Friday, April 27, 2012

What Should Teens Read?

Discussion Topic: What Should Teens Read?

Way back in June 2011, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal that challenged contemporary young adult literature for being too dark for teenagers. The backlash was significant, with authors, editors, publishers, booksellers etc. all chiming in to protest the merits of darker YA lit. (See below for more links.)

But the debate isn't new. What should teens read? Do parents have a right to monitor what their teenagers read? Do they have a responsibility? What age are we talking about? Limiting what a twelve-year-old reads is certainly different than limiting what a seventeen-year-old reads.

I’ll come right out with my opinion: teenagers should be allowed to read what they want. I believe this even for the twelve-year-olds, though it completely baffles me when I meet seventeen-year-olds who “aren’t allowed to read that.”

My opinion does, of course, come from my own experiences, so I don’t mind sharing. My parents let me read whatever I wanted, a privilege I took for granted until recently. When I started attending literature conferences and discovering in debates that many parents screen what they allow their teenagers to read, I promptly called up my mom and thanked her for never doing that to me.

Do you know what happened when I picked up a book that was too dark for me? I put it back down. I understand the impulse to choose what your child reads. These parents were somewhat demonized in the debate back in June, but it stems from a desire to protect and I would hardly call that evil. I’m not a parent myself, but I can see how difficult it must be to watch your child, who you’ve provided for since infancy, grow up and start to make their own choices, especially when you aren’t convinced those choices are the right ones.

I’m working on an entirely separate post about dark literature that crosses over into this topic. While I don’t seek out dark books, some of my favorites are very, very dark. When we read about the worst possible scenarios, we learn more about ourselves and more about the world. And we’re learning in a safe place. As I mentioned above, whenever, as a teenager, I started to read something that I found too dark or disturbing, I simply set that book down and looked for another. Part of the worry about letting teenagers read whatever they want is that they’ll be exposed to something they’re not ready for. However, I think young adults deserve more credit than that.

Bringing the focus back to young adult literature, though, these “dark” books are actually very, very important. Through books, teenagers can learn about date rape, hate crimes, severe consequences of bullying, and eating disorders, to list four of a million. Reading about uncomfortable topics helps us to define our own lines of what is and is not okay and how we might act in certain situations that we hope we never actually encounter. In a way, reading is training…for life. A recent psychological study even concluded that people who read a lot of fiction are far more empathetic and skilled at interpreting social situations that those who read little to none. Reading teaches people to view the world not only their own experience, but through other people’s perspectives.

Far too often I hear stories of awful things happening to teenagers, things that might even have been avoided if the teenagers hadn’t been so sheltered. Using my four examples from above: girls who were date raped before they ever knew what that term means, prejudice that escalated into hate crimes because no one could see how a few comments could build to something worse, bullies who don’t realize how crippling their “teasing” can be, girls who literally starved themselves to death without knowing that most teenagers struggle to find a healthy relationship with food, their own body, mirrors, and the media’s obsession with physical perfection. Reading is the enemy of ignorance. (I feel like I should put on a cape after that line, but I still believe it wholeheartedly!) Every time we read a good book, whether or not it’s a dark one, our worldview shifts ever so slightly, sometimes noticeably if it’s an amazing book.

Is sheltering teenagers really a kindness? To me, it’s always felt cruel. Not on the level of actually abusing them, mind you, but by sheltering young adults we don’t prepare them for possible abuse that might come in future and ways to handle it. We each have a unique teenage experience, but for me most of the books I read to this day that are set in high schools are actually mild compared to what I remember going on at my high school. Teenagers know what sex is, they know what alcohol is, what it means to be drunk, what it means to be high. It doesn’t mean that every teenager does these things, but when I was sixteen I often found myself mentally scoffing at adults who condemned a fictional story, be it in a book or on television, that was milder than what their own child did last weekend. I always have and always will cheer on teenage characters who choose to rise above the peer pressure, no matter what it’s about: sex, drugs, alcohol, appearance, cheating etc. But it also drives me up the wall when I read books where teenagers live in some magical utopia of a high school where these problems don’t even exist.

