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09 June 2011

Young Adults Straddle the Divide Between Children and Grown-Ups

Meghan Cox Gurdon begins her article in Saturday's Wall Street Journal with the plight of the "thwarted and disheartened" mother, not being able to find a book as a gift for her 13-year-old, because the titles found in the suburban B&N all had "lurid and dramatic covers" and were all about "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation."

This piece created a firestorm on Twitter (#YAsaves), not helped by online Journal Community poll that asks, "Are dark themes in youth fiction helpful or harmful to teenagers?"  Does "no effect" count as "helpful" or "harmful?"  Sherman Alexie, whose book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was in the American Library Association's 2010 Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books, responded on one of WSJ's blogs.

There have been books for a very long time about some pretty downer themes.  As one commenter on one site had said, "dark" goes all the way back to the Grimm Brothers.  I cannot tell you when this need started to have children (or pre-adults) read sunshine.  Perhaps that urge coincided with the need for everyone being a winner, lest his self-esteem get bruised and scar him for life.

I did find that most American parents and grandparents today want to give teenagers fun, upbeat as well as inspiring books. And, the teens didn't even need to be their own. Over the years with our Books for Babes drive we have every holiday season, we have experience enough to have on hand some of the Chicken Soup series books for teens (which had been really getting old in every sense of the word -- but I see a new one is due out in July), because the adults who buy them feel good buying them for teenagers.  They even feel good about giving graphic novels about The Three Musketeers.

They do not feel as good buying Ruth Pennebaker's 1996 Don't Think Twice, set in 1967 about a pregnant 17-year-old spending time in a home for unwed mothers.  Although this book is still sought after and recommended by pregnant teens themselves, the status at the publisher is "out of stock indefinitely," meaning the publisher is not going to print any more copies, but reserves the right to do so.  This happens often, when a book has run its course and doesn't become a "classic" with enough sales to justify reprints.  However, should someone who read this book, possibly in 1999 after buying it from Books on First and thought a great deal about it becomes an influential filmmaker and creates a commercially successful movie in 2012 or 2013, the publisher might take a chance on a new movie-tie-in cover, reprint and sell many, many copies.  Would this be an acceptable book, not too dark, not harmful to teenagers?  I think many people are fascinated as much as by a "reality" not their own as they are by those that hit close to home.  I really don't believe that reading a book about cutting oneself is going to send someone into depression.  Teenagers are self-directed.  If they are bored or otherwise cannot abide the book, they won't read it, whether it's dark or light.  And, really, would anyone rather read about a misfit girl never fitting in at the high school or about a misfit girl who realizes she is special, because of her vampire hunting heritage?

Actually, some of the more popular YA books at Books on First represent a bit of fantasy in my mind, full of rich kids in boarding schools or attending private schools in New York City, or a girl who discovers her parents are spies, are currently in trouble and can only be helped by her able assistance, or a girl who is sent to be with her celebrity father for the summer.

For us deprived teens, we could even read about a girl and her dog, which is quite a fantasy for someone like myself whose parents refused to be suckered into that, "every kid should have a pet" philosophy.  "A dog should have at least a third of an acre of fenced-in yard to run around," I recall their saying.  Otherwise, it's just animal cruelty.  Actually, I wrong them.  They did say we could have a pet.  We could choose between a goldfish and a turtle.  Since I and my four siblings chose a turtle, seemingly a little more fun than watching a single fish swim around and around -- which in my mind is also animal cruelty, just when pet shop turtles were being found to have an infectious shell disease, that scheme came to naught. 

How about Sara Shepard's Pretty Little Liars series for inspirational?  Best friends forever (BFFs), who can only generously be described as over-indulged and self-centered, worry about this mysterious "A" who knows all about their secrets -- big and small, and then, spend the next eight installments of this YA series searching for their missing leader Allison (who can't possibly be "A") while continuing to lie, primp, scheme and believe everything they do is so important.  BFFs indeed.

To return to the plight of the suburban mother, the problem was that she was in a Barnes and Noble and was probably shopping at the last minute.  If she had given the matter some forethought, say, two business days before she was hoping to have book in hand, and had found an independent bookseller, courtesy of IndieBound', like Politics and Prose or Tempo Bookstore in Washington, DC, or Kensington Row Book Shop in Kensington, MD (only 2-4 miles from Bethesda per Googlemap), or further afield (4-6 miles away) where a bookseller awaits, eager to help her find a book that her 13-year-old has not yet read.

The possibilities are endless, including the television-series-inspired Glee: The Beginning (inspirational, hmm?), Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone (yes, a little dark, but what a girl and what a family), To Kill a Mockingbird (again, dark, but Harper Lee considered her 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner (the year after it was published) a simple love story) or (if she's read all the Mark Twains for young adults) Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, the book that resulted in all the youths of the Civil War/Conflict Between the States/Northern Aggression the most literate soldiers of all time.  If Mom does not consider Nazis, World War II and the genocide too dark, there is Markus Zusak's The Book Thief or The Diary of Anne Frank.

In an earlier post, I had recommended a good mother-daughter book club, Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, if Mom doesn't mind a little background involving a bi-polar mother whose death results from a wild dash in front of a moving ice cream truck.

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