Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Only Thing I Really Hate

World, I am at a loss for what to say or do. This article appeared on the Wall Street Journal website today, yet another in a neverending line of articles appearing in esteemed publications that condemn young adult literature. It says nothing new, really, just the usual bunch of accusations against the genre, namely that YA literature encourages the spread of dangerous activities such as sexual exploration, self-injury, anorexia, etc. The author, a Meghan Cox Gurdon, suggests that the proliferation of "dark YA" on the shelves these days creates adolescent with darker minds, impulses, and desires.

Articles like this one, of course, can't exist long in the world before the online YA community rises up to the occasion. Seriously, we're probably one of the most well organized informational armies out there. Twitter is like our right hand, and online communication reigns in the YA world because YA is still a not-very-widely accepted part of our culture that requires our "going underground," or "taking to the ethernets," to find "our people." YA authors, bloggers, librarians, publishing professionals, and more have been tweeting Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) nonstop. Libba Bray wrote an encore-deserving series of tweets that have been republished by WSJ as a "letter to the editor." And on and on and on.

Again, there's not much being said that hasn't been said before, so I want to focus on what I believe is the real "enemy" here: the attack on change and progress, and the lack of openmindedness.

Furors regarding YA-condemning articles and the online backlash from the YA community remind me of dramatic court or political scenes where representatives from both sides just kind of stand face-to-face and talk quickly and at the top of their lungs while stuffing their ears and singing "lalalalalalalalala" in their heads. Scenes like this drive me crazy not because of WHAT is being debated, but HOW it is being done. They talk and talk, and we talk and talk, and it seems like nothing has changed because the same arguments are being made every time on top of the fact that neither side is willing to actually listen to the other. No, each side is preoccupied with their belief of the "rightness" of their position, and even as they claim to be listening to the other side, they are in fact busily constructing counter-arguments for what they are "listening" to at that very moment. This is the nature of debate: you pick a side, and by all hell's fiery rivers, you stick to it, gosh darnit.

What we need is discourse, which is the meeting of the parties on an equal plane in which both parties are willing hear the other's points with an open and innovative mind, to compromise if needed, and to create something new out of what's already there. Debate doesn't create anything new because it's too busy standing its ground: there is one winner and one loser. But in discourse, the answer arises from something that has never been there before, and that, over debate, is how progress gets made.

Technically I am well past the age range in which reading YA is considered acceptable. But I have never felt like I have grown out of YA, just like some people have never felt like they needed or wanted to read YA. YA is still my preferred literary genre not because of the content of the books, or the books' messages, but because of how these subjects are approached. It's because YA is the state of mind in which I have experienced the most openmindedness, the most support for innovation and creativity and progress. I love the YA mindset because it's dramatic, because it's crazy and fun and wild and unpredictable and a little scary at times... because it is always, always, always open to and searching for new possibilities.

I have come to realize in the past year that there is really only one thing that I hate, in its myriad of manifestations: I hate willful ignorance, and closemindedness, and the determined denial to see things as black and white and dismiss even the possibility that things might be gray. What the hell is really black and white in this world, besides for a chess board and a zebra? Reducing things--anything, everything--to dichotomies is a small-minded, judgmental, and uninformed way of thinking, no matter how many education degrees you've earned or awards you've received. Years don't make maturity; the length of your CV doesn't denote your amount of wisdom. Maturity and wisdom is gained through the experiencing of life through clear and permeable lenses, of keeping your mind open to new ideas and of constantly adapting yourself to an everchanging world.

Sometimes I miss the old days, too. Every time I read L. M. Montgomery's Anne series, I can't help but think that life would be so wonderful if I could be Anne. But my wishing for that is the same as these YA lit condemners bemoaning the "loss of innocence" in adolescence these days: there's no use in trying to make something go back to the way it used to be. There is only going forward.