What about when a book is required reading? I’ve been saying teenagers should be allowed to choose what they read and I think that’s a two way street. If they want to read a dark book, I hope no one will stop them. However, if they don’t, I hope no one will force them. As I’ve already said, I think most teenagers have a better measure of what they’re ready for than we expect, especially in terms of a personal experience like reading. Many adults simply don’t like dark stories and they’re not lesser people for it. For some of us, reading these darker stories can help us understand society and ourselves. Others wonder why they would hunt out pain in fiction when there’s already an overabundance in the real world. Just as I believe teenagers are entitled to read dark literature if they want to, I also believe it doesn’t make them na├»ve if they prefer and stick with lighter stories.

Let’s backtrack to the term “young adult.” The second word is there for a reason. Teenagers aren’t adults yet. Most of them still have a fair amount of growing up to do. However, as the years have passed and I steadily move away from the range of young adult into adult, I still can’t read enough YA lit nor do I ever expect to “grow out of it.” Young adult literature makes up more than half of what I read and what I write. Why? My strongest memory of being a teenager is of being underestimated. I concede that I have matured and changed since I was sixteen, but I still maintain that I was much more mature as a teenager than the average adult assumed. It often felt to me like adults expected me to act like a responsible “grown-up” only to treat me like an immature kid regardless of how I behaved. The point is that young adult is a transitional phase. It’s a scale. Some young adults might weigh down the immature end and reinforce stereotypes about teenagers, but others are more mature than people I meet in their 30s to 50s. No, teenagers aren’t adults, but they definitely aren’t kids and I haven’t met a single teenager who isn’t annoyed at being condescended to like he or she is still in the single digit zone.

So far my argument, and a lot of other ones that I read, misses a key factor. I’m not suggesting that you hunt down any young adult book with a dark and disturbing premise and shove it into a teenager’s hands. It’s all in how the topic is handled. I have read books in which disconcerting factors - rape, incest, pedophilia, murder - seem to be tossed in there to appeal to the reader’s morbid fascination with such topics. The nail in the coffin is when these books don’t really address any of the depth behind the can of worms they opened. How does the victim recover? How do people on the outskirts of the situation handle it? How does it ripple through the community? When a book forces me to think, especially to reevaluate my opinion, I will not condemn it if it had some painful moments or plot threads. It’s only when books present disturbing topics as a little extra spice for the plot that I’m enraged to find the darkness there.

In the end, I’m shocked when teenagers are actually discouraged from reading. Even when I do read a terrible book (be it bad writing, stock characters, one dimensional plot, or an overbearingly didactic subtext), I still learn from it. Either as a writer (“That character seems to be an afterthought; I should be sure to give all of mine, even the minor ones, their own story”) or as a person (“It angers me that the character seems to bear no psychological scars from being raped. That undermines women who have actually been raped and how hard it is to recover”). All books, even the ones we dislike, throw open the doors for discussion. Even when that discussion is only in our own mind, we still learn from it. Closing those doors is never the answer.

Here are some further links that relate to this discussion topic:


  1. Reading is the enemy of ignorance.

    You deserve a cape after that! :)

    This is a fascinating topic for me. My parents strongly encouraged/facilitated reading, but also censored what I read (or tried to). I've eventually ended up with the same opinion as you - teenagers are going to encounter dangerous/frightening/complex situations. There's no safer place to do so than in a book, and it might help prepare them for dealing with it in real life. I guess the grey area for me is when the violence seems to be the entertainment, something I'm encountering more and more as fiction gets darker.

  2. Yes, that also bothers me, too. While I have some favorite books that are really dark, I'm still very annoyed when I read a story in which the darkness serves no purpose other than tantalizing our morbid fascination.