YA saves: Missing the boat

A life preserver, or toroidal throwable person...

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By now most people have read or at least heard about the article in the WSJ, if you  haven’t then you’re not missing much. Just a very poorly written, researched and completely out of touch piece which rehashes the old, tired and false argument that kids reading books with violence, sex, tough issues etc. will be prone to act out these things in real life, or something like that. The article also included a lot of ridiculous examples and opinion thrown in for good measure. As Roger Sutton stated, “Why does the author have to reach back FORTY YEARS to talk about “dark YA” when our last big go-round on the topic was just fifteen years ago?” Just one of many examples that show that this piece was obviously thrown together by someone who had little knowledge of the subject or was just guilty of lazy, bad, journalism, or perhaps really believes the falsehoods she espoused— take your pick.

The response from the twitter  world and those that make up what has been called the “YA community” was swift and exacting. (initially myself included.) Dropping laser guided tweets which exploded loudly over all of twitterdom.  A hashtag was born called #yasaves. Telling of how YA books save lives, along with personal stories of the impact of books for teens. Hey, I’m all for that. I’ve been writing realistic fiction (YA) for over ten years now. Talked to thousands of kids all over the country about these same issues. Heard the stories of abuse, rape, suicide, murder, purposeful neglect, starvation, being sold  by a parent for drug money—sadly the list goes on . . .

Like many other YA authors, I’ve seen first hand the impact that these books can have on a young person’s life.  This is why we write, why we criss-cross the country and speak. Why we do what we do. But this is not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this because I think the response to this ridiculous article in the WSJ is now like dropping a nuclear bomb on an ant. It has been non-stop/over the top.  I think it is wonderful to share passionate stories of how books have helped, healed and saved. But did we really need this article as a lightening rod? Aren’t we giving this horrible piece of journalism a lot more credit than is due? The author of the WSJ article is a very easy target, painting a giant X on her back for all to shoot at but what about the more important targets that no one really seems to want to talk about?

I am probably in the minority on this but I don’t think this lone article will have much effect on Young Adult literature or the ability of those who want to read it, to do so. It is just another uninformed (willful or not) voice thrown out into the vast online ether like many others who shout; “listen to me even though I don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about.”

I don’t think this article sets “us” back, whoever “us” is. I think what sets us back is the lack of YA books with diverse characters being published. Not that they aren’t being written. What sets us back is a publishing industry (with very few exceptions) that is content to stay in the 20th century, or even the 19th century. Whitewashing covers to placate the masses that have moved far beyond those old racially insensitive business models. What sets us back is not promoting books that aren’t seen by the gatekeepers as overtly  “black” with traditional themes.

What sets us back is the lack of outrage over what “we” (whoever we is) should really be getting outraged over. The fact that there are still racial quotas in the soon to be extinct brick and mortar “major” bookstores. I was told once by an editor that one such “major” store wouldn’t be carrying one of my books because they had already bought their allotted books with black characters in it.  #really?

What sets us back is the shameful lack of diversity seen in the winners of the Newbery and  Caldecott Awards. Time after time great books, authors and illustrators are passed over. Why? Where is the hashtag for that?

What sets us back is the shocking lack of racial diversity in editorial staffs, marketing, art directors, executives.  All of this begs the question, who and what is the YA community? And who do they represent? I don’t know. Am I a part of this community? Sometimes I feel I am, sometimes not. I do know they (we) are quite vocal and seem to galvanize over certain big issues. See last year’s #speakloudly hashtag. Last year I raised the same concerns, offering the opinion that while censorship is never good, the worst censorship comes from those who control what is and what isn’t actually published. Those who control what is stocked in the big chain bookstores. Those who decide what faces we see on book covers.

YA can definitely save, but it won’t if diverse books with real world issues don’t get into the hands of those that need them most. Shouldn’t YA have a chance to save everyone?


8 responses to “YA saves: Missing the boat

  1. Here, here, Jaime! Well said! It’s sad that nobody seems to get worked up over this sort of economic censorship which has been going on for YEARS, and today is worse than ever. Just who are these young adults we are supposedly selecting books for? Are they the teens we were ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, living in a world that only existed within a bubble? Has this mysterious Big Box Book Buyer that everyone bows down to and/or blames for this situation ever met a kid? Or a person of color?

    Unfortunately, a quote from Nancy Larrick’s 1965 Saturday Review article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” is still relevant today: “White supremacy in children’s literature will be abolished when authors, editors, publishers and booksellers decide they need not submit to bigots.”

    • Thanks so much K.T. you are spot on with your comment and that quote. It IS so sad that it is still relevant today. THIS is the discussion we should be having.
      I really appreciate your comments and support of my post!

  2. And, of course I meant to say “Hear, hear!” (although I am hoping people will find their ways here, here, too). –KT

  3. Thank you very much for reminding us that we (the consumers of YA – teachers, teens, & parents) need to take action beyond that sparked by one strike of lightning. In addition to the issues you’ve raised about the publishing and bookselling industry, I was also thinking of the issues we (teachers) face in the classroom every day.

    What books are “okay” to have on my classroom shelf? Which ones might I use in small group lit circles? How do I communicate with parents about the importance of books as mirrors to reflect individual kids’ lives and as windows to look out to the broader world?

    Teachers are often guilty of self-censoring their book choices out of fear of repercussions from the community (and a fear of jeopardizing their livelihood). Just as the YA community needs candid discussions about the books we need from the publishers, we also need candid discussions about books that are available in school and classroom libraries.

    Thanks for a powerful and thought-provoking blog post.

    • Thank you so much for your unique perspective as a teacher. You raised some very good questions that add a lot to this discussion. Yes, the more we can talk about these issues from as many different perspectives as possible the better. Thank you!

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