I finished a book this weekend. No, it was not Sunnyside, that 650 page behemouth (although I’m still working on that and loving it). Instead it was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. Anderson, author one of the most critically acclaimed young adult books Speak, is one of my favorite young adult authors. In grad school, I did an “author study” on Anderson, which means I read all of her books. And I loved most of them (I wasn’t crazy about Prom, if you were curious), so I was excited to borrow her newest book Wintergirls from the high school’s library.
I love Young Adult Fiction, although I didn’t read much of it as an actual young adult. It serves the same function for me that chick lit serves for most people my age. The books are quickly paced, they usually have fairly likable characters and there’s nothing challenging at all about the language.
But I was disappointed in Wintergirls, especially considering how much I loved Speak and, more recently, Twisted (also by Anderson). Most YA books are “issues based,” and I get that. Speak was about rape. Wintergirls is about anorexia/bulimia/suicide/mental illness/divorce. And that was my issue with it. Was the main character’s (Lia’s) anorexia because of her parents’ divorce? Was it because of her schizophrenia? Was that schizophrenia anyway? The book was a mess. YA fiction is at its worst when it is a melodramatic mess, which is what much of Wintergirls was. I don’t mind reading an “issues” book like Speak, but Wintergirls couldn’t figured out what its issue was. Because of that, none of the issues was dealt with fully. On top of that, I didn’t really like the narrator. Probably because I didn’t understand her motivations. Because there was too much going on.
But Wintergirls did make me think about the role of YA fiction. This article, and the subsequent English teacher discussion of it, highlight a lot of the debate about the YA genre. It’s certainly brain candy, but is it something we should encourage our students (or children) to read? Is it over their heads thematically? Is the language too simplistic? Are we depriving the next generation of a meaningful reading experience?
I think there’s got to be a happy medium. Thematically, our students are being exposed to this stuff in other places. If they don’t read about violence in The Hunger Games (which was AMAZING. Read it. Seriously.), then they’re watching it on TV or in movies. Or they’re playing video games with it. If they don’t read about sex in Pretty Little Liars or, in a whitewashed version, Twilight, then they’re…watching it in Pretty Little Liars or Twilight (or, if Sixteen and Pregnant is any indication, having it). And sure, the language is simplistic, but I think anyone who picks up a Dan Brown or Emily Giffen novel isn’t reading anything more difficult. Heck, even the Times is written on an 8th grade reading level!
So the question is: does it belong in the classroom? I think it does. I think, when mixed with “the canon,” YA provides an important entryway into those “big ideas” that traditional, classic literature does. I am a big proponent of the classics. I didn’t read much YA as an actual young adult because I was too busy during my Hemingway Summer (1998), Fitzgerald summer (1999) or Austen summer (2000) to read much else. But for many reluctant readers, thematic connection to YA can and does promote the reading of “classics.”
So I spent my weekend doing a lot of light reading (and a lot of grading, but no one’s interested in reading a blog about that!). And it was fun. I turned off my brain for a bit, and it was nice. And now I’ll go back to reading Sunnyside and the dystopian novels I’m assigning this week refreshed and reminded of how much fun reading (even disappointing reading) can be.