The YA Debate: the kids are gonna be okay
CanaryTheFirst chirps an opinion about the “Too Much Violence in YA Debate”
When I was in fourth grade, I got a stack of random books at a clearance sale. Among the pile was Dream-Weaver. I got it for the title, but it turned out to be a really cool book. There is a ship leaving earth for a planet, many years away, and unbeknownst to the colonists, the planet is already inhabited by a society of people. To keep the peace and correct dangerous behaviors, they have dreamweavers, men and women who create dreams for other people and show them the consequences of their actions.
Crime is nonexistent and the world is at peace.
But decades away, a ship of humans is approaching, and somewhy, one young dreamweaver has an astral connection to it. It was a right awesome, and my first ever sci-fi (outside the classics). I loved it.
Years later, when rereading Dream-Weaver, I was absolutely floored to realize I had no memory of…
…a turning point scene where the main character’s period begins and she realizes that she’s a woman now and so decides she will attempt to approach the issues in her life from a different, more mature angle.
And only a partial memory of…
…a scene where the main character’s astral self gets it on with the space traveler with whom she’d always had a psychic link. My child’s mind had reinterpreted it as them lying down together on the sleeping cot, side by side, and holding hands. The subsequent furious reaction of his parents upon walking in on them had struck me as unreasonably and as just plain bad story writing. They were just holding hands and sharing psychic energies. Really, take a chill pill, parents.
On my nostalgia rereading in High School, I gave a long, drawn out, “Ohh.” followed by an “Huh. Now it all makes sense!”
See, when I was nine, my parents were still being properly cagey about the appearance of my little brother (“You go to sleep in the same bed wanting to have a baby and then it starts growing inside Mommy’s tummy.”) and I had no points of reference for two of the scenes in Dream-Weaver or any similar scenes that appeared, I assume, in any other book I’ve read that included adult themes (I’m looking at you, Juniper. Did you have a hidden sex scene too?). I didn’t get it and so it never stuck.
By the advent of Middle School, and after the very enlightening sex-Ed period, I went on to read the wildly age-inappropriate Mists of Avalon by Bradley and tried my hand at Dune (I picked it up again in seventh grade and swallowed it, and its sequels, whole).
My favorites from that time included The Color Purple, Animorphs, Misery, Alanna the First Adventure, VC Andrews books, Deerskin, the Ratha series, and The Dragonlance Chronicles—the entire mix of books was in our Middle School library, don’t ask me how some of those got there. Although, to be fair, in Dune, every appearance of the word “damn” was blacked out with a marker—even if all that did was highlight the word, perfectly legible through the black. I had my pick of the entire range of appropriateness.
But the bottom line was this, I picked my books not by skimming the pages for inappropriate words or scenes, but by the story I thought I was getting into. Misery was about a writer! I wanted to be a writer! Animorphs had aliens and shapeshifters. How cool was that!
I loved the fact that Ratha’s Challenge was about an outcast prehistoric cat who had only recently discovered she had a mother, and had to deal with how badly she wanted to be accepted, and couldn’t be. I wanted more about Alanna, the girl who switched with her brother so she could pretend to be a boy and become a knight, and if a part of that was a section of how she dealt with the shocking realization that for no apparent reason, she was bleeding between her legs, well, that was part of the story as much as her epic battle at the end of book two.
When a friend of mine read teen fiction along the lines of Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging, I nodded, promised I would give it a try on her recommendation, and never did. It wasn’t the title, really—I was just a whole lot more interested in dragon battles and time travel than I was about Middle or High School love. My close friend read the original Grimm fairy tales before bed—and she loved them too. No nightmares, either. She recommended those and I said no again. No Judy Blume for me, and I gave up on Carrie.
What I did read, I read because there was an interesting story between the covers, and not for some kind of dark, forbidden thrill. The rape in Deerskin was brutal and The Color Purple has been challenged many school districts. But they were damn good stories, even if I didn’t get a lot out of them until my subsequent re-reads, years later.
Occasionally, my mother would listen to my avid plot summaries, and put her foot down: “No, sweetie, incest is not okay.”
And that was part of the process too.
I don’t know whether the books that are available to kids these days are objectively darker than those I grew up with, but I do believe that as long as kids are gonna be kids, they’re gonna make reading decisions in a world full of all sorts of things to read. We need to trust them to make those decisions.
My friends and I, we read what we thought we’d enjoy, and put down the books that we didn’t get or that didn’t meet our expectations. If I didn’t have the context for the stuff I was reading, that was okay, because then it wasn’t all that important, right?
Nowadays, when I read about rape, violence, and even, at times, about the everyday petty nastiness, it gets to me and it scrabbles at me from the back of my thought in a way it never did when I was wallowing in it at age 13. I know what death is now in a uniquely my-age-kind-of-way, and I feel these issues in a way I did not in Middle School. They are as real as they were when I was a precocious reader skipping lunch to finish that torture scene, but the thing is, I had a different context for it all then. Adults pick up on what’s written in an adult way, with an adult’s sensitivity, and I don’t think we should ever lose sight of that.
As kids, we’re not so much resilient (though we’re that too!) or unaware of the real life issues surrounding us (because we were!), but we’re kids, and we read the stories because they were great. Or because the writing was a connection that said, “you’re not alone.” Or because it was an escape.
All this matters.
We get the things we get because we get it, and we don’t pay the rest much heed.