I try very hard to be a parent who respects her child and sees his intelligence as he figures out the world around him. It’s made easier by the students I have worked with over the years, the ones who make bright and funny observations all the time and who have taught me to give them more credit than we usually do in our culture. There are things that we lose as adults that children and teenagers can remind us: the immediacy of the world, the imagination that it takes to live in it. There are big questions about who we are and how we figure out our places in the world that we adults are supposed to have figured out.
This is part of what troubled me about Ruth Graham’s piece last week that stated that adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Graham made it clear that she’s not an expert on the topic. Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I do work in the field, so I have to be more qualified to talk about it than she is. I took grad school classes on YA literature and I participate in discussions of it every year. I read it, both because I like it and because it’s my job. I defend it not simply because I enjoy it but because I believe it is worth defending as art and as literature.
I agree with many of the other critiques of her article, such as the ones that point out that books for children and young adults are often dismissed because they are written by women (see also every discussion about John Green that ignores all the great female authors writing YA) or the ones that point out that she didn’t even seem to understand the very smart books she was putting down or that there are YA books beyond the bestseller lists. She also seemed to dislike any happiness or resolution in a story while not noticing that some of the most popular series (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, HUNGER GAMES) don’t exactly have satisfying endings. I especially agree with the very nice people who have calmly pointed out that we who work with teenagers mention To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye not because they were published as YA books but because they would surely be marketed as YA now, as they are coming-of-age stories told by young people. But other people have gone over that stuff. There’s just one other thing I want to say.
To me, the YA debate is a question of respect. If you believe that children’s literature and young adult literature are so far beneath you that people should be ashamed to read from those categories, then you are saying that children and young adults are beneath you. You are saying that their concerns are no longer important in your life. You are saying that their literature is stupid because that is the only level they can comprehend. You aren’t giving kids enough credit—any credit—and I hope you don’t work with them or have any of your own. I don’t feel defensive about YA literature because I work with it. I feel defensive about it because to dismiss it out of hand is to be disrespectful to young people who deserve our respect. The teenagers in my life are smart people who are learning about the world and who are asking big questions. One of the ways they do that is through books. It is a privilege to be able to do that along with them.
I learned about that respect both when the adults in my life did not belittle my reading choices and when they handed me different things to read. I learned about it by being reminded (by John Green) to take teenagers’ feelings seriously. And I learned about it from Madeleine L’Engle, who always advocated for treating the children who read her books as smart.
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” – Madeleine L’Engle
“The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.” -Madeleine L’Engle
“We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books . . .” -Madeleine L’Engle
I don’t know yet what kind of reader Atticus is going to be, but I hope he has teachers and librarians in his life who respect him as a reader as well as a person. I hope they encourage him to ask big questions rather than putting down his interests and tastes. I hope he knows that learning isn’t just an adult-to-child activity. And I hope he tries new things and rolls his eyes at the gatekeepers. I hope I do, too.