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The NYTimes is at it again. Robert Lipsyte wrote a lovely little article on boys and reading. The book blogging community has already reacted (also: here and here), but there was a specific aspect of the article I wanted to address. The problem, he writes is that:

The current surge in children’s literature has been fueled by talented young female novelists fresh from M.F.A. programs who in earlier times would have been writing midlist adult fiction. Their novels are bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers. It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters. (emphasis mine)

Not only does he not back up his claims with statistics, his condescending tone implies that the highest a female M.F.A can go is midlist fiction (which is usually true-only 30% of Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction are female). While editors, librarians, and teachers do tend to be female, male authors still dominate the bestseller lists. Currently, seven out of ten authors on both the  children’s chapter and paperback lists are men.

Aside from that, he does not go on to expound on how we can change the trend that “teenage boys will rarely read books with predominantly female characters.” Guess what, women have been surviving and thriving in a male dominated world for, I don’t know, all time? And we’re doing just fine. We read, enjoy, and fall in love with books that are written by men as well as women, because that is what brings us the best life experience. We are not taught from an early age, as men are, that engaging with or emulating characteristics of the opposite sex will make us worth less. And because of it, yes, teenage girls will pick up a book about a boy and enjoy it.

So where is the part of the article where he asks why boys don’t read books about girls?

I am not saying that boys don’t deserve books that were edited, heralded, and taught by men. Women understand the importance of stories and culture that is by and for the same group. I am saying that in some ways, men need to get over it already and start teaching the next generation that women have voices that are of value to people who don’t also happen to be female.

Really, Robert Lipsyte, boy culture won’t implode if you suggest they pick up a book about a girl. We’ve been reading about men and boys for hundreds of years, and, as you say, girl culture is as strong as ever.

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I’ve been struggling a bit with the constant mantra that we see in defense of controversial Young Adult literature, it being that YA Lit lets each reader know that they are not alone. I know in my heart that this is true. It is the feeling I had when I was fourteen and read Sloppy Firsts and finally had a friend who also had acne and frizzy brown hair and sometimes felt disconnected from her friends and family because of aspects of herself that were beyond her control. It is the feeling that I had when I was sixteen and read Looking for Alaska, and had a friend that went to seek a great perhaps and succeeded and made it through tragedy to the other side. It is the feeling I know every teenager experiences when they open a book that reflects a familiar emotion back to them.

But I didn’t know why YA Lit has this power.

Then I realized I had the answer all along. Teenagers usually do not have the ability to articulate their opinions and beliefs as well as adults. This is not because they are not intelligent and it is not because they do not have any opinions or knowledge. It is because there is a huge difference in believing something, and having had the practice to be able to effectively communicate the reasoning behind that belief or feeling. Combine their lack of experience with the crazy emotions and first-time experiences of being an adolescent, and you have a group of people who are going through an overwhelming amount of new experiences, without the tools to work through it effectively. 

This is where YA Lit comes in. An adult who is able to accurately remember what it was like to be a teenager (and they are few and far between), has the unique ability to place themselves back in those hormonal, emotional shoes and now has the ability to articulate it clearly and beautifully. A teenager would not usually be able to write the books that are being written, but they can read it and connect with the words on the page. They do not have to have the ability to write the book to understand it’s importance, and the fact that they are pretty much incapable of writing it themselves makes the book that much more meaningful. A YA book has the power to finally give some relief to the teen who had been struggling with an unnamed, scary emotion like love, loneliness, lust, or longing.

This is why YA Lit is so important. And this is why it is important to not only have well-written, entertaining books, but books about the scary stuff. Anorexia, failing grades, absent parents, addiction. Loneliness, bullying, rejection, rage. Most adults can no longer remember what teenage feelings truly feel like. Most adults cannot remove the tinted glasses of experience and time that have removed them from the raw emotional power of being a teenager. So we have to allow the adults that can remove those tinted glasses to do their work well and in peace. And we have to trust that when a teenager clutches a controversial book to their chest and says, “This book saved my life,” they mean it in a very literal way.

And then, they will get through it, and they will grow up, and they will in turn forget. And they will be the ones having to put their trust in the next generation of teens.

The Guardian ran an article this week on book spoilers, and a study that revealed readers may actually enjoy spoiled stories more than the unspoiled!

The psychologists go on to wonder why this is: perhaps, they say, it’s because it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. “It could be,” says Leavitt, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

When I first read the article I was astounded and in denial, but then I realized something. Whenever I’m reading a book and my enthusiasm is fading, once I get to the point where I’m ready to give up and put the book down, I’ll start flipping through the book to find out if what I want to happen, happens. If it doesn’t, I usually put the book down, but if it does, I’ll go back and read all the way through to find out how they got there. Nevermind my lazy reading habits, but doesn’t this kind of support what they’re saying?

The instance that most clearly sticks out in my mind is Twilight. I remember reading it in late high school because my little sister was reading it, and I was fading fast, so I looked and saw that in the end Bella and Edward are at prom together, meaning they must have overcome the whole “I want to suck your blood” thing, so I read through to the end.

