Monday, June 6, 2011

little nudges, big effects: thoughts on #YAsaves

If you been within two feet of a computer this weekend, you've undoubtedly already read about or participated in the massive #YAsaves thingie that erupted in response to this Wall Street Journal article deploring a perceived Grittiness Overload in YA. YA, the article implies, ought to be cleaner, safer— you should be able to grab it off the shelf like one of those "eating right" TV dinners and be sure you won't be getting more than 6 grams of swear words and 300 calories of Depravity.

A huge number of readers and writers have already written eloquently about how YA literature has given them empathy, hope, a lifeline, or just good readin'.

One thing INTERN finds interesting about the whole ferschnuzzle is the question it raises about the role parents should (or shouldn't) play in vetting what their kids read.

INTERN is speaking as a person whom YA explicitly *didn't* save—but not for the reasons listed in WSJ.

In INTERN's case, INTERN's mom didn't stop her from reading YA books because they were too gritty. INTERN was shamed out of reading them because in her (rather snooty when it comes to reading) family, YA books weren't considered "real books". She remembers hiding her copies of Speak and Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging out of sheer embarrassment. Most of the time, she stuck to "adult" books just to be safe. To this day, INTERN feels a prickle of self-consciousness when she lingers in the YA section, and not just because she feels (looks?) like a creepy hobo with spiders in her hair.

INTERN graduated straight from Wolves of Willoughby Chase to House of Leaves. At fourteen, she could give you all sorts of tips on living in a boxcar, but had no idea what it meant when her best friend started cutting. At fifteen, she could talk your ear off about post-colonialism, but was as awestruck when one of the prefects at her school came out as if he'd declared he was a Martian. A little dose of YA—gritty or otherwise—would have been instructive in both situations.

Until the #YAsaves thing happened, INTERN had never given much thought to the ways in which her parents influenced her reading. But now that she thinks about it, the influence was there, and it was huge. The attitudes you absorb about certain kinds of books when you're a kid—whether it's "those books are too hard for me" or "those books aren't worth reading"—those attitudes really do end up shaping you as a reader, and by extension, as a person. When you go to a library with a kid and comment on her selections, you send a strong message, whether it's validation or disdain. Those messages don't just dissolve into thin air.

So INTERN really, really wants to know: Did your parents or parent-figure(s) vet your reading material? What kinds of things did they push you towards? What did they push you away from? How did your parents' attitudes about books and reading influence your own?


  1. Fortunately, my mom never really influenced my reading habits. I got to choose whatever book I wanted from the library or bookstore. Sometimes she'd come home with a new book for me and the genre could range from middle-grade when I was in fourth grade to adult books when I was in eighth grade. If I liked it, I liked it. If I didn't, I didn't. She made sure I had a wide variety of books to read and during my teen years, I stuck to YA and haven't really strayed since. I've read the classics and adult books, but I still always find myself back to the YA section.

  2. Usually parents who try and control their kids' reading material fall into one of two camps - those who honestly don't know their kids will just find somewhere else to read a book they've vetoed, or those who know this happens and decide the only way to make their kids obey is by obliterating every trace of the forbidden books from existence because if it's not appropriate for their kid, well any other decent parent is going to agree so there's no problem, right?

    (I think that may be the longest run-on of my life...)

    What irks me about the WSJ article is that it blatantly ignores all of the books that disprove its assertion of "only dark" YA books filling a store. Ally Carter, Meg Cabot, etc, write stuff that doesn't fit into the dark category AT ALL. But, of course, mentioning that there are alternatives to blood sucking cutters dilutes the illusion.

    (Is Intern British? I don't even remember seeing Angus on a US shelf when it came out.)

