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:

Friday, April 20, 2012

FEVER


Review of FEVER by LAUREN DESTEFANO
(second in THE CHEMICAL GARDEN TRILOGY, review based on an advance reading copy)

I enjoyed WITHER, but FEVER far surpassed my expectations. Primarily, I had a few nitpicky complaints about WITHER - minor flaws that still distracted me from the story; however, I don't have a bad word to say about FEVER. Not only does DeStefano sidestep any hint of middle book syndrome, but the writing struck me as much more elegant in the second book, and I found myself admiring apt and unusual phrases and metaphors.

Of course, DeStefano certainly didn't make this a great book by going easy on her protagonist. Rhine's victorious escape at the end of WITHER is short-lived: she and Gabriel barely travel anywhere before they find themselves captives of someone else. On that topic, be forewarned: every time you think things just can't possibly get worse for Rhine...oh, yes, they can. I kept thinking she had finally hit bottom only for DeStefano to pull the floor out from under me (and poor Rhine) to reveal an even deeper abyss than I imagined.

Rhine's latest captivity begs the question if one cage is really better than another. Even when they do escape again Rhine realizes the world is hardly the paradise she described to Gabriel. Her life before becoming Linden's unwilling bride wasn't easy or necessarily happy, but she coveted her past life for one simple reason: freedom. Now that she has Gabriel beside her, though, she sees the harsh, cruel world through his eyes and worries that dragging him out of the comfort of a mansion wasn't quite the heroic rescue she first believed. I mentioned earlier that DeStefano has some great metaphors in this second installment in the series and in particular I noticed how often she would juxtapose a memory from Rhine's childhood with a present dilemma, allowing observant readers to connect the dots themselves. Take Gabriel for example. He simply might not be tough enough for the world outside the mansion. As Rhine watches him suffer, and even beg for death, she recalls a pet goldfish. She transferred it to a new bowl with fresh water. The fish swam for a few minutes and then died. Her twin brother Rowan explained that she switched it too abruptly from one environment to another - without a chance to adapt to the changes in the water, the fish died. Rhine doesn't overstate the obvious connection, but it's easy for readers to understand her fear that she tore Gabriel away from the only life he's known without properly preparing him.

On the surface, it may seem hard for an average person, particularly a young teen with their life ahead of them, to connect with a world in which girls only live to twenty and boys to twenty-five, but in truth DeStefano has tapped into the fear of mortality that we all bear, some to greater extent than others. Rhine's ticking clock is keenly felt in this book as it sinks in that she lost a year of her short life in WITHER, and that she only has three years left now. One tragedy that pulled at me again and again in the book is the fact that Rhine's life has become about nothing other than survival. She wants to live - with all the passion inside her she wants to live - and live freely, but aside from that goal I'm not convinced she knows why she wants to live. Even when she had her brother, they lived in constant fear, and all their desperate efforts still didn't prevent Rhine's kidnapping. There are victorious moments in this book, but hardly any happy moments. I don't just want to see Rhine free and constantly fighting to stay that way; I want to see her safe, really safe, and happy. This taps into everyone's fears that we don't have enough time or that we might waste what time we do have in pursuit of the wrong things.

The romance between Rhine and Gabriel is also brilliantly understated. Their relationship feels incredibly realistic. They don't discuss what they want from each other, because they're still trying to escape, to find some place somewhere that they can actually be safe. Discussing a relationship or a future is pointless in a world where you might not have a future. Nevertheless, they cling to each for support both physical and especially emotional. They share tender moments and exchange muted and heated kisses, but romance is hardly the first thing on their minds these days.

The ending is fabulous! I find that especially impressive, since this is the middle book in a trilogy. DeStefano had me perplexed near the end regarding where on earth the plot was headed (and, yikes, were there some totally unexpected twists that finally made me hop on board the "Vaughn is terrifying" train), but she found that perfect closure point that left me satisfied but ready for book three!

Friday, April 13, 2012

DARK WHISPERS


Review of DARK WHISPERS by BRUCE COVILLE
(third in THE UNICORN CHRONICLES)

If the second book in the series dragged a little (and it didn't really that much), then this is what we've been waiting for! The pace speeds up to even faster than the first book. The chapters switch quickly between different characters, each with their own compelling dilemmas. And Coville's worldbuilding hits a new level of intriguing. I adored every page.

My favorite aspect of DARK WHISPERS, though, is the added layer to Beloved. For me at least, Beloved was already a pretty terrifying villain. As purely evil as can be possible while still remaining human and even relatable. (She's not evil by nature, but by a magical accident.) However, in DARK WHISPERS it turns out there's an even worse villain than the one we already feared. A villain that, when revealed, makes sense in a painful and poetic way.

Besides that big twist, there are lots of worldbuilding details to love. I'm fascinated by the blind man's bargain with Cara's father. Then there's the skwartz, a monster that pulls on believable elements from nature but with a twist that makes me cringe at the thought of being its next victim. Let's not forget the Rainbow Prison, a magical cage that plays a much greater role in the third book.

I complain about cliffhanger endings, but really my problem isn't with cliffhangers. It's harder to articulate that than. Some authors write cliffhangers that leave me desperate for the next book and some write ones that just annoy me and even put me off reading any more in the series. Coville does the former. The ending of DARK WHISPERS is an intense cliffhanger, but I ate it up.

Friday, April 6, 2012

MURDER UNDER COVER


Review of MURDER UNDER COVER by KATE CARLISLE
(fourth in the BIBLIOPHILE MYSTERIES series)

Well, Brooklyn's life might be improving. At least this time she's not the one who finds the body and, hence, becomes a prime suspect; however that poor soul is still someone very close to her.

On actual happy news, finally Brooklyn and Derek are officially dating! After three books of a flirtatious dance that never really goes anywhere, I'm thankful for the semi-closure of their new relationship. (It’s nice to put the "Will they? Won't they?" track on pause.) They don’t seem to have much of a “new couple” phase, but perhaps that's because they've already seen each other through three murder investigations. Whatever the reason, Brooklyn and Derek jump straight into serious, steady, and comfortable. I still find the romance plotline satisfying, but, as I've felt throughout the series, I'm grateful it doesn't attempt to overshadow the murder mystery.

I called the culprit this time! However, it was easier in this book since Carlisle lines up far fewer suspects than usual. I toyed with the possibility that the criminal might be someone we haven't met, but that didn't seem in the style of this series. Even if they hope you won't, some authors like to at least give the reader a chance to guess "who did it." And I did! (Of course, in a general sense; there were plenty of details and twists I didn't see coming.)