The Issue: Is young adult literature appropriate?

[twocol_one]Appropriate for YA
Kit Apostolacus

It could be argued that young adult literature is not appropriate for its target audience—depicting unhealthy relationships, romanticizing abuse, and a slew of other reasons—but it seems to me that these are not inherently inappropriate for the target audience. Of course, the presentation of certain things as “good” or “desirable” is probably not the best, but I think that reveals something about the commitments and mindset of the author, and it doesn’t necessarily mold a young adult.

To a point, we are all always formed, at least in part, by what we read, hear, listen to, ignore, etc. But it is not always a “positive” formation. I do not mean this like those Facebook posts trying to put “more positive images on social media,” as a “let’s feel good” word. I mean it like “positive theology” which is affirmative, like saying “I believe God is omnipotent,” as opposed to “negative” (or apophatic) theology which defines God by denial, “I believe God is not comprehensible.” In a way, we can also treat ourselves like God. We can speak of ourselves in positive or negative terms. And neither is inherently bad.

In this sense, we can either (or both) be positively and/or negatively formed. Upon reading a story that romanticizes an abusive, misogynistic relationship (take “Twilight,” for instance), a young adult does not have to concede the presentation of that relationship. She can say “this does not sound like a desirable relationship to me, even though it is depicted as one.” And in reading about abusive, misogynistic relationships, with their romanticization and all, she can develop not only a healthy view of romance and a high self-esteem for herself, but also a sort of “experience” with bad relationships. She can develop a keen sense of “my friend is in an abusive relationship” because she has seen it in the books she has read.

That is to say that it might not be the worst thing for young adults to develop such a sense of awareness and critical thinking. Of course, it cannot be said that this is a major trend in people who read YA literature, but neither can the opposite be said. As unverifiable as it might be to say that most young adults who read YA literature develop healthy traits, it is equally unverifiable to say that most young adults are adversely affected by the romanticized, unhealthy themes in YA literature.

One might argue that YA literature’s treatment of abusive relationships is fantastic—resembling fantasy, not reality—which, to a point, may be true. But abusive relationships are indeed fantastic; in real life, they can feel like the best thing we will ever get, yielding a manipulated euphoria. Books, especially fiction, are not supposed to tell you something; they are meant to show you something, to thrust you into a new world and experience. YA novels may romanticize abusive relationships, among other things, but they reveal it by embodying it.
[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]Mature Audiences Only
Elizabeth Vollmer

He follows her to her car everyday to make sure “no one bothers her,” his mood swings are unpredictable and frightening, he tracks who she spends time with, and makes threats when she dares to do something outside of his control. Yes, these are all events in recently published and popular young adult/juvenile fiction, and yes, these are all listed on as signs of an abusive relationship. Young adult literature, though a field which contains highly acclaimed books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Stephen Chbosky, and Madeleine L’Engle, also contains books with highly disturbing storylines and characters that are inappropriate for any age group.

“Twilight”, the infamous vampire fiction series by Stephanie Myers, was a huge contributor to the epidemic we are seeing in YA fiction today. The story details a relationship that ends in marriage between a human girl and a vampire. During their relationship, Edward Cullen exhibits almost every sign of an abusive relationship, but it is all neatly packaged in a fairytale ending which leads the reader to believe that abusive actions can have redemptive ends.

Myers is not the only one to write stories like these, though. Simone Elkeles, A. Meredith Walters, and J. Lynn, along with many others, have published fiction for the young age bracket that show inappropriate and dangerous relationships filled with manipulation and violence, almost always ending with the relationship working out because “she changed him.” These books teach young adults that this is what a relationship really is, and it encourages women in particular to “just hang in there.” Moreover, many of these books make romantic relationships the cornerstone of the story, ignoring other aspects of adolescence.

I say these books are inappropriate, but not because of the usual argument that says we need to get rid of any mention of sex or drugs or alcohol. In fact, these things need to be talked about in YA fiction because these are things that young adults have to deal with and it would be patronizing to ignore that fact. These books are inappropriate because they are unrealistic and emotionally manipulative, often tossing in a steamy scene or perfect kiss in order to sell books.

The solution? We need authors that are more socially conscious and, honestly, better writers. I believe there is a myth out there that writers who can’t make it to the “big leagues” resign themselves to writing young adult fiction. I do not believe this is true; the YA fiction demographic needs well-rounded books that deal with difficult real-life things in a responsible manner. We need writers that rely less on shock-factor and more on well developed characters, with more than just a love interest to keep them going. We need writers that know and respect their audience enough to give them good fiction.

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