  3. It cracks me up that you know a lot about living in a boxcar from your reading experiences as a child. That could really come in handy, I think. Anyway, I don't remember there being any books that were YA when I was a kid -- well, maybe the Outsiders and that Judy Blume book about having your period. I liked the Outsiders, but the Judy Blume book struck me as likely to contain a lesson, and I wasn't having that when I was a teen. Otherwise, there were books in the kid section, which didn't have sex in them, and books in the adult section which, if you were lucky, did. My parents didn't censor anything, and they didn't condemn anything. They just took me to the library and left me there. When I got to college, I was sorry that nobody had mentioned to me that there were good books by people other than Leon Uris and James Michener, and so I was at a disadvantage for a couple of years while I caught up with my better educated peers. But maybe that's what college is for.

  4. I don't think my parents ever told me I couldn't/shouldn't read a particular book. They were incredibly disengaged in my book selection process, actually. That's not to say they weren't aware of what I read, or that we didn't talk about the books afterward... I think they just trusted me. What a concept, huh?

  5. Josin: yeah, that article overlooked all kinds of YA!

    INTERN grew up in Canada, and "Angus" was popular with her friends around grade 10.

  6. Early on, my parents definitely guided my reading. From Dr. Seuss to Boxcar Children to Nancy Drew... And oh yeah, Tale of Two Cities when I was in 3rd grade. (Ambitious much?) They used to give me these Great Illustrated Classics, which were abridged big-print versions of Robinson Crusoe and Les Miserables, etc. I ate those up! And then I alternated them with "normal" stuff like Goosebumps.

    Come middle school, most of my reading was either for school, or FANFIC. (Dun dun DUUUUN.) Fanfic was my first introduction to "smut," and my parents had no idea. There were no parental controls back then -- just my own sense of shame/guilt -- b/c internet was relatively new (in 1996). I also went in chat rooms where strangers sometimes wanted to have virtual sex; peer-reviewed blogs by teens, many of whom were cutting; and I participated in an online role playing game about solving murder mysteries. Do you think all those "depraved" activities messed me up for life? (Spoiler: Nope.)

    My parents didn't have to censor me -- in my reading or anything else -- because they had already established a strong foundation for my physical and emotional health. They were involved but not (contrary to a few angst-ridden diary entries) overbearing. They asked questions but didn't pry. They made themselves available to me for questions, and when I came and asked, they answered honestly. They trusted and respected me, and thus I did the same to them.

    Truthfully, they did look down on some of the "commercial" books, but they never said I couldn't read them. Books were the one thing I was ALWAYS allowed to buy -- other toys and things I had to earn with good grades or helping out around the house/office -- so reading was like a treat for me.

    Generally speaking, I think my parents had a great mindset about my reading, and I think that plays a big role in why I'm such an avid reader (and an aspiring writer) today.

    // end life story (sorry!)

  7. My parents didn't limit what I read at all. In fact, I was reading some romance novels when I was fairly young and had nothing else to read.

    But to be quite honest, I had a very good childhood. I was a well adjusted, smart high schooler who graduated with good grades and who never got into trouble. Books, and my mom's willingness to let me read what I wanted when I wanted, helped prepare me for what I would face later down the road.

  8. Annerb and I mirror one another pretty closely. My mother read to me until I could read on my own and then pretty much got out of the way. Oh, don't get me wrong, she asked about what I was reading but she didn't really put any limitations on me. And amazingly, I didn't read anything that traumatized me.

    Now that I'm a mother myself, I've done the same things to a point. When my teen was younger, I'd read books first to weed out the ones with too much adult content, but those were the "adult" or higher teen books. Now he and I read many of the same books. He understands the beauty and power of words to describe the face of the world, both lyrical and profane. His punishments usually come in the form of me taking away reading privileges.

    There are still some things I refuse to share with him for reasons of content, but I'm glad that he loves to read and has such broad tastes.

  9. I had friends who tried to shame me out of the YA section. They wanted to read Wuthering Heights and I wanted to read Judy Blume. I'm glad I kept reading YA.

