banning books ≠ "guiding what young people read" (or: the pitfall of nostalgia for teen innocence)

Several days ago, a friend sent me a link to this smart blog post, a response to an article in the Wall Street Journal that suggests most YA novels are “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity” that doesn’t reflect the reality of teens’ lives, and that parents, teachers, and librarians should actively seek to prevent teens from reading these books.

I know I’m not the first to get on the “fiction helps us imagine the possibilities of our real lives” bandwagon (basically I think that writing and narrative don’t simply reflect reality, but can be constitutive *of* reality– emphasis on “can be”). But can anyone except some privileged WASP-y mother who has never left the confines of Greenwich, Connecticut really argue that everyday teen life *isn’t* filled with abuse, violence, and depravity? Not that it’s all darkness and despair all the time, but even though I had a relatively privileged childhood and adolescence—I came from a functional middle class two-parent home where I was secure in my parents’ love for me—I still experienced all kind of unpleasant events and emotional states as a adolescent, from the near-universal existential angst and ennui of simply growing up and finding a self-identity, to the slurs and not-so-subtle violence in the halls of my high school. Have these middle aged women never seen Mean Girls? (Ladies: I’m here to tell you it’s not hyperbole. That shit is real.) Are they so blinded by nostalgia that they cannot remember what it was like to be a teen?

Linda Holmes’s piece on the NPR blog captures my feelings rather precisely in her title, when she suggests these women are seeing teenagers as we wish they were. I wish we could just accept that there has never been a universal state of childhood (and/or adolescent) innocence. Certainly, there have been certain groups who have created more insulated experiences of childhood for their children as a result of socio-economic and/or other kinds of privilege, but these childhoods were atypical, not the norm. The children and teens who worked on farms, or in factories, who moved to cities during the 19th and early 20th century—these were “children” whose lives were filled with abuse, violence, and depravity, as a matter of course. Triangle shirtwaist fire anyone? What do you think happened to homeless teen girls who moved to cities alone to find work during the Depression?

I would argue that there’s always been a very small number of children who managed to make it to legal adulthood without a strong sense of the darkness and dangers of the world. Preventing teens from exploring those dangers—and addressing them imaginatively or therapeutically—through fiction simply serves to deny the realities of adolescent experience.


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