Articles like the WSJ one don't just attack YA literature: they also attack the intelligence of young adults and YA readers, the act of reading, and the very institution of education and learning itself. The article is an attack on progress above all. When I read an article such as this one, I'm offended on behalf of the YA community, but I'm also offended on behalf of the human race. The natural state of things is entropy: to try to force things to stay as they always were is unnatural and, ultimately, harmful. Everything is always taken to a whole other level when it deals with young people because growing up is the ultimate metaphor for change and progress. We want things to turn out one way, try to shape things so that they do, but things are always out of our control, always moving forward. No one helps a person with a broken leg heal by keeping him/her off his/her feet forever and ever; no, physical therapy is involved, the gentle guidance to let the muscles become aware of its own abilities to heal.

I am hopeful of things turning out alright for YA lit. Civil, women's, LGBT rights--it's been an uphill climb for all of these movements, but no matter how loudly the naysayers cry, the world knows that the natural order of things is change.


  1. I just heard about this. what a sucky article but... I hope it helps keep up a dialogue that just might help people who don't really know YA change their minds once they really start to explore it.

  2. Steph, you are my hero. This is a great post about a serious topic, even if some people refuse to see it as one. Thank you for this!

  3. What I love is that many (most?) of the books they recommended for young adults are either classics or typically shelved in the adult section. It's like they want people to skip over an entire genre of books.

    Also, I think Lauren Myracle is a much better writer than Judy Blume whose books now seem dated to me. But that's just quibbling.

    And What I Saw and How I Lied, which they recommend, is no less of a disturbing novel than the books they decried.

    Don't know what they're trying to accomplish here.

  4. Steph, there are so so many reasons I love you. Not the least of which is your ability to pull out the most thoughtful and intelligent pieces of an argument/situation. I certainly hope that @wsj takes a moment to read your comments here and take them to heart. Now if only we could get everyone in a room together to talk out the issue, right? Sadly, I don't think there is a room big enough at this point.

  5. I wish YA novels had been around when I was a teen. Reading them now, I can only guess how my younger self would have reacted; I like to think earlier hurts would have healed a little faster and that I could have drawn a little more strength from relevant books.

    I'm glad they're around now, and that the genre is continuing to thrive and expand! I can't get enough YA.

  6. I agree with Read Now Sleep Later. YA novels have really only become mainstream in the past few years and I would have devoured them as a teen. I'm 30 years old now and I use the excuse that I'm teacher and therefore I have to read YA, but the truth of the matter is, I prefer YA to adult literature. I can't tell you how many adult books I abandon because they just don't speak to me the way YA does.

    Teens want to know there are people out there who are going through struggles just like them. To write YA that is all sunshine and roses is to ignore the plight of teens all over the world who struggle and agonize just as much as adults do.

  7. Wait.. what? It *encourages* this behaviour? So, teens, are all innocent and happy and have no dark thoughts of their own? They are getting all these ideas from the books they are reading? Because teenagers don't have rough lives and feelings and depression and stuff?

    So, take someone like me, who had dark thoughts as a teen and didn't relate to the Nancy Drew and happy-go-lucky characters in the books I was reading as a kid. Why did I have dark thoughts when I didn't start reading about topics like that in books until my late 20s and now in my 30s? (Ignore the part where I say I am in my 30s... ugh. Old!)

    Do these people not realize how much books with "dark" subjects can be SAVIOURS? And how teens (and adults) can read something and finally think, Oh, I am NOT alone? You mean it's possible someone else feels this way?

    I can't even fathom why the WSJ would even publish an article like that. I can't. Did they go back in time and get someone from the 1950s to write this? Obviously they aren't right or they would have ascended into heaven during the rapture last month, but they are bitter because they didn't so now they are attacking everyone else they just found out they are like. ;)

  8. Thank you for this. It is such a thoughtful, intelligent expression of what is being felt.

  9. Thanks for the heads up. This sort of thing seriously drives me crazy. They think teens are stupid, they don't take into account the a lot of adults are now the readers of young adult books and think that if they put cutesy fluff out there for teens that will work for them. Well teens are living these things are knowledgeable about more than is credited to them and it's 2011 not the 50's geez lighten up already.

