Thursday, February 12, 2015

YA Lit is Simply Entertainment - and that's OK

I'm not overly impressed with the writing of Rick Riordan - namely his immensely popular Percy Jackson series. But that's OK because he is not writing for me. When I first read the first book: Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, I was intrigued by the potential. Here was a book that drew heavily from classic traditions. Though as I read I was a bit disappointed in the quality of the writing ... and the way the stories seemed more like "hacks" than attributions and derivatives. The writing just seemed overly weak and cliched, especially when compared with the brilliance of JK Rowling, who had set a new bar in children's lit. However, my kids, who are 9 and 12, as well as their friends and millions of other young people are duly impressed and entertained and, even, fanatical about the stories. And, that is fine with people like Noah Berlatsky who reminds us that "Young Adult Fiction Does Not Have to be a Gateway to the Classics."

Discussions like this often seem to presume that there was an idyllic time, somewhere in the past, when kids' books were substantially better, or when young people read great adult literature. Graham contrasts Percy Jackson and Riordan's new encyclopedia Percy Jackson's Greek Gods to the classic 1925 collection of Greek myths by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire. She finds Riordan's book slangy and "inscribed with obsolescence," since it references Craigslist, iPhones, and other pop culture detritus. The D'Aulaires, on the other hand, remain "lucid"—though their poetic Victorian language is, she admits, "stilted." Graham seems to conclude that it's a loss that kids want to read lines like "At first, Kronos wasn’t so bad. He had to work his way up to being a complete slime bucket" instead of  “In olden times, when men still worshiped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty." To me, though, Riordan's joke about Kronos is actually better written: less weighed down with reverence, more surprising, and less condescending towards its subject matter (who is it who sees those idols as "ugly"?). I read Riordan's The Last Hero multiple times and worked on a study guide about it; I wouldn't say that its prose is deathless, but I can think of many inferior books. Percy Jackson isn't any worse than the Hardy Boys adventures or Piers Anthony's Xanth novels that I read as a kid.

In the past few years, when English teachers I know have discussed new selections - especially for class assignments like summer reading - the debate about YA lit has come up. Certainly, kids are more likely to read YA, and some of the writing can be very compelling. But is it literature? Is it worthy of study? Is it only about character, plot, and theme? Do we want literature to be a window or a mirror?  The questions go on and on. And with the incredible rise of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter phenomenon, the interest of "adults" in "children's literature" has expanded, as the line on reading material has become blurry.

So, should adults read - and actually be engaged or entertained by - stories written for kids? New Hampshire writer Ruth Graham argues no in a compelling article for, "Against YA."

Of course, Graham doesn't just believe the works aren't appropriate and shouldn't be interesting to adults. Her commentary claims adults "should be embarrassed when what you're reading was written for children." And this piece just happens to coincide with the theatrical release of the film adaption of John Green's poignant and compelling work The Fault in Our Stars. This is a richly written YA novel that Time Magazine named one of the Ten Best Books of the year. And, I know I really enjoyed the book. And I really enjoy all of John Green's work. However, I argued against the study of TFIOS in school simply because of the simplicity of the language. It is a great story, no doubt. But other than discussing themes and feelings, there is really nothing worthy of study on a language level.

As for whether adults should or shouldn't read kids books, that's simply a matter of debate.

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