  10. Nope. Zero censorship in my VERY conservative household. I knew what my parents believed, what I believed, and I read what I liked. No questions. My mom and dad had the good sense to know better than to squash my reading habit (addiction). Neither of them affected a lit fic attitude and both held the opinion that reading is a leisure activity. So read what's pleasurable to you.

    YA has certainly gotten edgier since my day but that doesn't mean there is nothing out there for kids who aren't ready for darker themes, for one thing. For another, if they aren't ready, not emotionally equipped, whatever you want to call being exposed to material that is above their maturity level, they won't like it. They read and enjoy what they're ready to handle.

    I haven't had to confront "issues" as a parent, since my first grader only reads middle grade books, but right now, I don't think there is anything out there that he would enjoy that he isn't ready for. I don't anticipate that changing as he grows up. So really, it's up to me to recognize that he isn't the little boy I remember when he graduates to harder material.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. My parents did not vet my reading choices, but they did influence them—inadvertently. As a young teen, I read whatever I could get my hands on. Since I couldn’t drive, and the library was beyond biking distance, I read what was already available to read in our ‘study’. That included everything from Charlie Brown comic books to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to James Bond paperbacks, and once, I’m reluctant to admit, my mother’s old Psychology textbook from college (THAT was an education, and boring).

    Looking back, I’m amazed my love of reading wasn’t irreparably damaged by the second edition of I’m OK, You’re OK. I would have been delighted to have some solid YA material to wade through, and I do believe if I had run across something that made me uncomfortable, I would have put it down all on my own. I also don’t think I would have tried to ‘imitate art’ by suddenly acting out in dark ways or taking my martinis shaken, not stirred.

    As I got older (and mobile) my reading list expanded quite a bit, and I went through phases of gobbling up classic literature, self-help, philosophy, fantasy, romance, mystery, and women’s fiction. Each of these genres felt a part of me during those phases, and I’m sure I gravitated toward them for a reason.

    As a parent, I do think it’s OK (and even important) to talk to your kids about what’s so accessible today and to help guide their choices like you might for certain movies or music. That is a parent’s prerogative—they know their child best. Who they don’t know best, though, is everyone else’s child. And there are a lot of YA readers out there.

  13. Nope, my parents never censored what I read. Granted, I spent most of my time with Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley Twins, and the Babysitter's Club. I wasn't pushing the envelope.

    Interestingly enough, one of my middle school teachers gave us a book report assignment where everyone (boys, too) had to read a romance novel. My mom got concerned and came with me to ask a librarian what I should read. The librarian, whom I'd known since I could read, steered me toward the Sunfire line. She said they were good reads, good characters, minus the smut of a grown-up romance novel.

    She pointedly steered my mom *away* from VC Andrews. Which, of course, made me borrow them from any of my school friends who had their own copies.

  14. My parents censored what I read until high school mainly with the reading-is-a-waste-of-time and all fiction-is-silly-make-believe. Fortunately my aunt gave us shelves worth of Readers Digest Condensed Books and suddenly my world exploded. They might have been outdated stories, and condensed, but I was free to read them all because they were Reader's Digest approved. :D

  15. "Censor" would be the wrong word. I was never told not to read anything, as far as I can remember. Yet my parents, and particularly my father, approved much more of "classics," and so I read "classics" throughout my adolescence, enjoying the faint cloud of approval that lingered over those books, but not others.

  16. My mom was a voracious reader and my dad NEVER reads, but they never paid much attention to exactly what I was reading, even though they are pretty darn conservative. My mom was just happy I was reading, I think!

    When I was younger, my grandma really encouraged my reading habit. She had a lot of books and took me to the library every week when I stayed with her during the summers. I don't think she ever censored what I read, though.

