Hiding the Kids From Their Lives.

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook this week about how dark Young Adult lit is. The upshot of the speaker’s argument is that YA lit has no need to be dark and dystopic because the majority of teenagers’ lives aren’t all that dark and dystopic.

Here’s the comment I left:

My biggest issue is her comment that she doesn’t believe that “the vast majority of 12-18 year-olds are living in hell.” As a 12-18 year-old, I probably didn’t appear to be living in hell. Middle-class, gifted, white, suburban high school girl who was rarely denied any extra-curricular activity she tried hard enough to get into. Was a serial monogamist from 8th grade to senior year, and rarely had long dry spells of not having a boyfriend. Megan Gurdon would probably look at me on the surface and think I would have no need to read some of the books I did, because according to her, I wasn’t really living in hell.

But for me, hell is relative, and my crippling self-esteem issues, religious-based ostracism by my peers, and undiagnosed depression also accompanied my apparent privilege. How does she know the vast majority of teens aren’t living in hell? Did I sleep in fear of gunfire or sexual assault? Granted, no I did not. However, that doesn’t mean that my reality was any less hellish–for me.

The YA lit of my time wasn’t all that dark that I can remember. Yet sometimes the saccharine voices that I had access to didn’t give me anything to relate to or see how life could get better or–and this is most important–how I might grow up and try to make sure the worlds I read about did not come into being. My biggest hope for dystopian YA lit is that it motivates young adults to do everything in their power to make sure those dystopias stay as fiction. And I’m increasingly hopeful of that, as every year I read reports about post-high school young adults creating non-profits or a rise in volunteerism long after the college apps are due.

 It’s nothing new–adults have been shielding youth from the evils of the world since the dawn of time. Just watch this, if you don’t believe me (the good stuff starts at the 1 minute mark).

And then today, I read this review of a new film, and the irony was almost too much:

Read that last sentence again: sex, alcohol and drug use by teens. For adults only.

Isn’t there something mildly pervy about telling the public that a film is a coming-of-age story about a high school senior, but only adults should watch it? Why shouldn’t high school seniors watch it?

I know the possible answers to my rhetorical question, but the longer I work with teenagers, the less patience I have for well-meaning adults who think high school seniors are still kindergartners. We tell our seniors, “you aren’t kids any more. Be responsible. Be a grown-up.” And ten seconds later, we tell them, “But you aren’t grown-up enough to watch a movie set in your own peer group.”

By the way, I took a straw poll in one class today to gauge their tolerance level for questionable material. About 90% of my class had seen “Bridesmaids” and “Ted”–movies that I haven’t even seen because I know the content is beyond what I’m willing to tolerate. But I’ll be seeing “The Spectacular Now,” because I expect it to reflect what my students deal with on a daily basis.

And if my kids can’t see it, then at least I can, in a feeble attempt to remember what high school was like, and increase my empathy reserves.

One Comment

  1. Wow. I'm not an educator, but I believe strongly that someone who is well-read has a better handle on the curve-balls that life brings them. I'm a strong proponent of introducing kids gradually to “darker” literature. Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, even Romeo and Juliet should be read by the 11-14 crowd so that by the time they hit 15-18, books like The Color Purple, Hamlet, even Sophie's Choice won't hit them like a ton of bricks. Teenagers can handle and should be introduced to those type of books.

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