Fearful Preconceptions of YA Lit

As I review this particular assignment and post, my school is currently having the discussion over the books that we teach and why we teach what we teach. We question whether our job is to inspire and make life-long readers, or to teach morals and the accomplishments of outstanding writers. Often times we end up landing at both, that there does need to be a blending of the modern and the excellent (not to say that modern can’t be excellent, but there is not really a modern equivalent to Tolstoy or Dickens yet). This particular discussion that will take place in the following paragraphs, is one that our society is facing as well. It’s a literary and existential crisis of what we value as a society. The work below is something that will continue to evolve and take shape throughout our society.

The modern high school English class faces a bizarre challenge. Much like the evolutionary challenge in science, English has its own assault on academic thought. Books exploring new and different thoughts than the status quo are often viewed as dangerous, as they challenge preconceptions and highlight issues parents may not want their kids to be exposed to. In doing so, the “canon” in most school districts goes two directions: one is “white-washed” with the old, white, male authors that share a similar outlook on life; and the other is a forced sense of diversity that focuses on theme rather than breaking down plot mechanics and character development. In fear of “offending” people, or exposing them to taboo topics, adolescents are given a disservice by not exploring topics in a curriculum that are more relevant to them, with characters who experience the world like they do.

“Classics” are typically perceived as acceptable teaching material because they have stood the test of time. In the books and dramas nearly every American is assigned as some point, focus on obsession, race, and murder, but not sex, though there are frequent undertones of it in the classics that are taught. Romeo & Juliet explores the dangers of obsession and lust. Shakespeare utilizes dirty jokes, but as most people now do not actually understand his jokes, it’s not viewed as offensive because, after all, it is Shakespeare. To Kill a Mockingbird, which is still frequently challenged, takes on racial issues, major issues which we still face in the United States. Macbeth, again is ok because it’s Shakespeare, deals with a murderous man. These books are often difficult for modern students to connect with because of the time setting, and in Shakespeare’s case, his use of an unfamiliar English. The ideas of these books carry through with modern YA books. The interesting thing is that the censors who do go out and challenge books often “fail to view literature holistically… instead of evaluating the work as a whole” (Strothman 165). Molly Strothman’s article “Books That Inspire, Books That Offend” partially explores this concept of who actually challenges books and why. She continues to argue that the offenders see these as “dangerous to order and stability” (Strothman 165). This offers the idea that they support classics simply based on maintaining order. Therefore, Shakespeare, though a frequent use of “stabbing” jokes will not be challenged because his work is part of our literary order, thus maintaining academia’s status quo. Someone like Jason Reynolds may upset that order and stability. Challenging books on a portion, and not holistically is dangerous.

Every year, the American Library Association releases a top ten most challenged list. The books that frequently show up on it are not adult novels, but rather works directed towards elementary to high school aged kids. In fact, not one of the top ten most challenged books in 2018 was directed to adults (ALA). Some books are challenged for absurd reasons. Like Captain Underpants (which was the 3rd most challenged book in 2018) was challenged for “promoting disruptive behavior” (ALA). Though Captain Underpants is not the most academic text, it is a book that can at least hook a kid into reading. It’s an opportunity for kids to put down electronics and begin going down their own rabbit-hole of books.

The current American landscape has a difficult time discussing racial issues. According to the ALA, To Kill a Mockingbird is still one of the most challenged books in our culture, as it has violence and significant use of the N-word (ALA). Even though it uses language that is significantly offensive to at least one major demographic of society, it explains the danger of perceiving the world in a single-story format. Huckleberry Finn, which is almost entirely eliminated from American schools (though frequently considered one of the great American texts), is challenged for its use of the N-word. Though the word is used quite frequently, Mark Twain highlights Huck’s growth to learning the fallacies of racism.

Through these ideas of challenging a singular thing in a book, children and young adults are learning to perceive small offenses rather than understand the whole story. Both Huck and Mockingbird are more significant than the singular word choice. But as the narrative continues to challenge these books, more modern books that address major topics are banned and challenge for similar issues. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is challenged for racism, alcohol use, profanity, and sexual language. All of these things are items that young adults face all the time, even more so now than ever with increased use of social media, which is nearly impossible for parents to monitor their child’s entire usage. The book, instead, is about Arthur learning how to deal with these things. Like most YA books, Arthur is developing his own identity, as it is shaped by the world (or worlds) around him. It’s not about racism, but Arthur’s overcoming of racist ideas and stereotypes, much the same as Mockingbird or Huck Finn.

In the last ten years, new issues have arisen in YA Lit, which is also reflected in our society. The books featured on the most banned and challenged list have shifted to include more books with ideas of mental health and LGBTQ/gender identity issues. 13 Reasons Why appears frequently on the list over the last 5 years, especially with the book being turned into a popular Netflix show (ALA). In a study done by the Canadian Public Health Association that conducted suicide preventions program, showed that actually discussing suicide and the issues surrounding it reflected increased levels of empathy, better understanding of how to handle mental health, decreases in suicide, and increase in actual reporting of the issues, especially in females (Ploeg). Actively avoiding books that discuss suicide creates the narrative that mental health is a tabboo topic, thus creating a world that will not deal with the issues.

In my classes, and many other teachers classes that I know, students are directed to build their “opinions” around research, facts, and other information; in essence, they cannot just have an opinion, they need to have an informed opinion. But if the information is viewed as taboo, then the students may be less likely to explore it, or explore it in a way that they will not understand. 13 Reasons Why could be greatly misunderstood for glorifying suicide without a proper discussion to be had around the book. Therefore, if the book is viewed as taboo and dangerous, students are likely to go seek it out and explore it (without a proper discussion), as that’s what people do. We want what we cannot have. Jennifer Rossuck discusses that establishing a “Banned-Book” course begins with Fahrenheit 451. The book establishes the dangers of a world that encourages censorship to intellectual freedom. Starting with this book encourages students to ask “why” throughout the rest of the course (Rossuck). That little questions, “why”, inspires a student focused mind-set. Exploring books that society might deem taboo or dangerous let’s students address issues of why and understand the topics better, and it establishes a place that these issues can actually be discussed in a positive, academic manner. It eliminates the “guesswork” for students who may be interested and curious about a difficult subject.

If we continue to make topics taboo, and essentially “off-limits” for teenagers, they are going to look for the information on their own terms. This creates a dangerous method of possible misinformation in understanding the depth of something. When we actually take the time to remove stigmas from topics, our society can actually work to improve its ideas on social issues. When someone starts at a younger age, they will be better setup with empathy to understand the viewpoints of other people. Schools cannot be afraid of exploring potentially offensive topics represented through literature, as schools and academics by nature need to be the place where intellectual thought and discovery are encouraged, not demonized and censored.

Works Cited

Ploeg, Jenny, et al. “A Systematic Overview of Adolescent Suicide Prevention Programs”. Canadian Journal of Public Health vol. 87, №5, 319–324. October 1996. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/stable/pdf/41993812.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_SYC-4802%2Ftest2&refreqid=search%3A0cc35a386e2281ec9f997c7f6a1de521. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Rossuck, Jennifer. “Banned Books: A Study of Censorship.” The English Journal, vol. 86, no. 2, 1997, pp. 67–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/819679. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Strothmann, Molly, and Connie Van Fleet. “Books That Inspire, Books That Offend.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 2009, pp. 163–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20865218. Accessed 5 December 2019.

“Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists”, American Library Association, March 26, 2013. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10 (Accessed December 1, 2019) Document ID: 8417fa9e-ceff-4512-aca9–9fbc81b8bd81