Do YA authors, editors, and librarians promote the idea that YA books have the power to do good, but reject the idea that they can do harm?
|The Playroom of Good and Evil by ninjaink|
These days every book festival has a YA panel, and every panel has a moment when a well-meaning attendee will stand up and ask: Are YA novels becoming more perverse?
And the answer, from any honest person, is yes. They are becoming more everything, because there are more of them. It’s really quite that simple.
Ah, but we shouldn't move on, because we know that that wasn’t really the question. Of course some YA is getting edgier and pushing boundaries. The question within the question was: What should we do about it?
Each panelist gets roughly four minutes to answer.
Many tie the issue to free expression, or the fact that pushing boundaries helps push our culture forward. Some authors speak about the fact that our puritanical culture needs to widen its boundaries (and point to several instances in history when they did). Others talk about the benefits of cautionary tales. These are all great answers (with which I agree, although it really doesn’t matter what I think).
But several times I've heard authors say, “Well, we can’t take responsibility for what a reader will take from a book. It could be anything.”
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris could have been reading Judy Moody just as easily as The Catcher in the Rye.
It's a tempting idea for anyone who has ever written anything. You write what you write. Readers take whatever they want from it. May the reader beware.
That is absolutely fair. But as any workshop or football coach will tell you, don't accept the compliments if you won't believe the criticism.
And so ten minutes later--still at this hypothetical YA panel—a different panelist will mention all the good that their book might have done. A young fan wrote in with news of recovery, and the author glows with pride.
And why not? Haven't they achieved it? Haven't they saved someone?
After all, don't we believe in the power of writing? Especially the power of writing for young adults? Don't we believe, deep down, that the writing is affective?
And if we do, then why don't we believe that the power can be used for ill, just as it can (and should) be used for good?
We believe in the power of writing, and we accept the good it can cause in the lives of young readers, but we reject even the notion that it can also do harm. Or that the author might be questioned in the barest sense of the material he/she has created. The author is dead, as they say, unless you're sending fanmail.
Perhaps one reason that the kidlit community might be loathe to admit that YA books can do great harm is the perception that reading--in general--is under siege by media that are deemed far more powerful—TV, Internet, and video games. The thinking goes like this: Yes, you might get salmonella from a bad batch of cantaloupe, but eating fresh fruit is better for you than candy. Therefore, we shouldn't advertise a few bad cantaloupes when it's hard enough already to get people to choose the healthy option.
Another approach has been to focus entirely on all the good that YA books have done, as though they offset the bad (an idea similar to a diet of one celery stick to offset every brownie).
It seems to me that these two positions are at odds. But in agreeing that harm is possible, we begin down the long and thorny road of deciding—as a community—what types of harm are worst. Not far down that road are the questions of age-appropriateness, content ratings, and censorship.
But those are questions for a later date.