Saturday, June 06, 2009

WSJ & Young Adult Fiction

Does the Wall Street Journal's latest YA article, Young Adult Fiction Takes a Dark Turn, (It Was, Like, All Dark & Stormy) disappoint?

It classifies Thirteen Reasons Why as being about suicide. Personally, I think it's more about discovering that people have lives you don't know about, about how your words and actions have an impact you don't realize.

Back to the WSJ article. There's a nice throwaway line about librarians who want to keep this book off the shelves. No, really! There may be parents who are alarmed that their 12-year-olds are reading about suicide, or librarians who want to keep the book off the shelves, but the story is clearly connecting with its audience—the book has sold over 200,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. I guess the WSJ fact-checker decided that "may" meant you didn't need an actual librarian to have actually said or done it. Then again, the WSJ fact-checker said Peeled won a Newbery Honor.

More good: this makes it sound like Melinda was depressed BEFORE the rape:“ Speak,” about a deeply miserable girl who is raped at a party. Bill Clinton knew the power of "is" versus "was."

But wait! There's more: it’s useful to consider the history of books read by young adults that traffic in death and cruelty and mental illness. Think of Mary going blind in “Little House on the Prairie” or the ultimate institutionalization of Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye.” With authors like Robert Cormier, the author instead goes to Laura Ingalls Wilder and the fact-based blindness of Mary, the result of an illness? Seriously, part of me thinks I missed the chapter where Laura stabbed Mary in the eye and blinded her.

Too bad about those missteps, because I actually agree with the author's thesis that teens identify with the "big bad" not because the "big bad" is happening in their lives, but because it feels like it is. See Buffy (High School, metaphor for hell).

Ouch. But she just lost more points for calling other YA books "fizzy escapism that long dominated the young adult marketplace." I like the "fizzy", just not the blanket description. Facts, please? Titles?

ACK! Spoiler alert for books mentioned at the end of the article. Thank God she hasn't read Liar, Going Bovine, or Catching Fire.

Ha. I actually agree with her last sentence.

Overall grade: Dude, so close to an A. But really, to omit Cormier? And use Ingalls instead?

This would have been better written and less a response piece if I weren't in the middle of 48 Hours of Reading.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


mstohl said...

Great post. And I agree with the premise too: the book my teens most want to read right now? HATE LIST. Clearly the Big Bad has its appeal.

But to say that a miserably depressed girl gets herself raped makes me want to picket the NYT. It's like saying your skirt is too short so you deserved it.

Janssen said...

I really enjoyed this article, but wow, I was glad I'd read all the books they mentioned because that last paragraph was a spoiler heaven.

Carol H Rasco said...

I cannot give it close to an A on several levels, all of which you mention....the librarians and the shelves as well as the Ingalls comment completely blew me away. Like you I do like the last sentence. But finally, I had to make myself stop and consider the source (the author of the article) and her past, her body of work...

Good comment left by Jane Dowrick on the article site.

Liz B said...

It's sad that the article wasn't better, because I think, actually, the thesis (you read about the Big Bad because life seems that way) is good. Too bad she didn't give the idea respect, and instead headlined it as an "oh noes". Not to mention omitting that there has always been dark YA, fizzy YA, and inbetween YA.

And I actually love good escapist books like Gossip Girl, etc. Tho yeah...some of them, relentless in their imitation of GG and in seeking to get that market share, are almost creepy. It's kind of why I like Candor (Pam Bacholz, coming out this summer), it embraces that creepy.

Anonymous said...

Mstohl: It's a WSJ article not NYT. So you'd be picketing the wrong place. :-)

Liz B: Journalists do not get to pick the head line. They're usually supplied by a subeditor. It's not their fault. Just like covers of books are not the author's fault.

I thought it was a sloppy article and agree with all your criticisms. As you pointed out Roiphe had no awareness of the history of the genre, she misread many of the novels she talked about, she made sweeping generalisations about librarians and teenagers.

That she liked some of the books and thought teens might get something out of them was neither here nor there. Teens are no more all the same than librarians are or all YA books are or bloggers or authors are.

Justine Larbalestier

Ms. Yingling said...

I'll have to look up the article later, but darkness in teen literature is nothing new. I think that YA lit is just as varied as any other age group. There's fluff, there's literature, there's sad stuff. Think I'm hitting the whole gamut during the challenge! Good luck with yours. I really want to read the new Cooney!

Anonymous said...

so glad you responded so i do not have to. really, no Cormier? and she for sure has not read much. a shame she did not talk to some folks in the biz like librarians, teachers and, well, readers maybe?

Wendy said...

I actually really liked Mary Ingalls as an example:

But ew, did not notice until now that the article was written by Katie Roiphe, whose work I do not care for. Well, I guess it's better that I read it without bias.

Bibliovore said...

Huh. I think I'm going to have to go read this article once 48hbc is done with. Thanks for the rundown.

Anonymous said...

What books were mentioned at the end of the article? I'm afraid of getting spoiled!

Anonymous said...

