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A Guide to the World of Youth Literature & What You Can Do About It
by David Mills
You may be surprised, if you don’t keep up on these things, and few of us have any reason to, how tawdry and sometimes depraved are the kinds of books being offered to teenagers by the major publishers and bookstores, and even the schools. This is true especially of the books supposed in some way to describe “real life.”
Before I came across a short essay on what’s called “young adult literature” a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine that the books were more than mildly offensive, with a few news-making exceptions. (The popular Face on the Milk Carton describes the main character’s increasing intimacy with her boyfriend, utterly unnecessary to the story, with lines like “She could touch him in places she had never touched another human being.”) I was shocked, and I think of myself as someone who is not easily shocked, by the evidence of commercial depravity.
And these books sell in huge numbers, mostly, judging from the books on the tables at our local chain bookstore, to girls. So many books read by so many will have their effect, and it is not likely to be good.
I went to Barnes & Noble one evening to look at what they offered, and particularly what they were pushing by setting out on the tables in the central aisle, tables you have to pass to get to the children’s section at the back of the store. Of the fifty or sixty books on the two tables, none were overtly Christian and, as far as I could tell, none were implicitly Christian either.
There were no classics, not even modern classics like The Diary of Anne Frank or Animal Farm. The books were all fiction. There were no true-life stories, biographies, autobiographies (though most of the books I looked at were narrated as if they were autobiographies), histories, not even any sports stories.
They were mostly “problem books,” the problems usually being the typical teenage struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, vicious peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs, insecurity, and fear, though they are sometimes serious problems like sexual abuse and drug addiction. A few of the books are obviously “realistic,” of the sort whose cover copy emphasizes the problem it describes, and perhaps uses the words “realistic” or “gritty,” the rest more obviously fictional and apparently lighter.
About one-quarter dealt with supernatural subjects, especially vampires. Of the several hundred books on the shelves, from one-third to almost one-half had supernatural subjects, vampires dominating. Only a few of these were traditional fantasy stories.
“Real Life” Stories
I picked up a representative selection of the books intended to reflect “real life” and found a chair. The twelve books were a mixed bag, morally and otherwise. You could find something to enjoy and some lesson of value in almost all of them, but also something that undermines moral clarity and promotes one or more of several popular sins. They are not all simple-minded celebrations of hedonism, because often the real “real world” intrudes.
The first I looked at was Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, published last year, and a finalist for the National Book Award. It is narrated by a girl who was caught by her father at 13 having sex with an older boy and has to live with the reputation. She deals with the stupidity and viciousness of much of high-school life in a way most adults would recognize (with imbecile gym teachers, for example). Over the course of the book she comes to accept her lot, tough it out, and learn to be satisfied with her friends.
Another book, Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral, which won several awards, is narrated by a boy with cerebral palsy, who is assumed by everyone to have the mental age of a three-month-old. At the end of chapter two, he says:
There is one final bad-news punch line to my life. . . . It’s that I’m pretty sure that my dad is planning to kill me. The good news is that he’d be doing this out of love for me. The bad news is that whatever the wonderfulness of his motives, I’ll be dead.
It’s an unexpected pro-life statement. The narrator is given every reason to want to die, yet he wants to live. A “mercy killing” would be murder. Yet even with this unexpected moral lesson, the book offers a critical and unqualified description of family life—he sees everything because no one hides anything from him—as a forced collection of confused, uncaring, destructive, and self-centered people.
Ellen Hopkins’s Crank is narrated by a “good girl” from a broken home, whose absent father is an addict and a loser. While visiting him, she becomes a crank (or speed) addict, with all the degradation associated with that addiction.
She almost sleeps with the boy who introduced her to the drug, doesn’t, and writes how much she regrets not doing so. She eventually does, gets pregnant, goes for an abortion, thinks she feels the baby move, and, upsetting her mother, goes home to have and then to keep the baby. The last lines emphasize the nature of the addiction. She’s sitting with her baby but thinks: “Crank is more than a drug. / It’s a way of life. You can / turn your back. But you can / never really walk away. / The monster will forever speak / to me. And today, / it’s calling me out the door.”
Those were typical of the books on the youth reading table. On the table with the sign “Just for Kids” I found Hailey Abbot’s The Secrets of Boys. The front cover shows a girl in a bikini with a boy in a bathing suit pressing up against her from behind and nuzzling her neck.
The back cover describes the major characters, and includes this: “Zach: Sophisticated college boy, wise in the ways of French painting as well as other French things.” This was the worst of the books I sampled. The narrator, a girl, has the usual life problems of a teenager, at least the teenagers in these stories. She loses her virginity to Zach, and this is treated as part of growing up, of becoming a better, more mature person: someone assertive, confident, and clear-headed. At the end she leaves him when she realizes that she really loves an old friend with whom she shares her innermost thoughts and feelings.
