CRITICISM OF YA AND CHILDREN’S LITERATURE: TOO LIGHT OR TOO DARK?

Young adult literature has long been criticised for two main things:

1. Young adult literature is not complex enough, and is often written off as simple and unimportant

2. Young adult literature is too dark for the teenagers they’re meant for.

So, what is it, is young adult too light or too dark? Is it okay for adults to read, is it okay for teenagers to read?

Young adult literature is not ‘complex’

YA-bashing’ has proliferated the literary world for the last decade. Adults are shamed for reading young adult or children’s literature despite 55% of YA readers being adults.

Many critics have belittled fiction for young people as a lesser form of writing, which can never be great literature as it doesn’t ‘confront the full range of genuine human experience’.

The main issue with this argument is that it puts all the great scope and array of children’s and YA fiction into one little box. It considers children’s and YA fiction to be genres rather than categories. Adult fiction is not a genre and neither is children’s nor YA.

Many critics of YA literature have, more often than not, not read a wide array of YA fiction, if any. Their arguments are based off the bestselling blockbusters, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, but these books barely scrape the surface. There is so much more depth to fiction for young people and there are genres within these categories just like in adult literature.

Woman reading Harry Potter. Used with permission. https://bit.ly/34irxlU

Young adult literature has changed the publishing landscape. Harry Potter led this change, changing not only the way we think about children’s and YA literature, but the way we think about books as commodities, as products, and showed how readers have the power to make an impact with their strong fan communities and engagement.

Nobody is suggesting Twilight should have won a Pulitzer prize, the community is just asking to be taken seriously.

And why aren’t they? Danielle Binks in her article for Kill Your Darlings claims sexism and elitism play their part, while S. E. Smith in their blog post cites ageism as a cause.

In both arguments YA and children’s literature are thought of as ‘less-than’ because either their writers (predominantly women), their protagonists (young people) or their readers (either young people or adults who should be ‘embarrassed‘ are also thought of as ‘less-than’. As Binks puts it, this argument ‘sounds a lot like “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”’

All this belittling, overlooking and blanket judgment of children’s and YA literature is not the only criticism the category faces. And it is ironic that while this argument stems from a belief in a lack of complexity, the literature being too ‘light’ if you will, that the other dominant argument regards YA novels as too dark.

Adult censorship of Young Adult literature

When young adult literature delves into serious topics (sex, mental health, drugs, etc.) it is often critiqued as being too dark for young readers.

There are two schools of thought on the impact these novels have on young readers; those who believe they may spark copycat behaviour and those who believe information and emotional insight will help readers develop coping skills.

In recent years there has been controversy surrounding how depictions of death in YA are becoming increasingly graphic, with the uproar against the Netflix adaptation Thirteen Reasons Why a prime example.

The graphic depiction of teen suicide on screen is quite a far cry from the off-page deaths of early 20th century books for young readers, such as The Secret Garden or  Anne of Green Gables.

But since the mid 20th century, with the publication of The Outsiders in 1967, which is commonly thought of as the ‘first’ YA novel, protagonists began to not only deal with the aftermath of death, but also to witness death and deal with the trauma that came with it.

While there is a risk of copycats when YA literature depicts teen suicide, reading about death through the safe space of a novel can help teach young readers about grief and loss, which they may not have yet experienced in real life.

Writing about sex in YA literature has also been known to spark controversy and often it is not the inclusion of sexually explicit content that is up for debate but the ways in which it is written.

Sex is something that should be written about in a safe and suitable way so young readers can be exposed and educated about sex, like death, through the safe space of a novel.

Michael Cart in Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism remarks:

Not to include sex in books for contemporary young adults […] is to agree to a de facto conspiracy of silence, to imply to young readers that sex is so awful, so traumatic, so dirty that we can’t even write about it.

By writing sex realistically and factually young readers can be educated by the novels they read. And by reading about sex in a novel rather than a textbook, they may be more willing to take in the information.

So, who is it for and what should it be about?

The arguments for and against YA, for and against adults reading YA, and for and against the inclusion of explicit topics in YA are numerous and contradictory. Reviewers seem quick to critique children’s and YA literature, often without even reading the books themselves

Books shouldn’t be classified by age, people mature at different rates and develop interests at different rates, as argued by Patrick Ness:

‘…there is no clear distinction between a children’s book and a teenager’s book; a teenager’s book and an adult’s book. It is a spectrum, along which we move from the colourful innocence of children’s literature to darker themes for older audiences. It is up to the individual to find their place on the spectrum, read the books that are right for them and understand what is right and wrong by engaging with “the darkness”’

We can only hope that soon any well written book will be taken seriously despite the age of its protagonist or target audience. That readers will find books that engage, entertain and educate, and not be judged by the books they read.

Featured image: Bookshop. Used with permission. https://bit.ly/2N9Fahm

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