books · libraries · Publishing

Depriving Youth and Defending YA Literature

Carnegie_Library_of_Pittsburgh_Teen_Fiction
Staticshakedown, “Teen Fiction Section of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh,” September 21, 2014, via Wikimedia.

In spite of its seemingly benign nature, young adult literature has received tumultuous responses. Back in August, education consultant Joe Nutt published an article for teachers and educational professionals called “Why Young-Adult Fiction Is a Dangerous Fantasy.” The article reflects the not uncommon belief that YA has directly harmed young people and that these books have “prevented [them] from ever becoming literate adults.”

Those are some fighting words.

Nutt bases his assertion off of the fact that he considers YA to be “gossip fodder” that does not introduce readers “to the real, adult world” full of responsibilities and roles.

Now I am not going to sit here and claim that YA is a perfect genre – it certainly has it flaws from overused tropes to sometimes less than stellar writing – but those weaknesses are not unique to YA nor do they mean that it should be completely overlooked as a genre. In his rush to compare YA fiction to “Kim Kardashian’s latest sex tape”, Nutt fails to recognize what much of YA does well.

For all of its shortcomings, YA captures the complexity of life for teens. It recognizes emotional highs and lows. It asks questions about ethics. Morals. It reflects the process through which teens have to relearn the world and their place in it. I don’t know how much Nutt remembers about being young, but in my experience, the simple, emotionally bare stories that he wants wouldn’t have felt real. During that time, I cared about everything so much. Not just “anxieties and bodies” as Nutt sneeringly describes YA. But injustice. The fallibility of adults. The recognition that simply wanting the world to be a better place wouldn’t make it one. Whether or not Nutt recognizes it, YA does deal with those issues and with the experience of being a young human trying to figure out this mess of a world we live in.

One of Nutt’s main arguments is that he wants young readers to deal with the “demanding world of ideas” and to engage in classic literature. To that end, he suggests publishers seriously reconsider the “cultural value” of contemporary YA literature. (Which brings up several other questions about whether or not publishers should or even can be arbiters of taste.)

I suppose I feel particularly defensive of YA literature because books of varying quality and cultural worth exist in all genres. There is pulpy science fiction and science fiction written that makes you think. There are fantasy books written to be daydreams about power and fantasy books written to explore some deeper aspect of being human. YA fiction isn’t exempt from this trend, but it also shouldn’t be condemned for it. Pulpy books play a role for readers just as much as highbrow ones do, and frankly YA has enough of both types of literature that it feels crude to write off the genre entirely.

But perhaps I’m off base. What do you all think? Is YA literature corrupting youths, or does it have a role to play? Should publishers seriously rethink the type of books they publish in that genre? Did I secretly fail to become a literate adult because I used to read a lot of YA? I’d like to know.

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60 thoughts on “Depriving Youth and Defending YA Literature

  1. I believe it is possible that Mr. Nutt may have had a youth deprived of daydreams and childlike activities such as playing cops and robbers. What better way to ground a child’s belief system than comparing reality to fantasy, real versus delusion? Is it a better method to allow our spawn to soak in hours of the Kardashians and Big Brother? Holden Cauffield and Tom Sawyer, among countless others, molded generations of well-adjusted adults who miraculously found adult reality despite book bans and censor burn piles. Let our children dream, read, and live. I fear the day we reduce Young Adult reading options to nothing more than starched reality. Plenty of adulthood left for that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve really captured this idea that YA lit is defined by the fact that it does straddle childhood and adulthood. It is the combination of fantasy and realism, of dreams and broken hearts. And it is possible for people to understand the seemingly conflicting portrayals of the world.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Earlier this year there was a wonderful dramatisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on UK television, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching. Over the festive season I have spent time watching a western and several other low-brow films. Tolstoy is, in my view far superior to westerns or NCIS. One can, however enjoy both. Few (if any) of us spend our days wholly engrossed in serious literature. Turning to YA, it is, as you say characterised by both good and bad writing (as is any literary genere). Kevin

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Imagine that! You have managed to be a complex human being. 😉

      In all seriousness though, you are perfectly right. Enjoying different ‘levels’ of media is perfectly normal. People are capable of ingesting multiple kinds of literature, and that variety makes us more well-rounded than we would otherwise be.