I have been reading such books for almost twenty years, since our eldest was a little girl, either looking for books she could read (she was a voracious reader) or vetting books she wanted to read, which had usually been recommended by her friends at the Christian school she attended. “Real life” young adult fiction—I am summarizing a huge and diverse set of books, but I think accurately, the bad books far outweighing the good—conveys several destructive assumptions to the kids who read it.
• Kids have horribly difficult lives, even if they have every comfort and pleasure in the world. Their families are dysfunctional, their parents self-absorbed or distant, their peers cruel, and their schools Darwinian. The best parents may love their child, but they just don’t understand her problems (the main character is usually a girl). In some cases, though not all, added to these problems are bad skin and hair, and the like.
• Families are rarely “havens in a heartless world,” but a trial that for obscure reasons must be endured, though evaded if possible, on the way to adulthood. Some siblings are kind, but most are either unconcerned (if older) or annoying (if younger) or else an ally in resisting their parents, and some are their parents’ favorites. The child’s real family is her set of friends. In a few stories, the main character may admire someone else’s parents or family life, but almost never her own.
• No one understands them, the people in authority over them least of all. The authorities do not see what the child actually experiences, and the child has little or no hope they ever will, which makes their advice and guidance laughably useless. You will, however, find more sympathetic teachers in these stories than sympathetic parents, and many more wise teachers than wise parents.
• Kids are alone to handle their problems, though they may have friends to help, and sometimes a sympathetic but often powerless teacher. Even then, sometimes their friends and teachers fail them or turn against them. Trust is dangerous.
• Girls are strong but often cruel and manipulative; boys are soft and stupid, though they can be physically brutal. Many of the girls’ books include one kind and supportive male, though he is sometimes a homosexual or at least “sensitive.” Attractive boys are rarely trustworthy, though such a boy sometimes becomes devoted to the girl after he has slept with her, and she feels empowered in dropping him.
• Talking explicitly about bodily functions, especially menstruation, is a sign of maturity and realism. Doing so embarrasses parents, because they are not as open and natural, and by implication mature, as their children.
• Sexual activity is not governed by any form of morality, at least any morality that can be formulated as a rule or law. It is at best wise or unwise, not right or wrong. Social standards are irrelevant. No one saves herself for marriage, unless she will see the pointlessness of this by the end of the book.
• But giving up your virginity is still treated as somehow special, governed by feelings that giving it up to this person is, somehow, right and to that one wrong. Virginity is something to be treasured and given up only to someone for whom you have some kind of affectionate feelings. It’s a morality of a sort, but not one that gives the child any criteria by which to measure those feelings. (Virginity is defined in the Clintonian way, with other sexual behaviors treated as if they weren’t exactly sexual.)
• That said, other sexual encounters are not governed by even a vague morality, but simply by calculation of the pleasures and costs involved, if engaged in freely and at the appropriate age. Your body is to be saved or spent in much the same way you save or spend the money in your bank account. To the extent sexual activity involves an exclusive commitment to someone else, it is a tool to be used in getting or securing that commitment, though not a very good tool.
As a rule, sexual activity is mainly recreational. It ought to be “safe,” though safety is almost always defined as protection from disease and conception, and sometimes from relational complications or emotional harm (always underestimated).
Their Good Life
That describes in outline what these books teach about the teenage life, but they also teach a lot about the world in which teenagers live.
• The good life requires having the things you want, whether you want straighter hair or a boyfriend or a car of your own or just a higher opinion of yourself. The books assume that the wealthier you are, the happier you should be, except when some sentimental lesson about the real importance of friends or self-respect is being taught. Their blissfully unquestioned materialism is astonishing.
• Politics doesn’t exist, history doesn’t exist, high culture doesn’t exist. The main character may have a friend who’s involved in some charity or relief effort, or maybe even a political cause, or who reads a lot of difficult books, or who plays a musical instrument or writes poetry, but she (again, usually a she) is only narrative color. If a political cause is mentioned, it is almost certainly environmentalism.
• Business, if it is thought about at all, is greedy, rapacious, uncaring, and environment-destroying, and produces conformity and monotony. The main characters feel this despite their desire for luxury items. Wealth, and indeed everything needed even for the simplest life, just appears, except when the story is about a poor child or a middle-class child who became poor. Gratitude is not encouraged.
• There is no question that can be solved only by rigorous, disciplined thought. The kid who reads philosophy may be a “brain,” but he is not to be imitated. All questions can be solved by a teenager thinking like a teenager.
