Sunday, 29 April 2012

Judy Blume, me, and the controversy of YA fiction

Young adult fiction is by its very nature controversial. Why? Well, mainly because it’s written for teenagers but read widely by adults. Teenagers read it too, of course, but adults are buying and reading YA in increasing numbers.

What this means is that books intended for children are judged by adults, and it seems that problems spring eternal when adults judge standards, set by and for kids, against their own. It causes books, even authors, to be banned from libraries and schools, and it allows adults who haven’t read books to form conclusions about them. Sadly, those conclusions tend to add to the controversy, and before long, children are banned from reading the very books that would be most interesting and helpful to them.

Contemporary (and realistic) YA has had more than its fair share of controversy since the market first started growing back in the 90s. These are stories that tend to deal with real issues, and whacking great big ones at that. Sex, drugs, death, hormones, not to mention family, money, violence, relationships and grief.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t a huge amount of YA fiction around. There was some, sure, but it wasn’t the trend-driving market it is today. I think the first novel for teens I read was probably ‘Blubber’, by Judy Blume. If you look up Blubber on GoodReads or anywhere else, you’ll see it categorised under anything from 9-12 middle grade fiction to YA. Truth is, nowadays it most likely sits somewhere between the two in an ‘early teen’ section. I was around 13 when I read it. During a recent house-move, I unearthed my original copy, and was sadly forced to put off packing whilst I re-read it…

Safe to say, it’s nothing like how I remember it.
The version of Blubber I own, almost re-lost in the house move!

There are similarities, sure. I remember a couple of things distinctly – an overweight girl being nicknamed Blubber by her classmates after reading a report she’d written about whales in front of them, and how she was then ridiculed and bullied almost continually. I remember a scene where she was put on trial by them one rainy lunchtime. I also remember the main character, Jill, having a strange home life (or at least a strange one by British standards), being looked after in part by a French-speaking nanny. Then there is Jill’s best friend, a Chinese-American, who Jill defends as soon as anyone dare make a slur against her race.

These are the things I remember.

I remember knowing exactly how they all felt. I could see these girls in my class, all of them. I remember that the girl being bullied doesn’t let them get the best of her. I remember thinking that I never wanted to become a bully and I never wanted anybody to say bad things about my friends.

What I don’t remember, is the controversial stuff. 

It turns out that Judy Blume is one of the most frequently banned authors in the US. Blubber caused problems for parents mainly because of one thing: it’s written from the point of view of the bully, not the victim (something I hadn’t remembered). God, how that must irk! In this story, the bullies aren’t caught. They aren’t punished, or stopped, or made to apologise, and they certainly aren’t going to turn a new leaf any time soon.

The truth is, Judy Blume knows how to get into a kid’s head. She knows that the problems they face aren’t the same ones that their parents are facing, and even if they were, she knows that kids would deal with them entirely differently.

Re-reading Blubber, I did find it a bit shocking, partly because I don’t remember as much of it as I thought I did, and partly because as I read, it became increasingly apparent how controversial it has the potential to be. The things the bullies do to ‘Blubber’ are terrible – they even lock her in a cupboard in the classroom. She also gets the blame for many of the incedents, the bullies getting away scot-free because the teachers don’t see what’s really going on.

Thing is, though – Blubber is meant for kids. It isn’t meant for their parents. The things adults don’t like about teen and YA fiction are the things they think might put kids in danger. But those same things are what form the fabric of a teenager’s reality.

Re-reading Blubber was so interesting, because as an adult I read it entirely differently. Entirely. The messages are different, the characters feel different, and most importantly, the messages and characters didn't mean as much to me. What I saw this time around was how controversial it is.

The point here, is that this book really is nothing like I remember it, and that's because it wasn't written for me, it was written for me 15 years ago.

As adults, we love to rewrite history. We look upon childhood with rose-tinted whatevers, and forget what an excruciating, alienating experience it all was. And yeah - books like Blubber helped me a lot, and if you go online you'll find a hell of a lot of people saying the same thing.

So why do adults go to such great lengths to ban books from their children's lives?

Well, adults need justice far more than children do. Adults want fairness and goodness and equality, things that don’t exist in the world of a 13 year-old. All a 13 year-old wants to know is how to deal with that, and that is where this kind of story comes in.

So let’s allow children’s writers to write for children, shall we? Let’s reserve adult judgements for books directed at adults, and let kids decide what’s a good story and what isn’t.

After all, they are the readers, not us.

19 comments:

  1. Brilliant, Jo - "The point here, is that this book really is nothing like I remember it, and that's because it wasn't written for me, it was written for me 15 years ago." - so now a question: the books YOU are writing ... are you writing them for children or for the adults who guard the gates? i had this discussion with someone who recently told me I ought to switch to writing for adults. One keeps hearing authors say they're writing for themselves but I don't get it because I am always thinking of my reader when I'm writing. And that reader is a young person.