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  3. *Sigh* Literature snobs should be hung by their thumbs until they squeal for mercy and understand that a whole genre should NOT be dismissed in a handful of snarky comments, particularly by someone I’m betting doesn’t read much of it. I happen to thoroughly enjoy many YA books and the best give anything out there on the shelves in all genres a serious run for their money in producing superb stories asking penetrating questions about the world we live in by strongly depicted characters in beautifully crafted prose.
    Not that I’m in rant mode. At all…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. All genres have their strong and weak books, and it is difficult to see YA dismissed so readily. In part, I am also defensive because YA is often seen as being for teenage girls (regardless of the fact the boys and men read it as well), and the way that people disregard YA is often similar to the way they react to other “women’s things” from things as important as childcare to as mundane as romance novels.

      There is something gendered in the way people define low and highbrow literature, and it does a disservice to many books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely! It’s why I undertook my Discovery Challenge, whereby I set myself to read at least 2 books a month by women writers new to me. There are marvellous female authors writing science fiction – but most folks would struggle to name more than a couple, probably including Ursula LeGuin, who was writing decades ago. Women are expected to write romance and YA – which many do very well. But look on the shelves at Waterstones and you’ll quickly see that books written by men in nearly every other genre predominate.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Mr. Nutt, there’s a name Dickens might have come up with, seems to have a very narrow view of what fiction is for. He reminds me of Thomas Gradrind in “Hard Times”. He does not seem to understand the value of exercising the imagination. Fiction allows allow us to think beyond facts and the received (and often heavily enforced) wisdom of the day by imagining how things might be and who we would choose to become if circumstances allowed.

    It seems to me to be absurd to believe that a generation that has eagerly consumed Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Divergent and Gone have not thought a great deal about responsibility and power and what it means to be a grown up.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It is quite the name, isn’t it? I had to check several times to make sure that I had it right.

      I did get the impression that he was trying to further a very specific education agenda, but he did so in a way that was deliberately obtuse, and that deliberately ignored some of the strong points of YA fiction.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Bravo to you, Kristen. I think YA books are the best thing that has happened to reading- far too many teens are pulled away from books to electronics. These books are terrific! So what if many are fantasy? That is an exciting theme, and teens are reading! I remember my own mother not allowing me to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” because the content was… well, you can fill in the blank. I read it anyway (thank goodness). Somehow this YA argument feels much the same. Children who have grown up being read to have experienced much the same themes. So, bring on YA books!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. An excellent discussion. I know many adults that mainly read YA for various reasons. On some levels it’s more exciting, more intriguing, offers an escape from the reality of mundane work-a-day, do your homework life. There is a huge mix in the YA field from Rick Rierdon’s mythologies to Cassandra Clare and Holly Black’s faerie tales, to Lois Lowry and Ursula Leguin, to International works. And at the core of it all, is the idea of humanity. Who am I? What is right? What is wrong? How can I fix it and survive? How do I deal with all these conflicting emotions? I don’t think Nutt is very well read at all.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There really is such a spectrum of books in YA. It always horrifies me when the genre is simply written off because like you mentioned, the books often do deal with those questions of identity and an individual’s role that all matter so incredibly much.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. On a parallel note we had lots of critics of the Happy Potter books saying why they they were the worse thing ever written. And then we had millions of people of all ages – many of whom would never think of picking up a book- reading them and loving them. It’s not like people think it’s a straight choice… ShalI I read Harry Potter or Crime and Punishment? Critics should remember the true choice is shall I read Harry Potter or not bother reading anything at all. At the end of the day, readers only read because they want to.

    And what if Young Adult does dwell on fantasy subjects – to be blunt imagination is a muscle and it needs exercising. Through imagination we learn to reflect on aspects of our and others’ lives and develop analysis, planning, compassion and the ability to see through fraud. In our own lives we rarely meet the clearly defined characters we find in fiction. In fact we rarely meet a fraction of the people we meet in books.

    Plus life is tough. Bludgeoning youngsters with brutal realism might not only put them off reading but put them off life. Surely helping youngsters develop their life skills in safe fantasy environments must be a good thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve nailed the false equivalence that Nutt was dancing around. People need an entry point into books before they decide to read, and often those entry points are the more “casual” pieces of literature. (Which still manage to reflect the important bits of humanity and, as you mentioned, spark imaginations.)

