Young Adults vs. Children: Age Makes a Difference in Interpretation
There is a measurable difference between children and teenagers and how they think; and while I lack the scientific data and figures to prove this point with hard-hitting and reliable evidence, I have the anecdotes and life experience to persuade you.
When I was in fourth grade, reading Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I would constantly pretend to be the main characters, the Baudelaire Orphans. I readied myself for VFD members to steal me away from my bed, under the dark cloak of night. My cousin and I spent countless days wearing blankets as dresses and my mom’s thick glasses from the 1980’s, recreating the life and times of Violet and Klaus Baudelaire. We did research and spied on neighbors and strangers whom we believed to be in cahoots with Count Olaf. We believed that a certain reality existed for these characters; for storytelling to children is a wonderful and imaginative thing, children are so trusting in the world, they have no reason to expect a story-world is complete fiction. Teenagers are smarter than that.
When I was sixteen, reading Suzanne Collins’ dystopian masterpiece, The Hunger Games, I did nothing at all: I didn’t dress up as Katniss (beside for movie premiere purposes) and I definitely did not believe the happenings in The Hunger Games world took place elsewhere in our world. Gone were my days of taking what was printed on the page as truth. As a high schooler, my interactivity included taking the time to think about how war and poverty were represented in the novel versus real-life. My friends and I even discussed the differences between dystopian regimes and real-life dictatorships over brown-bagged lunches in the cafeteria. I also ruminated on Peeta’s name being very similar to one of my favorite sandwich breads, the pita, which was hilariously smart because Peeta, the character, is a skilled baker.
While both novels affected me in different ways, they both had an impact on my way of thinking and going about my day. Did I think more about words and good vs. evil after reading ASOUE? Of course I did, even as a child I recognized those themes. Did I understand why Katniss and her District wanted an uprising against a powerful and restrictive government all the while thinking about why 16-year-olds have a hard time letting their true feelings come out when faced with questions about relationships and friendships and general hardships? Sure thing.
No matter what we read, books have an effect on us. We vicariously learn lessons and make mistakes through well-crafted characters. When writing, authors make meticulous choices to teach us lessons and make intellectual points using symbolism, character traits, and sentence structure. To put it plainly, Young Adult literature mirrors the real world and that is because authors make it so. Teenagers are smart enough to see novels as a mirror, not blatant fact.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Teens Still Understand Real-World Application
Even dream worlds have the ability to mirror reality and teens realize this. Many popular books are fantasies, Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and even worlds like Veronica Roth’s Divergent, are all places we will never have the ability to encounter outside of a novel setting. But in those fantasies we find a certain reality. Behind the magic, A Great and Terrible Beauty is about fitting in at school and dealing with distressing familial circumstances. All the while the protagonist searches for a significant other and welcomes the awkward and exciting encounters that come along with romance. Divergent shows the consequences of violence on a world that is so used to oppression. All the while the protagonist deals with falling in love for the first time. Love, friendship, responsibilities, family, the first blossom of romantic “crushes:” these are truths we all know because literature mirrors life and life mirrors literature.
But beyond fantasies, YA does its best work mirroring the real world teens interact with every day. Teens grow up in broken households, bogged down by the system and left to dabble in drugs and alcohol as a release; we find similar themes explored in the novels by Sarah Dessen. Teens feel left out or afraid to speak up, scared that their opinions will be laughed at or their words mocked. We find similar instances explored in Stephen Chobosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teens may feel so alone or misunderstood that they weigh the options of suicide. Teens may lack an emotional connection with their boyfriends or girlfriends and seek physical intimacy as a stand-in; teens are all too uncertain of what they want in a partner and if they really need a significant other to be happy. These emotions are explored in the novels of Jay Asher and John Green, respectively, and in the masses of YA Books that line the shelves of bookstores and libraries. These feelings are real. Just like dystopian novels bring to light the evils of our current society and state, contemporary YA fiction unmasks the dark reality that many teens face.
