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In defence of children and their literature

YA fiction. It’s a thing. Get over it. josefnovak33 Little Readers, CC BY-NC-SA

This is not the first response to writer and radio presenter Helen Razer’s recent piece on young adult (YA) fiction in the Daily Review, the latest in a trend to either shame adult readers who enjoy the genre, or diminish what YA books can offer. So why does this topic elicit strong emotions?

The line between adult and young adult fiction is becoming increasingly blurred. It seems there are more and more adults who are reading literature that was supposedly written for younger people.

Reasons why this is the case vary, as you would expect. Critics have pointed to the fluidity of “young adult” as a term, and to the connections adults still have with areas of adolescence. This shift in audience dynamics has also prompted criticism of both the YA genre – and its fans.

Razer focuses on what she identifies as the inability of children to respond critically to their literature. This inability means adults should not bother engaging with aspects of culture which are popular with children, particularly teenagers.

Melbourne blogger Danielle Binks describes Razer’s piece as “not witty criticism – it’s elitism and sexism”. In Binks’ opinion, responses that “bemoan” critiques of children and teenagers by discounting their agency, are essentially pointless. The reason for this is that the same kinds of articles will continue to be published, and this will likely be true.

But numerous responses are necessary for several reasons:

  1. To shame adult readers is an unnecessary endeavour. Who is to judge what someone gains from a particular story?
  2. These attitudes create an assumption, not that children are different to adults, but that they are inferior, and as adults we cannot learn anything from their culture.
  3. It assumes adult literature is superior and can offer more to readers than YA fiction, which is not always the case.
  4. Creates the wrong impression that children’s book authors have somehow taken the “easy option” by being a writer of children’s literature.

In a 1992 article in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Professor Perry Nodelman highlights the correlation between discussion about children’s literature, and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), a study of European attitudes towards Arabs and Asians, which positioned them as the “Other”. Nodelman writes:

Said’s words force us to face the uncomfortable conclusion that our attempting to speak for and about children in these ways will always confirm their difference from, and presumably, inferiority to, ourselves as thinkers and speakers.

When applying this description to young adults and their fiction, these presumptions can only be made by those who insist adult and child comprehension of a text be placed on the same scale. Children can then be viewed as inferior. In truth, comprehension happens in multiple ways. An assumed inferiority can also only be expressed by those who simply do not know the genre.

Typical criticism of YA fiction tends to include a focus on J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, and while the popularity of these books cannot be denied, they also make a convenient justification for dismissing an entire genre.

Razer was also critical of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, yet for an insightful discussion on what this series can offer, please watch Jennifer Byrne Presents: Books That Changed the World, Volume II.

Harry Potter and Twilight should not be exclusive representatives for the genre. The following YA list, while not exhaustive, gives a sense of the depth and maturity of its readers:

  • Steven Herrick’s By the River (2006), a verse novel about growing up in a small Australian country town. Herrick explores adolescent uncertainty, death, single parenthood, and self-discovery in a lyrical style.

  • Barry Jonsberg’s My Life is an Alphabet (2013), introduces 12 year-old Candice Phee, sensitive and funny, who is driven to “fix” the complicated adults she is surrounded by.

  • Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), the first of a quartet and adapted into a film released this year, presents a utopian/dystopian world where emotions, pain, disease, and war do not exist.

  • Allan Baillie’s Little Brother (1992), a story about two brothers, and the refugee experience. Set in Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, it is a powerful tale of freedom, and courage.

  • Darren Groth’s Are You Seeing Me? (2014), looks at family relationships, cancer and death, disability, and a siblings road trip across the Pacific Northwest of America.

To these can be added basically anything by Rainbow Rowell, who writes about first loves, modern relationships online, music, “outcasts”, sexuality, and body image, with humour and understanding, to illustrate some of the diversity and depth that exists within the genre.

To dismiss these YA books as simple because of an assumption their readers are not capable of processing complicated storylines denies the connections young adult readers will make for their own lives, as if childhood and adolescence are not complicated and meaningful. It also denies the skill of the authors.

Towards the end of Razer’s piece, she writes “there is real delight in the smile of the child”. The tone of this line, after previously dismissing the idea that children have any real capacity to critically understand their literature, feels condescending.

It springs to mind the image of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “innocent child” – who is vulnerable, inherently good, and immature. This way of thinking began to shift within children’s literature in the 19th century (an example being Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

If concerns about the lack of sophistication in YA fiction are genuine, then shouldn’t the focus be on calls for improving the genre? Instead, when the attention is on shaming adults for enjoying the books, or scorning the books for an apparent lack of complexity (without any suggestions for improvement), it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

It is easy to approach an area of popular culture with a particular agenda, and manipulate findings to make a point. What is more difficult is to look at something more deeply, absorbing various discourses. If that happens, it becomes clear that readers – children and adults – have much to enjoy and learn.

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