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  8. I’m also struck by this idea that all stories, indeed all activities, are expected to carry some lofty merit. Sometimes a person wants to just have fun, whether it’s an easily understood story, or a simple game. Variety is the spice of life, and that includes young adult literature. Reading in general is a wonderful thing, and young readers need to start somewhere. It may be true that many among the young adult genre are not the strongest of stories, but as you say, that’s hardly limited to the YA genre. If someone truly finds so much fault with the quality of young adult literature, perhaps they should get to work on the “better YA stories” that we’re all missing out on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The issue of taste. That part of Nutt’s argument really got under my skin. The idea that only specific times of media are acceptable has unfortunate intellectual and classist implications. And as you say, not everything has to be about high brow edification. There is nothing wrong with reading for pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah. I really have a bone to pick with how people often combine “I like” with “good” and vice versa. People often forget that when it comes to art almost everything is subjective. It’s really frustrating sometimes how a few scholars feel they alone have the authority to say what is good or bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. To be honest, we should be glad young adults are reading at all! They have so many distractions around them. If they were reading comics, I’d be okay with that – at least they are reading. They will read YA Lit and then start to reach out to other genres and even the ‘classics’ in time. You could also argue that a lot of the ‘classics’ may not be relatable to YA readers. Either way, you can’t force people to read books they don’t want to (apart from at school were they tend to read ‘the classics’ – is that what puts YA readers off? Possibly). Just be glad they are reading and enjoying reading now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I understand wanting people to have a well-rounded understanding of literature, but at the same time, people have to want to read first. They have to find books that they love, books that speak to them. Most teens don’t fall in love with reading just because they ready “Moby Dick”, but they might fall in love with reading if they read “The Hunger Games”.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent post, I love your response to Mr. Nutt. It always amazes me how some people are so quick to turn their noses up to young adult fiction! Not only are many young adult books well-written and full of life-lessons, but I also personally think that spending a little time escaping from “the real adult world” is important to do once in a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do get the feeling that Nutt hasn’t read a lot of YA just because his mischaracterizes a lot of the genre. But I agree that even if the books only offered an escape from reality, they would still be worth having around.

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  11. Early on in my PhD research into YA fiction I read a paper by academic Vivian Howard on the reading habits of teenagers where she wrote that, while reading for pleasure, “teens gain significant insights into mature personal relationships, personal values, cultural identity, physical safety and security, aesthetic preferences, and understanding of the physical world”. Nutt is just another ill-informed person who shows scant insight into the importance of reading for teens beyond that of literacy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m going to have to track down Howard’s paper. It sounds really interesting, and from my sample of n=1, it sounds true as well. Reading is about more than learning how to read. It is about becoming a fully realized person as well.

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      1. Here are the details for the paper to make tracking it down a bit easier: Howard, V. The importance of pleasure reading in the lives of young teens: Self-identification, self-construction and self-awareness. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 43.1 (March 2011): 46-55.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Ree! A PDF of the article popped up right away. Reading through the responses from the focus groups was fascinating.

        “I think that when kids read more they become more compassionate. I don’t know, I’ve just noticed that people who read are likely to be compassionate and kids that don’t read can be really uncompassionate. When you’re reading a book you often relate to a character.”

        Teenagers know what they’re talking about.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. YA prevents teens from being literary adults?

    Yeah, those are fighting words. Let’s go, friend.

    Half the reason very few adults keep reading after high school and college is because they hated what they read in high school. It doesn’t matter how classical or cultural a work is in the eyes of adults. If a teenager doesn’t connect to a book in some way, they’re not going to read it on their own, let alone be influenced by it. I can tell you from experience. Every time we’d ask our teacher why a book was relevant, they’d always tell us that we’d understand when we were older.

    Uh, why are we wasting time on Old Man and the Sea at 15 then? I could be reading the latest Scott Westerfield right now.