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    1. Thanks, Candy. I do tend to find myself writing for 15 year-old me, which roughly equates to every 15 year-old outsider there ever is or was. It's a time in my life more vivd than any other, and an age where, had YA books been around as they are today, I would have devoured everything. As it was, I went from Roald Dahl to Judy Blume and then onto books for adults. (Only to regress in my actual adulthood to reading children's books - read into that what you will!) So, yes, I do think about the reader - a lot. All I can hope is that it comes across on the other end.

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  2. Wow! Powerful and true. I tried re-reading some Enid Blyton and couldn't stand it. I have re-read other books and realized I had forgotten them entirely, so it was like reading a new book, mostly very enjoyable but getting something totally different from the stories. As a writer, I find it a real challenge to get into the head of a kid when I'm so many years away from those experiences. I try to remember what my own experiences were like when I write. That's the best I can do since I'm not around kids now.

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    1. I think that's very true - and I'm not fond of Enid Blyton any more, either - I was absolutely addicted as a child, though. The years you spend as a teenager are so intense and fraught, that it doesn't seem to matter how far you get away from them, the memories are always lurking!

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  3. A couple of points mentioned by a recent panel of teens talking about the books they want to read 1 - adults shouldn't assume they know what teens want to read. 2 - at the age of thirteen, they know about sex and stuff, so what's wrong with putting it in books? A point made by an adult author in the audience - we should listen to teens! All points which you've made as well, Jo.

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    1. That's really interesting, Jackie. There really should be more widely-available avenues open to young people for reviewing books. I know that the reviews are out there, but they're always over-riden by what you see in newspapers, or newspaper websites - and those are, of course, the reviews that their parents read. As a teenager I think you're profoundly aware of what you're ready for, and what is too much for you. I remember a girl in my class reading out a particularly nasty paragraph from a Stephen King novel, when we were 13 or so, and after that I knew I'd be sticking with Sweet Valley High for a while yet!

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  4. ...oops posted too soon.
    I'm just remembering a story I wrote several books (and years) ago. Part of the story is that the main character lies to get something she wants. Feedback I got from one editor was that I made lying look too good, you had to show it was bad to lie.
    And this was a teen book.
    ER.....

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    1. Wow, that IS bad! Presumably said editor had convinced herself that she didn't like a kid? Or and adult? And that good things never came of lying?...

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  5. And this parental/adult interference impacts in other ways too, not least in the one star reviews some adult readers give YA books because they 'couldn't get into the story'. Perhaps the reason they couldn't get in was because they weren't invited (duh).

    I try to write for my twelve-year-old self. It's all I have! If this results in geeky books where boys don't know how to talk to girls, well... hey ho:-)

    Thanks for a great post.

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    1. Thanks, Thomas! I wonder how interesting it's be to get a panel of adults and one of younger readers together, and get them reviewing the same books at the same time?...

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  6. I am now going to reread Blubber! I really enjoyed this post - thanks.

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  7. This is a great point Jo. When you're a teen you want real stories that reflect what you are actually going through, not what adults hope will be a positive influence.
    (p.s. For me it was Blume's Are you there god it's me Margaret)

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    1. Wow - I'd forgotten all about that one! I was also a fan of Superfudge, but not such a controversial one!

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  8. Really enjoyed this post. It's the same with films and TV shows too. When I read / watch things that I literally revolved my world around as a child and teenager, I feel cheated as the experience is now how I recall it. However it works the other way too, things that I really didn't like when I was younger I how read and appreciate as I was just too immature to understand them then.

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  9. Excellent post, Jo, and spot on. I've heard so many of my friends teens ask why it is that too many writers just don't get what being a teenager is all about. One, rather notably said, "Don't they realise we know about sex and drugs and stuff - and we do it too? And if they do know it, why do they sanitise everything, and if they don't know it, they should." Observant girl, that. Teens want to read about things that are relevant and real to them - and it's important that they do. That means that the adult/parent checklists and perceptions just don't count. One only has to listen to the frequent lament, "My parents don't understand me!" to get that.

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    1. It's hard to write for teens in that way, I think. Partly because it's hard to remember what it was like to know that stuff and be experimenting with life, but also because putting it into words is a little frightening!

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  10. This is an excellent post. It is something that I've had to grapple with extensively as a writer and a parent. I write very dark contemporary books and I am quite aware they will likely be banned. I understand the need to want to protect our children, but in my mind, kids are very good at self-selecting out of things that are too much for them. Especially when it comes to books. They don't invest in reading if they don't understand or aren't engaged with the material. This is VERY different than movies in some way. You ask kids to really check in with books. It is a big commitment and if they don't like what you're writing about, they'll back out of it.
    The other argument for controversial books is Donna Jo Napoli's which is the importance of allowing access to "terrible things" to children who are protected and sheltered because it gives them a safe and healthy place to develop empathy. I loved this argument when I heard her at SCBWI in LA last year.

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    1. Thanks, Christa. I definitely agree that books and movies are different in that way - when you read a book, you step into the main character's head (if the book is a good one, that is), but with a movie you're watching other people. I think violence on screen is nowhere near as haunting as violence in a book, for example. So yeah, I totally agree with you.

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