tribes of one. It’s easy to see this in our literature. Many of our stories are no longer about healing, about reconciliation, about harmony and honor and courage and honest interdependence. At their best, they offer almost no hope: protagonists triumph when they finally break away from the community, nobody can be trusted, all convention is stifling, moral values are discriminatory, and maybe most insidious and damaging: freedom from the hypocrisy of family is personal salvation. At their worst, these new stories seem to be little less than literary exhibitionism.
“Those ‘bleak books,’” my sixteen year old daughter sneers. “Just a bunch of adults who think they know how we feel – like all we do is sit around indulging in angst. How lame.”
As Claudia Mills put it in her “The Ethics of Representation: Realism and Idealism in Children’s Fiction” (http://www.puaf.umd.edu/IPPP/winter99/ethics_of_representation.htm), “Children…have a right to be told the truth…”
Anybody who is being honest about it has to admit: although “reality” can mean that marriage ends in divorce, that children suffer all kinds of horror and abuse, and people can be selfish, cruel, violent and utterly dishonest, “reality” also can mean that marriage is not only workable, but can be very, very good, that children are treasured and guided, and people can be selfless, kind, worthy of trust—that folks not only care about each other, but actually do their best to take care of one other. Although it may seem unlikely to the people who seem to have become our cultural gargoyles, this second reality is still alive and well in the world.
“Bleak” books allow only one focus, often claiming that they do so in order to offer comfort to the wounded and introduce compassion to the uninitiated. But the solution to drowning has never been, to my understanding, to push the face of the struggling swimmer deeper into the water. (“Misery loves company,” out of my mother’s mouth was a pejorative and a warning; now it’s a political platform.) Truthful storytelling has to allow that both aspects of reality exist, and that there are bridges between them, ways of moving from one to the other. Our own choices cannot always determine our circumstances, but we can choose our responses. We are not lost. We can choose to go another way. People do it every day.
I do believe that compassion can be cultivated with well-written books. But while I doubt that anybody can possibly understand what it means to have been raped unless they have been through such a thing themselves, I fail to see how the literary and spiritual rape of an innocent reader is going to make the world better for anybody.
And isn’t that what we all really want? A better world?
This is what kids want, too – safety, beauty, love. You know, we don’t tend to see our young people very clearly. The media, babysitter to the world, doesn’t do much to correct our mis-vision. But then, not many directors, music producers, authors, publishers, and script writers are famous for their stable family lives. Sometimes I wonder how many of them—especially the ones who are busy churning out “family entertainment”— have had the opportunity to meet an actual, normal, intelligent, non-Hollywood/New York type kid.
Not that this is true of all media folks. Rosemary Brosnan, for instance, is a widely respected and unquestionably gifted editor who flatly refuses to work during the hours her kids are home from school. This tells me she’s honestly in touch with her audience—and isn’t that what I want for my kids? For me? A publisher who is driven, not by a sure buck or even by her own dear angst, but by love and concern for her audience—genuine affection for humanity?
I look for this affection as I read, and I have found it in books like Konigsburg’s A View from Saturday, Banks’ One More River, Langton’s Diamond in the Window and Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster. I also feel it throughout Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which—at least so far—the author’s convictions about loyalty, integrity, family, and Valiance In The Face of Terrible Odds And Even Death leave her readers little room for wanting to be anything less themselves. These are books of conscience, author-integral books, written by people whose stance is moral, whose gifts are strong, who care not only about their audience, but about the wholeness that can be life and who are willing to admit both pain and joy. The books are not written to children; they are written well and children read them.
A reading teacher came up to talk to me after my acceptance address at the California Young Reader’s Medal banquet last year. “I had a nightmare childhood,” she told me. “Too horrible to talk about. You know who saved me? You know who brought me up and taught me what it meant to be a real human being? The parents of the Bobbsey Twins.” (This would be the old Bobbsey Twins, written in the time before good children were not immediately assumed to be insipid.) When the teacher said this to me, the people around us chuckled. But the woman was very serious. “I loved the parents because of the way they treated their children. I loved them and I wanted to be like them. I wanted them to be able to love me. I learned from them what I could never have learned from my own parents.”
As Susan Fletcher wrote in her SLJ Best Book, Shadow Spinner, “It seem[s] that in this world we [are] piling up hurt upon hurt, and hate upon hate, and then hurt upon hurt again. Forgiveness. We [can’t] forgive. We [can] only hate when we [are] hurt. And then the hurt and the hate…start up again—all in a terrible circle.”
In her 1962 Newberry acceptance speech for The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth Speare said, “I believe that all of us who are concerned with children are committed to the salvaging of love and honor and duty. Not only our own faith, but the children themselves compel us. Young people do not want to accept meaninglessness. They look urgently to the adult world for evidence that we have proved our values to be enduing. Yet perhaps never before have they looked so clearly, so despairingly, at the evidence we offer. They demand an honest answer. Those of us who have found love and honor and duty to be a sure foundation must somehow find words which have the ring of truth.”
I want to stand with her.
If we are going to offer our children anything, let it be hope.
Beginnings of a Hopeful book list
- A Wrinkle in Time—L’Engle
- Shadow Spinner—Fletcher
- After the Dancing Days—Rostowski
- Diamond in the Window—Langton
- The Ramsay Scallop—Temple
- The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen—Alexander
- The Last Unicorn—Peter S. Beagle
- Long Night’s Dance—Jones
- A Girl Named Disaster—Farmer
- The Devil’s Arithmatic—Yolan
- Belle Prator’s Boy—White
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963—Curtis
- Good Night Mr. Tom—Magorian
- The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito—Garrigue
- Words by Heart—Sebestyen
- Come a Stranger—Voigt
- Number the Stars—Lowry
- The Romantic Obsessions and Humiliations of Annie Sehlmeier—Plummer
- The Blue Sword—McKinley
- A View from Saturday—Konigsburg
- Anything by Elizabeth Speare
- Anything by Elizabeth Goudge