I don't want to go on and on about this article so I won't. I think most know a lot of generalizations were made in this piece. One point I will make is one that jumped out immediately as funny to me. The writer states "Today's landscape features haunted girls staring out fom dark or washed-out covers." Next to the article about Thirteen Reasons Why is a galery stock picture,I guess to prove the writer's point. If I remember correctly, the cover of Thirteen Reasons Why depicts a pretty, innocent looking girl dressed nicely on a swing in a park. I guess this cover would not be "Dark and Stormy" enough for this article!

Rhiannon Hart said...

Ugh, journalists. The poor things have to find SOMETHING to write about that sounds vaguely current, and end up with a total beat-up about something being NEW NEW NEW when, really, we all know that stories of death, anorexia and suicide are far from new.

Anonymous said...

I read this article before I saw your post and pretty much agree with everything you said.

Seriously? Could they blanket much?

ps: link exchange? :3

Wendy said...

I'm sort of confused: my impression is that you, Liz, liked the article a lot and that's why you gave it almost an A... others seem to be implying that you disliked it. Do we all read whatever we want into reviews?

Mstohl, even if it is Katie Roiphe, I think you're taking a simple grammar error to mean something it doesn't--that's really reaching.

Rhiannon, I thought kind of the point of the article was that this "trend" is NOT "new new new", even if it might seem that way to some.

Liz B said...

The thing is the article is confusing.

It misreads current books and YA books in general; yet despite that total failure, I agree with the idea that "It may be that the feverish drama of a 15-year-old’s private universe finds its natural form in these tales of destruction and death" is true for some readers. So I like (almost A!) that a mainstream paper recognizes that teens read for different reasons, and it's not the typical mainstream article that "omfg kids read depressing books, lock up the knives, if they read hunger games they will start killing each other where are the good books of my youth", teen books should be morally uplifting/classics that is typically found in papers.

Her failure to adequately support her argument doesn't make the argument wrong.

Her saying the trend isn't new would have made more sense if it mentioned Robert Cormier. And I think the use of "is" versus "was": is important; it shows a cursory reading of and understanding of the books. A depressed girl was not raped; a girl was raped and as a result became depressed. Big difference. And it's not the only title; Hannah is a freshman? No; she's a junior when she kills herself. But the first chapters...she talks about her freshman year.

So there was a good idea, poorly executed because she didn't do the proper research / reading. I would love to know why she picked these 4 books, and whether she read them.

Liz B said...

Mary going blind: Wendy, I also left this over at your post on your blog.

As you point out, the author names the wrong book for when Mary goes blind (actually, IIRC, Mary has gone blind before the book even begins.) I think she's thinking the TV show. If I wanted to point to a dark LHOTP book (other than The First Four Years, which is a huge downer), I'd say Long Winter, with the cold and starvation etc.

Charlotte said...

And at the same time Mary was going blind off stage, the little brother who never made it into any book at all was dying. So LIW was doing her best to be as undark as possible. I wonder if we would ever have known about her own baby who died if she'd had a chance to edit First Four Years. Although it was the house burning down that upset me more.

What I am left thinking about from the article is the extent to which If I Stay is really about teenage need for seperation from parents. Did you buy that?

Bethany Grace said...

Article and author aside, I do think that this is an interesting topic to think about. It's been on my mind recently. A teenage girl I know just experienced the suicide of a close family member, and her mom understandably panicked when she found Thirteen Reasons Why in her room.

I have been pondering over whether these books are encouraging a dark, troubled mindset in youth and they then encourage even darker, more troubled novels (cyclical)
,OR whether the books are actually meeting their audience's needs and bringing understanding to already troubled minds.


Liz B said...

Bethany, I would hope that the girl & her mother are talking -- seeing this book in her room can be the catalyst for that.

When I was in High School, the "sign" of suicidal thinking was reading Sylvia Plath's Ariel / The Bell Jar. I think every TV suicide showed the person reading Plath in their room; often, ironically, even for a boy, when (IMHO) Plath's books were much more appealing to teen girls. That became the book where a parent went "OMG you're reading that!"

I'm a firm believer in that books meet a need; and if there is a cyclical occurence, it's about that person's depression/ place where they are at, and the person would have found that anywhere (music, games, TV, film, art) because of where they are mentally. Do we remove the item (music, games, tv, books)? No; but we can educate to realize the difference between regular reading and something more and not be afraid to talk about it and recognize and address when someone has bigger problems.

Bethany Grace said...

Yes, thank you, I definitely agree with that. I also believe that books meet a need, but I've been really dealing with the needs they meet for young adults in particular.

Have you read Wasteland? It addresses an incestuous relationship between a young girl and her brother, and I felt like it tried to smooth over the negative attitudes towards their behavior and encourage an acceptance of people who struggle with similar issues.

This is the type of book that makes me wonder if these "message books" are solving the problems like eating disorders, addictions, etc. or if they are doing more harm then good by mainstreaming the issues. Perhaps the readers don't need to be comforted that these behaviors are normal and many others deal with them. In a fictional setting, the author might subtley (and unintentionally) present these problems in a natural, accepting way, and a student searching for acceptance could be drawn to the results of these problems as a possible outlet.

I see the benefit in someone who struggles with an issue relating to the characters and possibly overcoming their issues, but is that happening more often than not? Anderson's Speak is another example of this popular style of writing, which I felt could do more harm than good just by introducing the issues.

I just feel that we are loosening the boundaries a little too much for youth, and I would question the effects of these books in the long run.