A Response: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Literature
Here a link to the original article: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books
I stand by my longstanding assertion that teens read for escape, connection, and information. Sometimes what they get from reading those “horrible” books with bad things is an appreciation for what they DO have. Sometimes they get the reassurance that they are not alone in their nightmares. Sometimes they are gaining an understanding, in a fictional context, of the horrors that surround them daily in the news.
She asserts that parents should steer their children toward more edifying work. Fine. Parents are welcome to do that. But what’s even more powerful, potentially life changing, and affirming than reading that virtuous book is deliberately choosing to do so.
“Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to-18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?”
But honestly, I don’t think it is fair for someone to say look how bad teen literature is and give only 3 examples. I can turn right around and give her 3 positive examples of YA lit: Guitar Lessons by Mary Amato is a beautiful story of friendship and being true to yourself, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Steifvater is a beautiful fantasy series that has that literary feel to it she discusses, and Going Vintage by Lindsay Leavitt is a fun, flirty book with positive family and multigenerational interactions. The thing is, 3 books proves nothing. It isn’t a representative sampling. There are hundreds of YA books published every year, and they cover such a vast array of lives. I think YA lit has its shortcomings, we definitely need more diversity for example, but I think it is so rich and bountiful and flourishing.
Further, she uses Scars by Cheryl Rainfield as an example, which really negates her point I think:
“This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.”
Here’s the problem with using this example to make her argument: This is Cheryl’s life. She was suicidal, she was a cutter, she was raped. She is very open about it. She writes about it to validate the experiences of those who have – who ARE – living lives exactly like this. It’s not about framing or building a culture, it is about reflecting the very real lives of teenagers. Not all teenagers, but some of them. Yes, their stories make us uncomfortable – they should make us uncomfortable – but we don’t get to say you don’t get to tell your story because it makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t think these stories normalize them at all, but by exposing them, by drawing back the curtain, we help teens that need it give voice to what is happening, to seek help, to find hope, to stop the crimes that are being committed against them in the dark by bringing them to light.
But let’s go back all the way to the title of the article: The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books. Once again, the title gets to the heart of what the problem is. What, exactly, is good taste? Who gets to define that? It’s interesting to note that in her closing argument she quotes the Bible: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things (Phil 4:8). The Bible happens to be one of the MOST CHALLENGED books of all time, in part because it is in fact very violent and sometimes sexual. But also, the very books she is decrying do in fact reflect a light on truth; there are parts of our world that are in truth very ugly. And just as Jesus spent his time with tax collectors, Pharisees, adulterers, thieves and murderers so he could save them, I believe He calls us to expose the truth in our world so that we, too, can work to change it. I often find the characters in YA lit to be very inspiring because they are, in fact, surviving the life situations that they are living. I feel that the “edgy” YA books that I am reading are thoughtful, reflective, uncomfortable, challenging, inspiring,
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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