Monday, June 20, 2005

Strike a Blow Against the Establishment! Read a YA Novel!

They're still talking at my usual on-line hang-outs about The Problem with "Problem" Young-Adult Fiction by Ann Hulbert in Slate. In her essay, Hulbert objects to the use of "problem novels" in high school classes where she claims they are used to initiate discussion of issues rather than discussion of literature. A good thing, too, because according to her the themes are superficial, the symbols trite, and the characters are two-dimensional.

Now, remember, I'm not too fond of so-called problem novels, myself. However, just like Barbara Feinberg's Lizard Motel, which I discussed to death earlier, Hulbert's essay isn't particularly well written. It drifts from problem books, to teacher guides, to a couple who have written a book that Hulbert describes a "cure," though she's not real clear as to what this cure is for--problem books, which is what the essay is supposed to be about? Teaching English? Encouraging reading?

Why is it that the people who want to write on this issue can't seem to pull their acts together?

What I'm finding incredibly interesting about this is that at one of the on-line forums I visit there is a lot of talk supporting getting YA books out of the classrooms because kids need time to study classics. These people are writers and readers, and they are actually disparaging an established genre. What bothers me about this attitude (besides the elitism) is that while classics can be enjoyable to read, many of them don't exactly speak to twenty-first century teenagers. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know classic, great literature is timeless. Go tell a seventeen-year-old who's just been handed a copy of Moby Dick.

My feeling about reading (and I suspect I'm alone on this) is that we read to connect with others like ourselves--authors, their characters--or even a situation. We want to connect with someone like ourselves or someone we want to be like. And when young adult literature is never promoted to teenagers, when it is actively looked down upon, a very clear message is being sent to those young readers. They and their interests have no value.

Hmmm. Could this be why reading is plunging as an activity for the young?

And while we're at it, there's another aspect about this that bothers me. I was told by a college professor a few years ago (who may or may not have known what he was talking about) that before the end of the nineteenth century literature wasn't taught in schools. "English literature" was brought in to the public schools to help assimilate the children of immigrants, to teach them to value what the WASP power structure valued--the anglo-American way of life and literature.

Now, I'm only two generations removed from immigrants. My father, uncle, and aunts couldn't speak English when they started grade school. This indoctrination was aimed at my kind. And that's how I see this whole "teach the classics" feeling--it's a movement to indoctrinate the young, this time into the adult, narrow, college-educated world.

Fight it, kiddos! Read a YA novel! Read a couple! It's a new genre, only thirty some-odd years old. It hasn't been accepted by the grown-ups yet. It's new, and it's yours. Sure, some of it stinks. But, you know what? Some adult literature stinks, too. So do some of the classics. Don't let that bother you. Seek out the best of your genre and enjoy it. Don't let the man tell you what to read.


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