And then I started thinking about big franchises that, if spoilers were truly a huge issue, probably would have died off a long time ago. Namely: “Luke, I am your father.” What person really makes it to that moment without knowing about the twist? I’m sure it was awesome for those leaving the theater when it first came out, but the fact that it was common knowledge meant that this advertisement was possible when the prequels were coming out:

So what do you think? Does reading the last page of a book “spoil” it or is it part of your reading experience? And is it lazy to find out what happens early on? Is there some sort of inherent value in reading the book as it was written, waiting to find everything out as the author intended?

I came across this article about favorite childhood books and what they say about our current psyche. Hilarious, with a few gems:

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The residual guilt may be nearly unbearable, but at least you’ll be a good parent.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Your friends may be totally crazy, but you’re together enough that you can go out partying with them every night and still hold down a full-time job.

It’s really a great concept. When you think about it, the books you loved as a child probably do say a lot about you. I mean, Flavorwire went the direction of cute/ironic, but I’m kind of serious here. In a game of “dissect your friends’ favorite childhood books” I’m betting a lot more than meets the eye would be revealed.

Ok, ok, I’ll go first.

Favorite picture books: Silly Sally Went to Town, Walking Backward Upside Down, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Comet’s Nine Lives.

 

Favorite Middle Grade: Anything Roald Dahl, but especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda. Then I read my first Harry Potter book (no explanation needed).

Favorite YA: Looking for Alaska and This Lullabye.

 

Hmmmm…I don’t feel like I can really psychoanalyze myself without being a tad biased, but I can try! I see a lot of characters who start small and go and do something big, like inheriting a chocolate factory from the poorest of poverty or finding a home as a cat in a land full of dogs or striking out from their family very young to go seek a “great perhaps” at boarding school. I see a lot of characters with longing for something more. And I see sideline romances, except for Sarah Dessen’s book, which features a girl who is afraid romance will keep her from achieving her dreams.

I see a lot of dreaming.

What are some of your favorite books from childhood? Or, if you don’t feel like sharing something that’s apparently so revealing, feel free to analyze me!

The Republic school system in Missouri has decided to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer. Look, schools have a right to decide what books they use and don’t use, but schools also have the responsibility to recognize that they hold cultural and social power within their districts. If your child goes to schools that only have books that support one religion, one culture, or one of any type of thinking, that is the thinking that they will have. For a lot of people, that seems to be enough:

Wesley Scroggins, a Republic resident, challenged the use of the books and lesson plans in Republic schools, arguing they teach principles contrary to the Bible.

“I congratulate them for doing what’s right and removing the two books,” said Scroggins, who didn’t attend the board meeting. “It’s unfortunate they chose to keep the other book.”

I’m sure many people have spotted my issue with this quote. They teach principles contrary to the Bible. I’m sure that’s not much of a problem at their school (strictly speaking, their demographic is probably 90% Christian), but what about that one kid who says in third grade that Jesus isn’t his family’s savior? I don’t see a welcoming, inclusive, and educational environment for any kid who may attend their school in the future.

Why not just have a Restricted Section (a la Harry Potter’s library) where books that have been questioned can stay? Older grades can access them, or students must have a permission slip to check them out. The Missouri school district says that students can read the banned books as part of an independent study with permission from their parents, but they have to get the books themselves. The school will not supply it. Even though they have the book? Both of the banned books have been purchased by the school, but the students are no longer allowed to access those resources. I can’t even…I don’t know how to express my befuddlement.

What do you think? Is allowing the books in Independent Study (with parental permission) enough? Do public schools have a responsibility to provide every resource they can? And can they cite the Bible as a reason against a particular book?

Slate Magazine has named Suzanne Collins one of 25 Americans who “combine inventive genius and practicality,” claiming that:

her dark, bloodthirsty books upended our notions of what young adult fiction should be – and converted waves of skeptical adults in the process.

It’s true that she drew in many previously unconvinced adults to pick up a book that-gasp!-was found in the Young Adult section of their local B&N, but what did Slate mean by “our notion of what young adult fiction should be?”

It is an absence of conflict that appears to be most sought after in YA literature. It seems that as soon as a parent or critic reaches any sort of problem in a YA book, it is immediately deemed “dark” and can no longer be presented as a viable option for minors. But a conflict-less book doesn’t seem like it would be any sort of fun to read, let alone able to help teenagers in their struggle with their own faults and grey areas, leading them to stronger convictions and more articulate beliefs.

Books help readers sort through all of their internal reactions to what’s going on in the real world. Every challenge a main character encounters can transform into a metaphor for the individual readers’ true experience. If teenagers are denied the practice of reading books that can reflect their own life choices back at them, then when are they supposed to learn this unconscious but pervasive skill?

Even more so, books often voice the very thing a teenager wouldn’t dare bring up to their parents or even their best friend. Open a book, and they don’t have to voice their innermost secret aloud to find another person who is going through a similar trial. Suddenly, they can commiserate without ever having to risk ridicule or ostracism, whether their secret involve some awkward back acne, a growing conviction that the religion they were raised in is no longer their path, or the feeling that they might belong to the LGBTQ community.

So perhaps there are things a YA book should be. It should challenge whoever reads it, and it should remind them that throughout this process of being challenged, they are unequivocally not alone.

And how does this relate to The Hunger Games? Katniss faces insurmountable odds, battling both her peers and a seemingly insurmountable foe, while slowly learning to lean on her family and friends in times of strife instead of shrink into herself, away from all the people who love her. Challenge, check. Not alone, check.

Sure sounds like high school to me.