YA literature: It doesn't have to save to matter

Pretty much everyone who writes, reads, and loves young adult literature was dismayed to read a truly bizarre editorial last week in the Wall Street Journal. The gist of it: that YA literature is too dark, foisted on teens by greedy publishers, and in all likelihood, a form of child abuse. (You can read it here, if you wish.)

It didn't take much time at all for the big names in the business to rally a spirited defense on Twitter. For one thing, not all YA lit is dark. And for another, the lives of many teens is filled with the darkness depicted in books. These books remind kids that they're not alone. (You can view it here under the #YASAVES hashtag.)

I didn't jump into the debate for a couple of reasons.

First, my novel isn't yet out. Who am I to say anything when Libba Bray is out there? Second, I've written columns for MSN criticizing children's television--at least the stuff aimed at tweens. Had I been too general in my critique?

After a bit of soul-searching, I decided my criticism of children's television stands. Rather than claiming the the shows were too violent and dark, I argued that many of them are formulaic constructs that normalize relational aggression--the kind of nasty, undermining talk that makes children like my own feel worthless when they're in school.

Also, and this is important: There's a huge difference between television and publishing, at least at this point. You can't turn on your TV and find hundreds of shows to choose from. You can walk into a good bookstore or library and find that many choices. This is because television economics differ wildly from book economics. If a TV show isn't worth millions, it isn't made. Not all books have to be blockbusters, though. This will remain true long as we have editors who have criteria for publishing beyond "how much money will this make." And in all my years of attending conferences, and from the dozens of editors I've heard speak, I've only heard one--ONE--talk about the importance of money above all other criteria.

So in this case, the Wall Street Journal got it exactly backward.

That said, I've come to believe we're not making quite the right case in defense of YA and other children's literature.

I have no doubt that young adult fiction saves people. Jay Asher, Ellen Hopkins, Courtney Summers, Holly Cupala, Justina Chen, Lorie Ann Grover ... the list of people who write gritty, heart-wrenching books about real heartache is endlessly long (and longer than just people I happen to know).

But saving people isn't the sole or highest purpose for story, even if it is a result we should celebrate. We write stories for so many reasons: to entertain, to help people understand the human experience, to convey some notion of Truth, to explore a really cool idea, to give someone a chance to live in a different world.

For even the youngest readers, good stories are a window: onto ourselves and others, onto ideas and experience.

Some of these windows open onto dark places. Where the Wild Things Are is about anger, and how you can feel it and return home when you're ready to safe emotional harbors. What's remarkable about this book is the way, in so few words, it conveys that complicated and terrifying idea to small children.

That's what a good story does, I think. It takes us on an emotional journey. Sadness, despair, terror, hopelessness ... the can all be aspects of our lives, particularly when we are relatively powerless teens trying to make our way in the world. But these aren't the only emotions. Love, desire, laughter ... these matter, too. They matter just as much.

For as long as publishing with integrity exists, and I define that as publishing with an eye toward art as much as an eye toward commerce, I think this has to be our aim as writers.

We're not setting out to save people as much as we are toward crystallizing and reflecting human experiences, so that we can all understand this brief journey better. This is what art does. This is why it's important, and why, when we're looking back at history, we often use art and other creations to understand the values and world view of the people who lived elsewhere and otherwise.

And that is the most egregious thing about the Wall Street Journal editorial (besides the harsh attacks on specific books) ... the notion that children don't deserve art, that children don't deserve Truth.

As inheritors of the world we adults have messed up, our children do deserve the truth, perhaps more than any of us.

Even the best-loved children live lives in which they have no power, no privacy, little opportunity to make independent choices. They should know that others know how it feels, and that with courage, effort, and skill--the choices that drive stories toward their conclusions--they will rise up and be the heroes of their lives. They're going to need to do that someday. This is how they'll save themselves.

Which is why we need to keep writing.