  10. Your response to that article was perfect and much calmer than my angry, rambling reponse in my blog. You are amazing and that WSJ article definitely is not. But I do love how the YA community can come together over stuff like this. It's a wonder to watch, really.

  11. "Articles like the WSJ one don't just attack YA literature: they also attack the intelligence of young adults and YA readers, the act of reading, and the very institution of education and learning itself. The article is an attack on progress above all."

    Right. freaking. on!

    Your whole post is a wonderful, reasonable response to this situation. Thank you for writing it.

  12. "What the hell is really black and white in this world, besides for a chess board and a zebra?" Well said!

    There are a lot of YA authors that teach this same point through their literature, such as Claudia Gray and Lauren Kate. I really like your post and I agree that the WSJ article was insulting to intelligence of the YA community.

  13. I read the WSJ article last night. It was very apparent that the author had very little experience with YA literature beyond her research. And that 46-year-old mother searching for a book for her 13-year-old and finding nothing? I can think of more than 13 suggestions right off the top of my head (and I'll even make then clean and fun). Applying a blanket statement to an entire genre is always problematic and just plain wrong.

  14. Teens aren't bloody idiots. What, you think we'd eat the fluffy pink bunny stories they want us to? Back in the day, that's what was expected, but now we're getting smarter and more mature at a younger age. Smart enough to understand YA Lit better than they can.

    This post is amazing, and I didn't even know about the WSJ article until now. You're really good at writing: you should post this as a come-back to the article of WSJ

  15. I hope you don't mind, Steph--I put you on the Linky for my YA saves blog post; I plan to collect and read as many WSJ reactions as I can. I'm so flabbergasted whenever YA is pegged as either inconsequential or ultra-violent and oversexed. YA is much more complex than that!

    Anyone else who want to share, leave your link at I'll read every link!

  16. If young adults aren't supposed to read YA because of the sexual themes and negative behavior, what are they supposed to read? What are WE supposed to read? Should a fourteen year old girl drop her YA book and go to the adult section and grab a romance novel loaded with overly descriptive R-rated sex scenes, or should she pick up If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? (Which, was one of my favorite books in 1st grade, so I'm not downgrading it in general.) And even if this girl did pick up an adult novel, it will not necesarily explore themes beyond her maturity (that's just a possibility). I just don't understand what these people want. It's not like adolescents can be totally sheltered from hearing the 'grown-up' things without seeing it in books.

  17. Nicely done. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and think there is a lot to agree with here! Well thought out, and clearly stated. Great job. Thanks.

  18. i am very much impressed with what you said and i share the same sentiments. i get angry and frustrated at times when i hear people make sweeping generalizations how people should behave and how the world should work. it is dissapointing.

    I love how YA literature doesn't talk down to their readers and I love how the writers have so much faith and trust in their readership to have open minds and to have a better understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.

  19. Good article, bad link.
    The link to the original article left out the "" and shows as "http://sb10001424052702303657404576357622592697038/"

    It should be

    I'm not REALLY the first person to notice this, am I?

  20. wow! this is a great article, steph. This line right here, "The natural state of things is entropy: to try to force things to stay as they always were is unnatural and, ultimately, harmful." I love it. I never heard someone use entropy to describe societal progress. Your writing does a nice job of cutting right to the point, distilling complex arguments in understandable ways.

  21. Concur heartily!!! Amen to GOOD, constructive discourse, not heavy-handed, dichotomizing, over-simplifying and quite frankly, rude critiques and op-eds. If more folks just discussed the issues instead of ignoring them (across all literature, indeed, all spheres of life) the world be the better for it. Thanks for this well written, extremely thoughtful post :)

  22. This post is an example of what makes you one the the best book bloggers around.

  23. Thoughtful response on this heated topic. Thank you.


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