It's Good For You (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I've spent a lot of time in the children's/YA world.

I've formally studied the history of women, children, and families.

I've worked as a youth services librarian.

I had a brief stint in children's and YA literary criticism in grad school. (Which is why the name of this topic has confused me all  month. I keep having to remind myself that we're talking about the criticisms people direct at YA, not literary criticism, which is something entirely different.)

Most recently, I've been in this world as an author.

Through it all, I've noticed one thing. No matter our professional role, we all want these books to be good for children and teens. Within that, we may have very different ideas of what is good for them: sex/no sex; profanity/no profanity; risky behavior/no risky behavior; drugs and alcohol/no drugs and alcohol, etc., etc., etc.

At the back of any discussion of YA, if you dig deep enough, is this idea that the books should be good for their target audience. We mostly try to deny this urge to give young people books that are good for them. But it's there. Even when the thing we think is good for them is exposure to a lot of bad things. So maybe that's my criticism of the YA world, as a librarian/critic/author. Sometimes we're not very self-aware about the fact that the book banners and the parents doing the challenging aren't the only ones who want the books to be good for the kids. (Note: I don't think it's really a bad thing to want the books we write and share to be good for readers. I can't imagine any of us want our books to be bad for readers. I just get the sense that in the adult lit world, there's less overall stress about whether the books are good for you or bad for you. I could be wrong.)

Now, to get around to Personal Criticisms I Have Heard. I did something very silly and wrote a YA historical set in the Anglo-Cherokee War (You've heard of that, right?) called The Last Sister. And I got a lot of criticism of the why-did-you-even-do-that-are-you-stupid? variety. This mainly from people who were trying to sell it.

I will be honest with you: that book polls really well with adults. Even so, one reviewer did question why there was so much romance in Serious Historical Novel. (Harrumph! Didn't I know history is all about wars and politicians and Important Man Things, not girls who go around crushing on every grungy backwoodsman who crosses their path?)

I suspect it's because we think history is good for us, which it can be. The Last Sister has even been accused of being (horrors!) educational. But isn't every good book (I flatter myself that it's a good book) educational?

Anyway, I didn't write it with education or history or really any other good-for-you thing in mind. I wrote it because I had a story I wanted to tell, which, I've discovered, is the only way I can write at all. I can't really write when I have Something To Say. I can write only when I have a Story To Tell, and the choices I make in telling that story (sex/no sex; profanity/no profanity; risky behavior/no risky behavior; drugs and alcohol/no drugs and alcohol, etc., etc., etc.) are a function of the story itself and the choices that are right for those characters, in that book, at that time. Also, I write historical fiction because I am sneaky enough to know that people don't always recognize historical curse words or risky behavior. Alas, people always recognize sex.

Last year, I released a digital holiday short story called "The Quickening." It features characters from The Last Sister and deals with 18th century pregnancy termination. I was not trying to make a statement about being pro-life or pro-choice. I was living with the characters in that place, in that time, with their situation and the decisions they were making. I honestly didn't even know what the major conflict in the story would be until I was well into writing it.

So far, I have not received any criticism for that story, probably because very few people read it.

I feel I have strayed from the original topic, but here is something to think about, something from my formal historian/critic days.

As adults, we occupy a privileged space. Adult privilege is a thing, as any child or teen will tell you. While there have been a precious few children and teen authors, for the most part, adults are writing for young people, and in the process, deciding what's available for them to read, all while working from our own definitions of what's "good for them."

So I try to just write stories, and not worry about whether the stories are good for you or not. I'd like that to be for the readers themselves to decide. And I can only write what I can write, anyway. Whether it turns out to be good for anyone is anyone's guess.


  1. "Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him" –Maya Angelou

    Or her

  2. In a way, HAMILTON has kind of reminded us all that history totally rocks. ;)

  3. Well said. If we want a generation that thinks, we need to allow them to do so.

  4. You make a lot of great points, Courtney. You've really got me thinking about adult fiction vs. YA and kid lit and whether or not I subconsciously do the good-for-you thing. I didn't think I did, but then again, well, you saw my post! :)

    1. I think it's hard not to. It's so ingrained in us to give the children what's good for them.


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