What Should Kids Read?
Relative to: the current immense popularity of dark, brooding, post-apocalyptic young adult fiction.
At the NYTimes Room for Debate this week, the topic taken up is “The Dark Side of Yound Adult Fiction,” and several authors and cultural critics wonder why teens love reading about such terrible times and peoples as are so popular right now.
The debaters give many reasons for such popularity. The world is a wreck right now, and kids reflect that in their reading. The world is actually quite good and promising for these kids, and they want the joys of escapism to fantasy. The real world of good and evil is grey and YAF provides good and evil in black and white. Kids consciousnesses have been saturated with darkness by the time they are teens, and they crave that darkness more.
As I was reading these individual arguments for why teens read about things that are awful, I had to ask: do we really think this is a new subject? Or is it just getting more appealing for younger readers? Reading Orwell in high school is common. His worlds are dark and scary. I was assigned Ayn Rand in high school. Her picture of the world is awful, and her solution for the world is even scarier. Kids have been reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild for 60 years, terrified for every one of them.
Some of the writers in the debate understand this. But still wonder at the desire of teens to immerse themselves in “fantastical dystopia.” Why the fantasy of a destroyed world? Lisa Rowe Faustino answers thus: “No different from that quintessential literary adolescent Holden Caulfield, we want to hold on to the joy in life we felt as children. We want to hold on to our individuality, our humanity, our ability to love and connect to others. We have always wanted to hold on, but in today’s global communications network we can’t avoid facing overwhelming obstacles. The more we understand how small and powerless we really are against the immense forces that control our existence, the more we yearn to feel meaningful.”
Faustino here is the only commenter that seems to get close to how this makes sense. There is a part of being a youth that naturally wants one’s life to be in the thick of the struggles that will define one’s era, yearning for meaning and fame and glory while overcoming truly great obstacles. And those obstacles are increasing every day. We join Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua on their adventures to feel their journeys for meaning and restoration of peace and order. But in my opinion that overestimates what the characters, and the readers, are really in search of. We may start out searching for glory in the text, but we end wanting love for the protagonists, and a peaceful place to live in that love. Be it back at home when we can finally return to the warm glow of family, or with a new-found romance that will resolve our obstacles. The fight for meaning in these books is almost always the search for home, the search for place where one can feel truly at peace. Because such a place in the real world seems very distant, and fantastical, in high school.