YA Lit in a Ghastly World

What I found most appalling about this whole YA-lit-is-too-dark hoopla is the notion that we need to “Protect the children,” covering their ears whenever someone says a Dirty Word and their eyes whenever something of an Unsettling Nature occurs. Even though we trust these “young adults” to drive cars and go to work and eventually vote and join the military we feel the need to keep them wrapped tight in a little cocoon, close to Mother’s nest.

Four years later we complain that they aren’t growing up fast enough, that adolescence is extended. They’re moving back in with their parents and can’t hold jobs and drift around and worst of all they’re so damn entitled, thinking the whole world revolves around them.

Them? Us? I’m not quite sure, despite my full time job and health insurance and apartment and success. Because it just so happens I belong to that generation of entitlement. I know exactly what they’re talking about.

***

White, middle class suburban family, stable two parent home, a house with books spilling out of the eaves, an older brother to serve as role model and a multitude of steady adults to provide assistance with homework and leadership opportunities and anything else we say a kid needs.

Which makes me, what? The perfect result of the American Dream?

But I grew up in a town that sits on the brink between poverty and wealth, with gloriously meticulous neighborhoods on one border and Hartford’s rampant poverty on the other. According to Wikipedia, 15.5% of the under-18 population lives in poverty in that same town. My hometown. My neighbors and friends were people like me and people very much unlike me. And it wasn’t until I reached college that I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in a place where non-homogeneity is the norm.

On summer and winter breaks I worked at the concession stand of a movie theater. A lot of my coworkers were minors, high school kids; a lot of my coworkers were adults with two or even three jobs to support their families. These were people who lived the other life, very unlike my own. One of them told me that if anyone ever killed or hurt a friend he wouldn’t go to the police, he’d go after the killer himself. Another was flat-out convinced his eight-year-old son would play pro football someday and make the mega bucks. Another was the twenty-six-year-old mother of a nine-year-old boy. And another was a kind-hearted, not-especially-bright man who’d been homeless and jobless in the past.

C’est la vie, right?

Enter the high schoolers. Enter the (white) sixteen-year-olds from the well-to-do Town Next Door.

That guy who’d been homeless? He was thirty-five and didn’t own a car.

The sixteen-year-old? Figured if this guy didn’t own a car he must be a college student or something. “I can’t believe he’s thirty-five,” the kid said. “And he doesn’t have a car.”

I tried really really hard not to gape at this kid as though he was stupid. I did try; I don’t know that I succeeded. But I pitied him too. He had no idea what the world is like, and here we were trusting him to live in it.

***

According to Meghan Cox Gurdon: “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”

Yes, it is irritating, isn’t it, when “coarseness or misery” force themselves into children’s lives? We all want to think that our kids don’t know all the swear words (they do; they’ve known them since elementary school), and we’re all concerned with their “happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart” (never mind that the relentless rush for happiness is ruining them). We all want them not to “encounter ghastly things” on the Internet — but then again, we don’t want to encounter those same things either. We don’t want to live in a world that can be ghastly. So we try to convince ourselves through our children that the world is a wonderful happy place where no one ever hurts themselves, where no one ever hurts anyone else, where nothing awful will ever happen to anyone.

But the world can be ghastly. Books aside, sooner or later coarseness and misery are going to bulldoze into your child’s life. Would you rather they were twenty-three, a full grown child, incapable of coping with the “real world” you’ve hidden from them for so long? That cocoon is stripping them of the ability to survive in this world — because it’s that wrestling with the coarseness and misery of the world that allows us to grow up.

So do them a service. Unblock their ears and uncover their eyes. Let them squirm and wrestle the coarseness and misery to the ground. How else are they going to learn to find the beauty that is too often hidden from sight behind all that sadness? How else will they develop morals? Without understanding, without knowledge, where is their tenderness of heart?

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