A woman sitting across from me immediately announced, “I hate young adults.” She then launched into a wide-ranging condemnation of young people, and young adult books and movies. Her husband and adult son chimed in with uninformed support. It made for an, er, awkward banquet.
I blogged about it at the time, so I’m not going to rehash the experience here. But as I was thinking about our theme for the month, my mind kept coming back to that moment. The cavalier confidence with which these people shared their scorn was both shocking and unsurprising all at once. Too many people are ignorant of the lives of young people and yet only too eager to speak and act as if they somehow know what’s best. They’re voting against school funding, they’re challenging and banning books in libraries and schools, they’re disinviting authors from speaking engagements. The damage a so-called well-meaning adult can do in the lives of young people can be devastating.
One of the more pernicious and, to me, infuriating criticisms of young adult literature falls under the What About the Children? umbrella. These people don’t want children to read books that feature unseemly topics or behaviors. Swearing, drug use, and sexual activity seem to be the biggest triggers, but it can really be any topic someone arbitrarily decides is “inappropriate for children.”
The instinct of those advancing this position seems noble on the surface—after all, what kind of monster doesn’t want to protect children? The problem with this kind of thinking is it dismisses the fact children live in the same world adults do, and too often have to deal with and adapt to the grimmest of circumstances. By the time I was ten, I knew how to protect a drunk adult from choking on their own vomit, had witnessed assaults and other crimes, and had fled my home on multiple occasions to call the police. Once I had to load the car with Christmas presents, then unload them after my mother had driven us to the police station. The gifts all been purchased by her boyfriend with a stolen credit card. I carried them past him, handcuffed to a chair, to a counter where they were logged into evidence—still in their wrapping paper. I was in sixth grade.
One of the ways I coped as a kid was through books, and I was lucky that the adults in my life didn’t censor my reading (or even notice what I read). Many of the books I read were critical in helping me feel like I wasn’t unsalvageably weird or broken. I don’t know what I would have done, for instance, without a book like Harriet the Spy—which has been challenged or banned many times. Writers like Paul Zindel and Judy Blume also helped me feel like I had a place in world. Many of the books that were most important to me are among those most likely to be banned—always at the behest of well-meaning adults thinking of the children.
It can be disheartening. Courtney Summers, a breathtakingly talented author whose book Some Girls Are was targeted by a “well-meaning” scold last year, has tackled the criticism with both incisive blog posts and wry humor. Last week, in a series of tweets under the hashtag, #thingspeoplesaytoYAwriters, she lampooned some of the more common YA-critical tropes.
Among my favorites are:
"your teen character went through the worst hell I've ever read but did they have to swear so much about it"#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors— courtney summers (@courtney_s) June 29, 2016
"but . . . where are all the parents???"#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors— courtney summers (@courtney_s) June 29, 2016
"but girls don't ever act like [fill in blank]"#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors— courtney summers (@courtney_s) June 29, 2016
And let’s not forget about that sweet YA cash:"this is inaccurate because when I was a teenager we NEVER _____"#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors— courtney summers (@courtney_s) June 29, 2016
(I swear, sometimes I think people believe there’s a giant Harry Potter/Hunger Games endowment, and all you have to do is write a YA novel to get your piece of the pie.)"I'm gonna write a YA novel. That's where all the $$ is and how hard can it be, right? Kid's books!"#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors— courtney summers (@courtney_s) June 29, 2016
Speaking for myself, I write the stories I do because they're stories I’ve needed—as a child and as an adult. If others need them too, all the better. What I’m not doing is running some kind of con, or trying to subvert impressionable youth. For all the challenges I experienced as a kid, I know there are many, many others who face much worse.
Stories that tell an unvarnished truth are often what these readers need—young and old alike. Sometimes that means adventure, sometimes it means romance, or space opera, or fantasy. And sometimes it means an f-bomb gets dropped, or a kid commits a crime, or smokes a cigarette, or does any of a host of other things that happen in the world the hand-wringers want to pretend doesn’t exist. It does no one any favors to pretend the world isn’t what it is. But by acknowledging and grappling with the real world we may help some young reader see they’re not alone.
For some people, that can make all the difference.