Not for the first time, I feel a little like I’ve been trolled by a major newspaper. Just recently, we had The New York Times‘ inane Game of Thrones review (it’s for boys and the “sexy” bits were added to lure women); the NYT again with a review declaring that YA fiction’s purpose is to tell a story and provide a message; and now the Wall Street Journal has joined the fray with a piece — somewhat questionably labeled a book review — decrying the terrible, dark, violent, gloomy state of young adult literature. These pieces almost read as if they’re positioning themselves to get a response — knowingly assigning a reviewer who doesn’t care for a genre and is likely to say something dismissive, or creating a straw-man argument so that the writer can appear to be responding to a trend, not just bitching in a vague and overgeneralized way.
And even as I feel like I’m playing into their link-baiting hands, I get irritable and cranky and feel compelled to post something, somewhere, in response.
Can I add anything to the chorus of voices pointing out what’s wrong with this piece? Is it worth writing a response when this ground has been so thoroughly covered, from so many sides? The arguments have been made, and well, by Cecil Castellucci writing for the L.A. Review of Books; Josie Leavitt writing for Publishers Weekly; author Gayle Forman, from a journalist’s angle; author Laurie Halse Anderson, writing with anger and compassion; everyone posting on Twitter with the hashtag #YASaves; and The Horn Book‘s Roger Sutton, whose perspective is as refreshing as ever.
But every response still matters, because they’re our responses as readers, and as former (or current) teens. Every story about a girl who found solace in a dark book that stretched her understanding, or about a boy whose world grew because of the gritty story he read — every one of those personal anecdotes is the argument against the WSJ‘s narrow-minded piece. They pile up untidily, like stories do; they link dirty, tired, exhilarated hands and form a bigger, longer tale, all of our individual moments knotting themselves into something bigger than each of us.
My story is simple. I was a pretty good kid, but I never felt like I belonged. Books — young adult books, fantasy books, all kinds of books — gave me stories in which that could change. They promised that the world was bigger, and that it was full of more kinds of people than I could imagine, plenty of whom were just as unsure and unsatisfied as I was. I read countless fantasies in which a seemingly ordinary but unhappy, uncomfortable kid found out she really had another life waiting, if only she could get through the challenges and obstacles that waited on the path to that life. Maybe a girl would become queen; maybe a boy would save the world. Maybe it was the other way around.
Some of these stories were fluffy and light, but others went to dark places full of loss, grief, violence, suffering and painful survival. They all said the same thing, though: You can get through it. You can find allies. You can fight your battles no matter what shape they take. You will change, and your life will change.
Not all the characters who change their lives and/or their worlds turn out to be world-saving wizards, reluctant revolutionaries, or long-lost monarchs, but some of them do. There are plenty of brilliant, dark books that take place in the real world, but I always opted for the books with the heightened, fantastical stakes, where magic and horror helped reflect the internal reality that whatever we’re facing is often the most important thing ever, even when we’re not 15 anymore. For Buffy Summers, not going out one night really will mean the world ending. For the rest of us, the results are usually smaller, but the hurt and excitement is just as real.
I still read a lot of YA and I still look for these stories. They’re the ones that remind me how to find magic in the ordinary, or how to take scary leaps of faith, or how to make the things you need out of the things you have, and how to be grateful and compassionate. They’re the ones that remind me that family is built as well as born, that your friends will save you and you’ll save them back, and that the fantastical can be a beautiful metaphor for feeling different. They’re the ones that tell stories in which teenagers do great, incredible things, and stand up to broken societies, and see the world in ways I never would have thought of. They’re the ones in which the battle to be yourself can be the most difficult fight of all, and the ones that remind us that everyone else is fighting that same battle — and sometimes losing.
They’re the ones full of hope. And the darkest books are often the most hopeful, whether they’re Laurie Halse Anderson’s heartbreaking Speak (a book I love unreasonably), or Patrick Ness’ heavy, relentless Chaos Walking series, or books that are a different kind of dark, like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and countless other books in which the world the adults have made is not the world in which the next generation wants to live.
If the books seem to get darker, it’s worth asking where the darkness comes from.
There were dark books when I was a kid. There were dark books when you were a kid. There were dark books handed to me in high school, safely patted down by the authorities and deemed acceptable, and there were dark books I pulled off the shelves myself. It’s been pointed out that kids can self-edit, that they skip or ignore the things they’re not ready for or don’t fully understand. A book lets you do that. I see what I’m reading in my head, like a tiny, flickering movie screen I control. If a thing is too much, I don’t have to see it.
If a thing is too much, you don’t have to read it. But you also don’t have to freak out and fear for the children, because if young adult books have taught those of us who read them anything at all, it’s that the children are a lot smarter than we remember being.