  17. My mother worked in a library. I spent many summer days in that library, browsing the shelves and reading whatever looked interesting. For a while I went on a kick of reading books that were traditionally banned from schools, because I wanted to see what the fuss was about. My parents never had a problem with it. :)

  18. My parents were so glad that I was reading they never paid much attention to what it was. Of course, when I was a YA; Oliver Twist was YA Fiction. I raised my daughter the same, suggesting books like "Lord of the Flies" and "Catcher in the Rye". Of course now when she is a full fledged adult and I told her to read the Steig Larsen Trilogy, she called me after the first one and said Mom, should you be reading this kind of stuff. Go figure!

  19. Before I was old enough to buy my own books I showed the books I wanted to my parents who always bought them for me. (Thus opening the doors to a hard-core book addiction.) I got shamed out of some books by my (gently) jeering mother. She also pointed me in certain directions---Mary Stewart, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie---but overall I read voraciously and indiscriminately. I was prepared to both run away and live at the Met and to help a friend with Lupus.

  20. It appears that I transitioned here from some alternate universe. I didn't read fiction as a teen — except for school assignments — and I didn't know anyone who did. We didn't even put forth the polite fiction that we read the articles in Playboy.

    Maybe it's because I was male. Maybe it's because carrying papyrus scrolls around was a nuisance (hey, it was better than those clay tablets my parents had to deal with).

    Anyway... are books really all that influential for teens when compared with movies and TV? Or even music?

  21. My parents recommended books they enjoyed, and otherwise let me read whatever I liked.

    I also think that if you water down YA, young people will read books written for adults. I learned more than I needed to know about sex, violence and dark themes simply from having free run of the adult sci-fi fantasy at the library (it was a small town, and there was no YA section).

  22. I grew up in a foreign country where my only way to get books in English (my native and preferred language to read in) was Basically I had an account, my Dad's Credit Card number and complete freedom. I never abused this provilege financially because that's just always how it worked with my parents and me (They told me to use my own judgement regarding how late was too late to stay out and I was always home by midnight-ish) but I did probably read some things that I shouldn't have been reading that young and that I wouldn't have been if my parents hadn't trusted me so much and been involved in choosing books for me. But then again when my parents did try to get involved (with the exception of when they bought me Harry Potter, but HP is kind of the exception to everything) I kind of withdrew, when I was a kid reading was a very private thing. When my brother started to read my old books and tell the plots to my parents excitedly it made me squirm because he was taking something that felt like it was mine and sacred and secret and not meant to be shared with PARENTS. Which is funny because I am now known among friends person who gushes about books and loans them out freely JUST so she can have people to talk to about them. And who reads shameful YA by the bucketload without bothering to try to hide the bright pink Meg Cabot covers on the tube while wearing a very dire black suit.

  23. My parents always encouraged reading, since before I could actually do it myself. My dad had read the full Lord of the Rings trilogy to me and my sis by the time I was in second grade. When I hit junior high, I was such a bookworm that when I'd get in trouble, I didn't get grounded - my punishment was no non-school reading for a week. Around that time they also steered me away from genre books. I read a lot of adult lit, too, but when I was reading instead of doing my homework, it was usually a sci-fi or fantasy novel. So I had to read a certain number of "regular" books in between. (At least when I was at home. Sorry, Mom.)

    I write YA genre fiction now, mostly, and I still have a bit of an inferiority complex about it. Studying writing in college certainly didn't help with that, either. Attempting to workshop a genre story woulda gotten me laughed out of class.

  24. I read a little bit of everything as a child and teen, and the only time my mom tried to butt in was when there was an attempt to ban Judy Blume in our town. (!) But then I showed her the Judy Blume I had read, and she decided those ladies were idiots and never bothered me again.

  25. Damn near the only thing my parents ever did right was providing me with whatever I wanted to read and never trying to stop me. My father also read many if not most of the books I read and chatted with me about them, but not in any "teachable moment" sense. At the time I sincerely believed he just enjoyed whatever books I happened to leave lying around.

    It's conceivable he may have had some heretofore unsuspected wisdom. *g*