Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jacqueline Lichtenberg on YA Category Fiction

Can You Outgrow YA Category Fiction?


Jacqueline Lichtenberg

In brief, the answer to the title question here is, "No."

But that begs the question, "Why?"

What is it about YA category fiction that is eternal? Why does it haunt the reader for a lifetime? Why is it worth revisiting periodically?

And if you raise kids, of course, you must revisit the YA section at your library.

And if you do revisit the YA section, you will find (sometimes to your dismay) that things have changed. A lot.

But have things really changed?

Does fiction teach? Or do fiction publishers just publish what readers want?

If fiction teaches, what does it teach? Certainly not that vampires are real and werewolves are sexy!

What is all that "supernatural" stuff really about and why is it so entrenched now in the YA section?

All of these questions are pregnant with other questions.

Drill down, and you get to the essence of fiction and why all human cultures tell stories.

Most people are innoculated with an allergy to "philosophy," but it is in the realm of philosophy that you find salient discussions of these matters and structured systems of "values" that different cultures admire.

When you revisit the YA section to pick out stuff for your kids to read, you suddenly discover that your kids generation is imbibing a totally different set of "values" than your generation did at that age.

It's a shock. I remember my parents being very put off by what my generation went for hand over fist. I remember the scorn, and the aversion. And the corrective measures.

At that time, I felt that I knew better than they did.

Actually, I still feel that way -- but of course MY CHILDREN are all wrong about their values.

Now my grandchildren are growing up in yet another, totally different, world that requires massive adjustment in values.

From this perspective, I can see that by and large, the differences in values are generated (in our day and age) by technology and the way it has infused our lives.

Here's a study where scientists are trying to learn to think about how humans and society evolve, how things change from generation to generation.

If they are correct in their approach (I have my doubts), this means that our social values of "fairness" and our approach to 'strangers' is a very recent thing in the development of the human animal.
If we as a species accomplished that much that fast, it's small wonder YA needs revisiting and a thorough study with every generation.


a) When I was a teen, the caricature of the wayward teen girl was the image of her lying prone over her frilly pink bedspread, talking on the telephone (a very large handset attached to a larger base by a cord which was attached by a long cord to the wall -- poorer families had shorter cords). Even rich people had only one telephone line, but the richer people had more than one extension phone. This incessant telephone talking was deplorable behavior that would lead to juvenile delinquincy.

b) My children talked on the phone incessantly, but I considered that healthy development of friendships, associations, and socialization. We were not rich but had several extensions, and little by little, acquired several phone lines.

In between, the teen acquired a desk and a notebook computer in her room upon which she incessantly interacted via chatroom with boyfriends, girlfriends, possible predators.

c) My grandchildren aren't up to texting age, but today's teens text incessantly and statistics organizations publish numbers that are reported on television in that "deplorable" tone of voice. Facebook. Social networking in general. Twitter. Oh, so very terrible a breakdown in the moral fiber of this nation, exposing our children to predators right in the palm of the hand.

Suppose we go back to caveman days. What did teens do then that was ever so deplorable? Wander off gathering roots and meet some teen-guy predator from the neighboring cave?

Introducting children to the public has always been a very harrowing experience for parents. It's scary. It's terrifying.

I don't know why there aren't more horror movies about it.

Now I admit that today it's more terrifying than ever because of the "Future Shock" effect that Alvin Toffler described so well in his book by the same name.

Back in caveman days, all evidence we have shows that society and technology changed very slowly. People didn't travel far, didn't mix with "aliens" from afar, and went into their father's profession (or mother's). As in the middle ages, parents could prepare their children to be successful in "life" because "life" would be the same 50 years from now, pretty much (provided someone didn't invent the wheel).

But archeologists are now tracing how humanity spread throughout the globe. People may not have gone far in one lifetime, but a tribe or a people would creep across territory generation after generation -- things would be different.

The one thing that has allowed our species to survive, as far as I can tell, is adaptability.

Each generation starts fresh, and ADAPTS to the new world their parents have created from the world they were handed.

According to Alvin Toffler, (and I can see he's right) it's happening faster now. It's happening so fast that the very physiological limit of the basic human being is being slammed into, and perhaps is breaking down.

We are going to have to adapt faster than ever in human evolution.

So the best YA fiction you can supply will be about ADAPTING to the ABSOLUTELY UNTHINKABLE.

In the 1930's-50's, the "unthinkable" (denied by all old enough to be parents) was "aliens land on the Whitehouse Lawn."

Today, we are quickly verifying that Earth is not the only planet of its type in this galaxy. In fact solar systems are common, and many are not very different from ours.

Faster than light travel is still a theoretical impossibility, but theories have been overturned in living memory.

In that 60-year interval, what is impossible has changed, though our attitude toward "the impossible" hasn't changed all that much.

In that interval, oddly enough, on the deepest philosophical level, there has been a massive shift in our understanding of the universe we are embedded within, and a lot of philosophy written in the late 1800's has cycled back around into fashion, and then sunk down into unconscious assumption.

That cycle is philosophical. And right now, the prevailing philosophy in a goodly portion of our public society (not so much in private; but what is acceptable in public) has reversed.

