A Conversation on YA (Part II)
As has been widely reported, young adult literature is enjoying huge popularity at the moment with adults and teens alike reading YA books in droves. Consequently, the genre has become the target of some spirited debate (most famously from Slate’s Ruth Graham in her piece “Against YA”).
In that spirit, Literary Transgressions’ Kate and Corey staged their own conversation on the topic.
In Part One of this conversation, we discussed the differences between “adult” and “young adult” novels and decided YA is missing a degree of complexity (in characters and premise) that challenges readers of “adult” books.
Kate: So is this love of YA just an increased dumbing down of literature? Are adults so sick of asking questions and being challenged to think that they’ve fled to the children’s section, where they can find pure escapism?
Corey: I think when this interest in YA is reported on, it is often used as an example of the demise of western culture as we know it and, indeed, a dumbing down of literature. And a large part of me wants to put on my old man hat and shout at adults who read YA fiction to get off my porch. It is a genuine shame that people, in general, are no longer reading the classics like they used to. This isn’t nostalgia or sentimentality on my part—according to a recent study, “the complexity of texts assigned [to students] has declined about three grade levels over the past 100 years.”
Kate: NO, YOU’RE RIGHT! Schools are teaching The Fault in Our Stars and not Lord of the Flies. Every time I read a list of banned books, I’m half mad about the banning and half upset that these were reading list books in the first place.
Corey: I really think there is something to be said for a more classical education, even if it is less accessible to “kids these days.” (Sorry, still have my old man hat on.) The “classics” were taught in the past for a reason—so people could at least appreciate the difference between a good story and a good book. And without that base judgment available, readers don’t necessarily know what they’re missing. Even if they would genuinely prefer YA, they can’t make that decision or comparison for themselves because they were never exposed to something different.
Kate: My husband has a young cousin who thinks Divergent is the greatest book ever written. She’s a voracious reader, so I can’t help but think that she must not have been pushed to read anything else. What were we reading in 8th grade? I can’t pretend I liked The Odyssey, but I read it.
Corey: A perfect example! If schools are giving the stamp of approval to YA books (not that they shouldn’t teach them, I’m just suggesting some variety of genre would be good!), it doesn’t challenge anyone to look at anything else.
Kate: I would have read The Babysitter’s Club through college if I had been left on my own. But school exposed me to other books, so I could decide for myself if, hey, maybe I would enjoy a little C. S. Lewis now and again, or maybe some Shakespeare. Can you imagine if we’d never been forced to read Much Ado About Nothing?
Corey: A terrifying alternate reality!
And this actually brings me around to asking about one of the most common arguments used in support of teaching YA: “well, at least they’re reading!” This has to be one of my least favorite arguments of all time, mostly because it’s portraying a student reading as a big “mission accomplished!” banner.
Instead of being an end-goal, “at least they’re reading” should be the very first step. Once you get a student to “at least they’re reading,” that’s the perfect moment to introduce or suggest more complex and challenging texts. To do otherwise robs them of a vital part of their education, as we’ve already discussed.
And I’m not saying that “at least they’re reading” isn’t important—it’s a pivotal moment. But if you don’t take it anywhere from there, what’s the point?
Kate: Agreed. Same for “well, YA makes my job easier.” YA makes everything easier — that’s kind of what it does. But it’s meant to be a gateway, a means to an end, not the end itself. I’m so happy that kid read Tupac’s book and is now a voracious reader — give him something that’s more challenging now! Dickens? Oliver Twist is basically a Victorian version of whatever Tupac’s book is. Nancy’s a prostitute, Bill’s a drunk, Fagin is a horrible, awful man…it would be interesting to see a young person’s reaction to that and have them draw parallels. I’m not against accessibility, but don’t make it a means to an end, make it a gateway.
Corey: The idea that teaching students about reading should be solely tied into what they find “accessible” is insane. Shouldn’t teaching be about challenging your students to be better, not about pandering to what they already like? As if Victorian-era students found ancient Greek texts in the original Greek accessible—they didn’t, but they were students and their teachers taught them and they learned and were better-educated for it.
Kate: Good point! As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” Don’t you think a young girl from the inner city might take pride in plowing through The Odyssey or a translation of Beowulf or something similarly fantastic, able to capture her imagination and challenge her? Shouldn’t any high school kid appreciate the fart jokes in a translation of Chaucer (of which there are many)?
Stay tuned for Part III!
Next time, we ponder why adults are choosing to read young adult literature—is it for the escapsim, the happy endings, to bond with their children, or something more?