Navigating the Darkness: In Defense of Young Adult Literature

In yesterday’s The Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon harshly criticizes contemporary young adult literature as being a Darkness Too Visible. Condemning YA lit as “constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is,” she claims that teenage readers find themselves “surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality, and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”  Her concern — “entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

Oh, there’s just so much I would like to say to Gurdon, so much that I hardly know where to begin. My first inclination is to assert that literature is far more than entertainment.  When I teach literature, I certainly want my students to immerse themselves in it, but my goal is seldom to entertain them.  My goal is for them to experience literature.  To experience it to such an extent that they can’t stop thinking about it.  To relate, to question, to argue — to think as they read and to continue thinking long after they’ve finished reading.  
And one thing I have learned from many years spent with fourteen-year-olds is that they already know that there is darkness in this world; they’re experiencing that darkness too often with no sense of how to make their way through it.  What they need is for someone to help them navigate the darkness.  They look to adults in their lives to acknowledge that the darkness is real and to give them a light to help them find their way.  In my role as an English teacher, I’ve found that the best light I can give them is young adult literature.  They don’t lose themselves in these books; they find themselves.  They walk through with characters who are dealing with problems, the types of problems that are real for many of our teenagers.  They identify with the characters’ journeys, and they think.  They relate to the characters’ struggles, they question the characters’ choices, and they argue about the wisdom and consequences of those choices.  They think, and they take what they learn from that thinking process and apply it the dark threats that exist outside of books.
Life is not a fairy tale, and adolescents seldom want to pretend that it is.  Life for them can be tumultuous, and literature that acknowledges that tumult does not, as Gurdon suggests, normalize it  Instead it normalizes the fear, anger, and uncertainty that accompany tumult.  YA lit gives readers a way to step outside of themselves to think about tumultuous experiences.  These books offer a safe means of exploring the darkness, and through this exploration, adolescent readers can find a light to illuminate the joy and beauty that lie beyond the darkness.

What I’m Reading: The Hunger Games

For months friends have been urging me to read Suzanne Colllins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.  I’ll admit to resisting. I don’t care much for dystopian fiction; no matter how engrossing the book, I leave the reading experience feeling depressed. I didn’t anticipate that this reading experience would be different.

Finally this week my impatience with being left out of the The Hunger Games conversation overcame my resistance, and I dove in.  As predicted, I didn’t come up for air until I had finished the first book.  Instead of being depressed, I left this book intrigued.  Collins has created a fascinating heroine in Katniss Everdeen, and her quest to survive the murderous Hunger Games makes for a compelling story.  But what intrigued me most was how the book made me think beyond the story.  The book is fiction, and I never forgot that I was reading a story someone had created.  Yet even as I read, I was thinking of how this story reflects of our society.  At the foundation of this story is a society obsessed with competition and voyeurism.  How does that world differ from our 21st century world where we tweet our every action and spend our free time glued to “reality” television?  Are the Hunger Games a metaphor, albeit an extreme one, for our own patterns of destruction?