In the 1800's and most of the beginning of the 1900's, to be socially acceptable (to be worthy of that "fairness" the article talks about) even if you are a stranger, you had to be "morally upright" and that was measured by Religion.

People of the same general Religion would accept each other on sight, at face value. The world was an amalgam of puddles of little religious groups, and alliances of similar groups.

Introducing children to "the public" or "the world" was a process of teaching "proper" behavior as a member of a particular religion. "The Family That Prays Together Stays Together" was a popular slogan.

Today that's all turned upside down. Religion is a private matter, kept inside the home, inside the place of worship, and it is politically incorrect (especially in public schools) to display one's religion or behave in a specifically religion-prescribed manner.

So children being introduced to the "outside" from the "inside" of a home, children in transition to adulthood, are learning that Religion isn't "real" -- it isn't something one dares to share publically.

It has become "unthinkable" that the portrait of Reality painted by Religion (any of them; doesn't matter) is actually real.

Only the portrait painted by "science" (which works on theories that are constantly overturned) is real, and may be spoken in public.

So whereas YA once deplorably portrayed a world where the portrait painted by Science was actually "real" (i.e. aliens from outer space) and thus the publicly agreed "reality" painted by Religion was false, today YA deplorably portrays a world where the portrait painted by Religion is actually "real" (i.e. Angels, demons, supernatural creatures erupting from other dimensions, possession etc) and the portrait painted by Science is false.

Do you see the paradigm?

Youth, making the transition from the privacy of The Home to functionality among The Public (i.e. strangers; do read that item on "fairness.") need to consider, adapt and adjust to Adult Hypocrasy.

That's what has to be resolved during those transition years.

Adults operate (philosophically) on two or more levels at once.

Children don't.

That's why children are always coming up with those stunning one-liners that make the world so simple.

To transform a child into an adult, we teach how to resolve adult hypocrisy. We teach how to operate in a two-valued world where two mutually exclusive realities are simultaneously true. We teach "political correctness" - but with each generation the exact content of what is "politically correct" (i.e. publically espoused) changes.

That shock at dipping into the YA section again after a decade or more operating in the adult world comes from discovering how much the content of "politically correct" has changed.

That shock rocks us at the foundations of our personal philosophy and calls all manner of assumptions into question.

Now, personally, I think that's a healthy exercise -- questioning assumptions.

And so I think you can't outgrow the salutory effect that reading YA novels can have on you.

It keeps you young.

It keeps you aware of the discrepancy between public and private.

And at this time in history, technology is rapidly erasing the dividing line between public and private.

The older generation feels "invaded" and deeply offended by say, GPS tracking of their cell phone. The current pre-teens can't imagine a world where the location of a cell phone is unavailable. How could you find your way around without the GPS in your car telling you to turn right?

What 5 year old has seen their parents stop at a gas station to ask directions?

By the time that 5 year old is 25 and raising kids, his kids won't be able to imagine how the world could function without medical histories available on a central database so every doctor you see has all the information about you.

But maybe the pendulum will swing back, and the public world will become dominated by Religion again, and science will shape and form only our private world, inside the "family" or "tribe."

Oh, do read that article and ponder what it means that "science" is trying (however ineffectually) to study the evolution of "fairness."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg  (current novels)   (full bio-biblio)   for more speculation like this


Kimber An said...

Thank you, Jacqueline! It brings to mind something I learned while studying for my major in History.

There is not such thing as 'the good ol' days.'

Nayuleska said...

Brilliant post Jacqueline. I'm very glad the answer is no!

Deanna said...

Very interesting post...and I think the cave-teens were probably getting busted experimenting with smoking different leaves and throwing rocks at mammoths just for kicks, lol

Kimber An said...

Actually, the cave-teens were being coerced/forced into arranged marriages and/or put to work hauling rocks, even though their still-growing bodies were not physically ready for pregnancy, childbirth, and heavy work and they died a lot as a result. Oh, actually, that still goes on today around the world, including in cults right here in the United States.

As back in the caveman days, many teens run away from that and forge their own futures, which I think takes a lot of courage and imagination. This may terrify adults who like to be in control, but I think this is how a society grows and evolves.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

After teaching teenagers for decades, I'm not one of the adults who believe they won't be ready to 'take over' from us. Even though science and technology is moving forward rapidly, young people are still influenced heavily by their parents. They come to school with the same prejudices, political leanings and just about everything else though they don't often realize it. I often wonder if the same students who cheat on tests are the ones who witnessed their parents lying about their child's age to get them into the movies cheaper.

Anonymous said...

My mother lied to get me into the movie cheap, and she was a Sunday School teacher.

I never lie or cheat.

I think a lot of teens look at their parents and think, "I don't want to be like that. I want a better life."

Too often, I think all teens are lumped in with the troublemakers, simply because the troublemakers make the most noise. In fact, I think most teens are good people.

jennifer said...

Very interesting post.
I try to make it a point to make my children do things the older way. I mean, I'm not old, mid-thirties, but even in a 2 decade span things have changed so much. My son brought out a calculator to work on his multiplication homework the other night, and I made him put it away. The teachers at school actually let them use them during class, and it frustrates me. God forbid something catastrophic happens to the world. Or we have a web meltdown or something. Kids today would really struggle to get the world back in shape.
I think we are doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don't teach our children common sense.