Monday, September 30, 2013

Books Worth Reading

This past week was Banned Book Week. Often an interesting list—often with the specific purpose of ridiculing the very idea of limiting books for children. I agree that banning Huckleberry Finn is pretty ridiculous (because it contains the “N” word, along with a whole lot of anti-racist perspective, beautifully told). But that doesn’t mean that every book should therefore be available and recommended.
One of the well used shelves in the home library
I’ve been thinking about youth literature again. Some weeks ago I read Hillsdale College’s Imprimis newsletter, which featured a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. The piece was called “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” which was adapted from a speech given at Hillsdale in March. Here is some of her introduction:
[There’s an] increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.
Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person present tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal prison, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open.
If there is one thing teenagers do not need, it is encouragement to be more emotional and less cerebral. “Follow your passions” is about the worst advice in the world for someone who doesn’t yet know how to temper that with a wise, considered decision.
I agree with her about the ugliness of youth literature. I like reading a lot of YA fiction. Some of the better things being written are aimed at the YA audience. But she’s right that a lot of it is too intense, and too ugly for young people without a better, clearer world view.
She makes a very good point further into the piece, about decisions of taste:
Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take aware are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.
Suppose you have some young people (and there are many) who grow up in broken homes, with some chaos and ugliness in the home. Not enough expectation of honesty, or hard work. Not enough hope for things to get better. Nothing like an example of good fathering and mothering working in tandem to successfully raise children to fully launched adults.  There is a dearth of literature that tells children what a healthy household looks like. The stereotype now is broken and troubled homes. How do young people get the idea of a healthy norm if they get it neither from their real-life culture nor from their literature?
Mr. Spherical Model thinks I would be using my time well to write such children’s literature. That’s an appealing idea. I have gone so far as to invent some characters, and some of the surrounding milieu and action. I haven’t yet envisioned the story that will take over my life until I get it written. So, we’ll see. But I’d like to see more of that kind of story.
This past Thursday I came across an article that furthers Gurdon’s point, “Common Core-Approved Child Pornography.” Often when I find articles that make important points, I save a copy; however, while I recommend this one, some of the content in it is so graphic that I don’t want it permanently in my home. This PolitiChicks piece provides examples (with warnings about graphic content—these are in italics, if you must skip them) from a recommended youth novel, so you know there’s no exaggeration. It’s from the point of view of a child rapist, without judgment, so the reader can identify with the point of view of the perpetrator—including graphic descriptions of the violent sex acts, using words like “friendly,” “innocent,” and “tender.” If you are not nauseated, then ask yourself what you’ve been numbing yourself with.
The article itself asks the logical question about why anyone would think this was appropriate reading for children.
Using just the smallest amount of common sense we can deduce that if the book cannot be read aloud in the class, could not be viewable if it was a movie and couldn’t be played on the stereo if it was a CD, then why is it okay for it to be read and discussed; in school of all places! In fact, according to one lawyer, if the incidents in this book were a movie or a picture there would be a very clear cut case for prosecution for child pornography.
A library, not to mention the money needed to stock a library, is a scarce resource. Why use scarce resources on things that defile the mind—of anyone? If there are any parents out there that disagree and think this graphic portrayal of sex and violence is necessary to the education of their child, can’t they just buy it themselves and expose their child to it, without requiring the purchase of it by the rest of us taxpayers, and the subsequent exposure of it to our children, against our will?
When we’re talking about school bookshelves, there are plenty of books that ought not to be allotted real estate there. But rather than concentrating on what gets banned, I suggest we spend more energy and resources hunting for the literature that feeds and civilizes a growing mind, something that normalizes and exemplifies civilization. Let the searchers and selectors be parents and maybe trusted teachers—never some distant so-called expert.

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