    I do think it has a place in the classroom, but I aslo think we put way too much emphasis on it’s potential influence. It wasn’t the classics that kept me reading into adulthood. It was–you guested it–YA. Now I’m constantly reading and exploring other genres because I have a platform of curiosity that reading things I like gave me. So, instead of saying how YA is dangerous and bad, maybe we need to be looking at how best to use it keep kids reading in the future. The current method isn’t working and we desperately need more adults that read.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It definitely seems like Nutt doesn’t understand young readers terribly well. People need to find books that speak to them before they care about reading. Some classics may do the trick, but oftentimes teachers have to think about outside of the box. If YA works, then that is just fine.

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      1. Exactly!
        My senior year of high school my English teacher let us pick any book we wanted to read as a final project. We then had to make an award and present it to the class–“Best Plot Twist,” “Best Villan,” “Best Love Triangle,” what ever we wanted. It was honestly the first time I’d seen the entire class excited about a project.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, Kristen.
    In answer to your query, NO. YA fiction is NOT corrupting our youth. Anything which gets young, potential, readers (or anyone for that matter) to read, has value and should not be assailed for its potential harm.
    If it’s inappropriate for the YA crowd, then it should re-classified.
    What I see as potentially injurious, are smart phones. Not that they exist, mind you, as even I have one. But, I now find myself the ONLY one sitting on a train or a plane or a bus or in the park with a book open. Pokemon Go and Texting and e-mailing seem to have replaced reading.
    This, to me, may result in massive attention deficit disorders in the future. And, the dumbing down of the next and future generations.
    In my opinion, Nutt, is mistaken.

    TE Mark – Author

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m still really livid about what he said 😂 Let then read what they like, he’s clearly not read enough YA to really make his case, Twilight is so over 😛. I’ve never read anything in a YA novel more dangerous than what we’re exposed to in our everyday lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great topic to delve into! I can kinda see why the animosity against YA, but I think it probably stems from the bad examples. And it could also be because its mainstream. Too much of anything isn’t good, as they say. And too much of YA may not be so.

    But I think Young Adult lit is great for several reasons. Firstly, it’s relatable. The teen stage is pretty angsty and having some reassurance about your problems through a book can be a treat.

    It’s also great because it has the opportunity to explore issues pertinent to teens/young adults. Some problems are age-range-specific and having a genre to address these is a must.

    YA is also a form of lit & hence is a reason for many young people to read. Reading is dying a bit, especially among the youth, and anything that can save that is great. And as you said, it isn’t all trash or something. There is value to be found in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have some great points! Those young adult years are prime for growth, exploration, and a need to feel not so alone.

      I also wonder if some of the distaste people feel towards YA is related to a more general dismissal of young people. I’ve stumbled across many individuals who don’t think of teenagers as being ‘real’ in the same way that adults are. It may be that people treat fiction about them as just as ‘unreal’ and therefore as unworthy of being read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, possible. As we age, we get this hindsight bias where we think whatever we went through during our younger years was nothing. But it’s only because we experienced it and have the wisdom and adult development (no erratic hormones) now to make better judgements that we’re able to say that. 🙂

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  16. Stellar post. Gotta share. 🙂
    That said, Diana Wynne Jones criticized similar, well, criticisms about writing for people: only “real” books can truly help people handle “real” problems. Jones described a conversation with another author on this topic, which included a point I don’t think enough people think about: “Would you give a copy of Anna Karenina to a couple getting divorced? Of course not. Yet people do this to children all the time.”
    While Young Adult indeed gets tropey and pulpy and just all around dopey, ALL genres have that, including that precious literary fiction. What matters is that the stories bring light to a reader’s mind, heart, and soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite authors, but I don’t think I’ve read that criticism of hers. I’ll have to track it down because it sounds great. (…Though I feel like I knew a guy who would have given a copy of Anna Karenina to a divorcing couple. I mean, that isn’t something he should have done, but that wouldn’t have stopped him.)

      I definitely agree that all genres have the ability to illuminate the world for readers, and in the end, that is all that matters.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. This was a really fantastic article. I completely agree with your points. I definitely feel like there are some terribly YA books out there, the shelves of libraries are full of them, but nothing in life is completely black and white. Thanks for taking the time to delve into this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Such a fantastic response to an utterly ridiculous claim! YA adult fiction is what gave me a love for reading and without it, I would not still be reading regularly.

    Liked by 1 person

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