• God doesn’t exist for any practical purpose. If you believe he does, you may ask him to bail you out, but you would never think to follow his rules, because his rules are really your parents’ and society’s irrational standards, which will make you unhappy.
• Religion is always formal and impersonal and the parents’ thing. (Although, interestingly, some stories show a sneaking respect for Catholicism and its mysteries, though that respect may be expressed through a particularly notable hatred. Just try to find a wise old priest in one of these stories.) Spirituality can be really cool, though, especially if it’s Eastern or Native American.
• Nevertheless, youth should sometimes think about the ultimate questions, though no one ever seems to come to a conclusion other than high-school-level existentialism. Life is probably meaningless, but you can make your own meaning and create an authentic life by an act of will. Accept your limitations, don’t look for the big answers, don’t submit to tradition or authority, and do what feels most natural and right to you.
• The answer to the kids’ problems is always some form of growth and reconciliation, even resignation: of learning from the experience, accepting it, and getting tough enough to get through it. The answer is rarely any kind of heroism or self-transcendence.
• The hope presented in these books is one of two kinds: In the lighter, sillier books it is merely getting what you want, particularly a new boyfriend or better skin; and in the more serious ones it is surviving until college or adulthood, when you will finally be free to live in a world you want and to make yourself what you would like to be. The hope is never external or transcendent.
But these books are not absolutely free of a traditionally explicit and binding morality. They carefully observe the mainstream pieties. For example, taking illegal drugs is always bad, and smoking cigarettes is always bad. They may be forgivable, however, if indulged in as an act of independence.
Racism is most definitely always bad and always unforgivable, unless the racist has a Damascus Road conversion and turns into an apostle of quotas and reparations. “Sexism,” which includes recognizing any essential difference between the sexes, is not to be imagined, even though the books’ plots very often hinge on the differences between boys and girls.
If a good character belongs to a political party (not that this comes up often), he is always a Democrat. Pro-lifers (not that they come up often) are always unattractive, and seriously religious people always harsh and rigid, and ignorant of the real world and its complexities and ambiguities.
Making any sort of moral judgment is always bad, unless it reflects a mainstream piety, one of which is the wickedness of moral judgments. People who make any other sort of judgment are not attractive and lead lives the hero and the reader know they do not want to lead.
That is, I think, the vision of life, the “realistic” vision, these books present. Children must get along as best they can, and seize whatever small pleasures life gives them. The giggly way this vision is sometimes offered does not disguise how dreary and tawdry it is.
Why, then, are these books the way they are? Because they are meant to sell to teenagers, and to the people who assign books to teenagers, which is to say, public school teachers and public librarians.
They do sell very well, even in an age in which fewer and fewer children read. The vision they present must be the vision many children want to have, and the vision that many of their teachers want them to have. (This explains, I think, why so many books include a wise and sympathetic teacher who effectively undercuts the main character’s parents’ authority).
It is not hard to see why. These books—with some exceptions—appeal to the worst in every teenager. The child in these stories is a victim, and one allowed a great deal of self-pity, whose parents try to control her (it’s usually a her, as I said) but are out of touch and selfish to boot. She is in pain, but she knows better than anyone else what she needs, even if all she knows is that she does not need what her parents or her school are giving her. No one understands her, and her problems are almost always someone else’s fault.
These books provide an alternative story to the one by which a girl (or boy) is supposed to live, and gives authoritative approval, a kind of imprimatur, to her desire to rebel and do what she pleases. In other words, they appeal to the child’s vanity and pride, and except for the rare saint, even the most moral of children is vain and prideful and thus vulnerable to being twisted.
If such stories form the child’s imagination and behavior, as they undoubtedly do, the average contemporary young adult “real life” book is a dangerous book. Such books must be read, if they are read at all, carefully and critically. A child can learn from Crank much about the seduction of drugs and the shame of drug addiction, if that is a lesson a child needs. Few, I suspect, do. The child will even learn that sexual intercourse can have consequences, like babies that change your life (if you’re a girl, at least, for in the story she decides not to tell the father because he’s gotten married without telling her).
But to learn these lessons, if indeed he needs to learn them, the young reader will have to slog through a great deal of degradation, and some titillating soft-core sex scenes. The degradation cannot be good for the reader, bringing into his mind images of human suffering and degeneracy that do him no good but are not easily erased or forgotten. The effect of the soft-core sex scenes is obvious, likewise bringing images into his mind that do him no good but are not easily erased or forgotten.
The lessons do not justify the exposure, not least because a child can learn about the wages of evil from other, classic sources, which can teach him without sullying his mind. I can’t explain why, exactly, but the classic tales can deal with the same problems as the modern “problem books,” but at a prophylactic distance that provides intimate engagement without contamination. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped is a story of child abuse (though much more) that doesn’t leave the reader feeling that he has gotten too close, been too involved, in abusing a child, in the way the new books do.
