The Purpose of YA – Part 2 of a series (continued from “Why do I Read?”)

Gary Paulsen’s quote starting with “Why do I read?” from my last post is one I’ve shared many times, either in my classroom, at school literacy events, poetry open mics with kids, and extracurricular book clubs. I have asked kids to perform it on a YouTube video for a presentation and even had a colleague who had kids write and perform their own versions of poems answering this very question.

As adults, most people might say we read for information – I read the news, opinions, the weather, sports. I read for my job. I read e-mails because I have to. I read to be informed, to feel happy, to feel satisfied, to feel aware. I read perhaps to not sound stupid among my peers, or to in fact sound extra smart around them. I read to feel inspired or to relax.

For young kids and middle-grade kids, we want them to become literate adults; therefore, we have them practice. Also, I think parents may also use reading as a time to bond with their child, and for teachers, reading is a great opportunity to teach character, empathy, compassion, and self-awareness–especially about issues regarding race, religion, illness, gender, sexuality, etc.

Walter Dean Myers built on this idea here when he discussed the severe consequences of underrepresenting certain groups of people in children’s books:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

But for young adults, the adults’ answers and children’s answers to “why do I read” don’t easily apply. The YA genre has changed drastically since I was a young adult (see new adult here). With the advent of dystopian mania (i.e. Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) and romance/death/melodrama (John Green everything) turned into their inevitable multi-billion dollar film franchises, it’s easy to become skeptical and perhaps a bit disenchanted with the purpose of what young adult literature has evolved into. However, Gary Paulsen’s quote, I think, captures the purpose of what reading for young adults should be: “I read for strength to help me when I feel broken, discouraged, and afraid. I read when I’m angry at the whole world. I read when everything is going right. I read to find hope.” If that doesn’t capture the essence of YA books, I don’t know what does.

In Sherman Alexie’s “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” he builds on this more eloquently:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This idea of teenagers bleeding is an important one – because they are. Not every single one, and not always the ones you would think, but growing up is hard. I write all this to say that YA authors and YA consumers have a responsibility to critically examine what this genre has become, what young adults ‘need’ to read based on Alexie’s argument, and yet how much of what has become popular in YA theoretically meets this criteria but unfortunately sends damaging and destructive messages. This thought will be built upon with my upcoming post on All The Bright Places, and I’m going to do more reading/reflecting on what does it mean to ‘ban books’ or censor kids from content that we as adults deem isn’t ‘appropriate.’

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