David Levithan shared a quote with The Atlantic that sums up these feelings in the publication’s article on successful habits of YA authors,
“’The defining characteristic of YA literature is emotional truth,’ Levithan writes in an email. ‘Even if we’re not the same as the characters we read, they are all dealing with things—issues of who they are, who they should be, what they should and shouldn’t do—that we all deal with, in their own ways. With The Hunger Games, even if we will never be in Katniss’s shoes, the decisions she makes make emotional sense to us—even when she makes the wrong ones.’”
As Levithan states, no matter the subgenre, YA speaks to universal feeling and “emotional truth.” No matter your age, gender, sexuality, race, education-level, or religious preference, YA speaks to feelings of identity and uncertainty and can help a reader wrestle with real problems and solutions.
This is where censorship comes into play. We know that YA matters to teens and can help them cope with life’s struggles by seeing a loved character good or bad choices when faced with the same sticky situation. YA unveils an imperfect society and works through its downfalls and depths. So, if everyone accepts that YA mirrors back our own society and helps us overcome our mistakes, why is YA literature one of the most represented genres on the American Library Associations’ List of Most Challenged Books? Why have all the books I have mentioned previously been banned or challenged in schools? If YA is so crucial to read so teens can understand themselves and those around them, why do certain titles and themes fall victim to censorship?
Teens are not like I was when I was a fourth grader, reading of good and evil for the first time, and taking every sentence as a certain truth. When they read of Charlie’s misfortunes in Perks and how he suffers bouts of depression and experiments with drug usage, they are not going to go out and replicate his every move. Teens can approach literature with a cautious and close-reading eye. When I was a teen and my librarian told me I could not check out The Perks of Being a Wallflower because it was banned from circulation, I went out and bought it anyway. And seeing Charlie, a character I could connect with because of mutual shyness and awkward oration patterns, fighting to find friends and fit in and stand out as a unique freshman in high school, while I was working through the same things, helped me feel sane and secure.
So, wherein lies the problem? Why do adults not want teens to read books marketed to fit their own age group? Why can teens read Romeo & Juliet, a play of violence, lust, and lies, but have Looking For Alaska banned, when it also deals with secrets, attraction, and death? Does it have something to do with the historical distance, the use of high (almost unexplainable Shakespearian) language, and the inexplicitness of the sex scenes? Does it have to do with tax dollars? Do parents feel like they have a right to choose the novels being taught and borrowed in schools because their money funds the purchases and salaries in the school system? Does it have to do with moral value? Is it so simple that parents do not want their teens reading about drugs, sex, and violence because they believe their teen will mirror those actions?
If it is the latter, take it from a girl fresh out of her teen years, who spent the better parts of her tween and teen life reading all of the novels mentioned above: books do not make us more likely to experiment with drugs and sex or to commit violent acts. They make us think about those choices and how they may be hurting friends or family or classmates. If you don’t take it from me, take it from our newly appointed writer, Valerie, she’s fourteen and has been reading YA since she was in fourth grade. YA has made her feel uncomfortable at times, but comfort does not teach. Minds need to be stretched, and YA does that, Valerie is ready to read novels of all kinds, even “high literature.” Reading about sex, drugs, and violence can be hard, but these things exist in the real world, and it’s better to be prepared to handle uncomfortable situations with grace than with ignorance. YA preps teens for the world, good or bad.
I don’t think I’ve ever finished a critically acclaimed YA novel-that had depictions of violence or sex or party scenes-where the main character was happy about all of the choices they had made or faced no consequences for a “unsavory act.” These fictional teens deal with death and jail and expulsion or other social consequences as a result of their actions, and we, the intelligent and informed readers, learn from those acts.
Instead of banning books, I propose that we take the time to educate teenagers on the themes represented in controversial novels. We should talk to them about preventing suicide, or engaging in safe sex or abstinence, or waiting to drink until they are of age and sound mind, or the bad effects of drug use. Leaving teens in the dark about censored subjects will only make them less prepared for situations in the real world; banning books hurts more than it helps.
|—||Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray|
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