Perhaps, and this is only a guess, because the classic works describe the events without the detail the problem books offer, the reader experiences vicariously what he ought to experience without too detailed and intimate a knowledge. When the hero in some Victorian thriller chases a criminal through a sewer, we are told enough about the dirt and stench to imagine the experience, while in a contemporary book the feces and waste would be graphically rendered.
Having said all this, there is another category of young adult books to which my criticism does not apply. I don’t know what to call it. Maybe “neo-classical secular.” This kind of book is morally serious and even traditional both in its morality and in its heroic ideal, in a way the average young adult book isn’t. The best examples are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, both huge bestsellers.
Rowling is a Presbyterian, and Pullman an atheist, but one who speaks a moral language much closer to the Christian language than that of the “real life” writers. His trilogy mixes some scenes of the crudest anti-Christian propaganda with some quite moving scenes of sacrificial goodness.
I think it significant that the sales of Rowling’s and Pullman’s books, as well as the continuing sales of C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkien’s, are so great. This suggests that not every child is satisfied with the self-centered, unheroic stories to be found in the young adult section. They are more realistic and more interested in reality—of “real reality,” if you will—than the makers of the “real life” books realize.
There is a great deal more to be said about these books, but let me offer a few suggestions for parents whose children may want to read them, if for no other reason than that other children are reading them.
First, do not assume, as I once did, that the average children’s or young adult book may be secular but is at least respectful of the moral law and of parental authority. It very likely is not.
Second, to the extent you can, vet your children’s reading, starting as young as possible. Ban anything that is outright seditious, and be prepared to enforce the ban against howls of protest that everyone else is reading it.
If the child really, really wants to read a book that is in some lesser way objectionable, you might let him read it, but discuss your understanding with him. I am actually not sure about this, simply because a talk can never erase the effect of a bad book. The story will be more compelling, and affect his imagination more deeply and lastingly, than your moral abstractions possibly can. He may trust you, he may believe you implicitly, but the story has still buried in his mind a dangerous image of the way the world is.
Third, do not be afraid to upset your child by telling him he can’t read something he really wants to. As I have told ours about movies they want to see but can’t: you will never be harmed by something you didn’t see. I have also told them that I have seen movies I now profoundly wish I hadn’t, because some images never leave you. I can think of one to which I was taken by a Baptist minister, which gave me more exposure to real evil than I needed. The effect is like a stain that can’t ever be completely cleaned.
Fourth, read to your child as much as you can. Read good books and books slightly too old for him. Use the books as a way to explore certain issues and questions with him as they come up in the books themselves. I fully realize how difficult this is, and myself have sometimes failed to do this, but reading to him is one of the very best things you can do for a child. Heaven knows the average school is not going to expose him to many of the classics, much less the great Christian works—and if they do, they’ll describe them in hostile or foolish ways that will prevent the child from reading them with an open heart and mind.
Fifth, immerse your child in the worship of the Church and every other activity that can shape his imagination as Christian because he acts it out. The greatest prophylactic against cultural infection is not a shield but his love for something better and greater and more heroic.
Something like the Christian story, in fact. This is the map you want to give him, the image of reality you want most profoundly impressed upon his brain, so his thoughts will run naturally upon it.
The young adult books I read startled me by how dreary they were, even when they were most chipper. The world they describe is ultimately a trivial and a tawdry and a boring one. There is much evil in them, but the evil does not frighten or challenge because the authors do not see it. The good in them is usually weak, tepid, ineffective, a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on, not a gallant knight on a glorious horse. The salvation in them is equally weak, more often resignation than transformation.
There is in them nothing like the young boy Jim Hawkins defying the pirates, or Frodo and Sam carrying the Ring up Mount Doom, or Sherlock Holmes sitting in a dark room waiting for the viper that will kill him if he hears it too late, or Mowgli preparing to face Sher Khan. There is nothing like the homely but desperate struggles of the family in Little House on the Prairie or the hard life of the people in Anne of Green Gables. There is nothing like the redemption of Scrooge.
This is the one great miscalculation the publishers have made. They sell their books by appealing to a child’s worst nature—his resentment, his self-pity, his anger—when they could have sold more by appealing to his desire for glory. Why read about the odious Zach, “wise in the ways of French painting as well as other French things,” when you can read about Odysseus, or Aeneas, or Aragorn, or even Harry Potter?
It is easy for us parents to worry about all the ways our culture has to corrupt our children and make them in its image. The average “real life” book tries to do so. A culture forms and reforms with enormous power. But we have God on our side, and God tells a better story. Even the great pagans told a better story.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.