I’ve become quite the connoisseur of adolescent fiction over the last several years. One of our sons has trouble with reading comprehension, so he reads aloud with my wife or me so that we can discuss the book and make sure he is following the story. We’ve read a whole lot of books that fall into the predictable pattern of youth fiction — they tend to be mopey, whiny stories about the death or injury of a loved one, family dysfunction, or psychological trauma. Even if they are well-written, which some are, the repetitive, dreary themes are enough to make me want to jump off a Bridge to Teribithia.
I’m not the only one to notice this. Joanne Jacobs had an excellent post a while back about Anita Silvey’s artile in the School Library Journal about how depressing award-winning youth fiction tends to be:
Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005 [for the prestigious Newbery Medal], four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism. Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.
Adults tend to prefer this type of literature much more than kids do. This is especially true for boys, who’ve discovered that their adventure stories involving pirates have been replaced by touching family dramas. It’s true that adolescents may desire books with a fair amount of whining and moping because it appeals to their over-wrought emotional tendencies, but I think most of the dreariness of youth fiction is driven by the depressing preferences of the adults who assign the awards, purchase the books for libraries, and write the books in the first place. It’s as if they are trying to train future generations of therapy-seeking, mopey book-worms.
All of this matters because the award-winning books are the ones the school libraries are more likely to buy and teachers and parents are more likely to push kids to read. If we want to get kids to read, especially boys, we have to offer them something less morose. The solution is not to push the likes of Captain Underpants, Harry Potter, or Twilight. Yes, they are less depressing, but they are also remarkably poorly written, weak excuses for literature. Nor is the solution to push only classic works. Kids also need contemporary works with modern themes and language.
I’m happy to report that there are still a number of quality works of youth fiction being produced. They may not win the top awards, but you and your kids can find them and enjoy reading without having to take anti-depressants. Most recently, we finished reading two really good books: Peak, by Roland Smith, and Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
They may not be great art, but they are decent youth fiction. There’s enough mopey whining to appeal to those feelings among adolescents, but there’s also action, politics, self-sacrifice, and triumph. That is, they’re good stories.
In Peakthe protagonist is a 14 year-old child of famous mountain-climbers who gets into trouble for climbing sky-scrappers. He’s rescued from juvenile detention by being sent-abroad with his absentee dad who plans to get the 14 year-old to be the youngest person to summit Everest. But the plan is complicated by an intrusive reporter, Tibetan politics, and oppressive Chinese army officials — not to mention the harsh conditions of climbing the world’s highest peak. Along with the adventurous story of mountain-climbing, the book contains a fair dose of Tibetan-Chinese politics, and a strained father-son relationship.
Among the Hiddenis the first of a 7 book series about a future dystopia in which the government has forbidden anyone from having more than two children to prevent famine and other overuse of resources. The protagonist is a third-child who was secretly born and raised on a remote farm. When housing subdivisions are built near the farm, he is confined to hiding in the attic of his house so that the Population Police don’t discover him. His family strains under excessive taxation, intrusive regulation, and the ever-present fear of being caught with a third child. For a second you may forget that this is a future dystopia. Eventually our hero discovers that he may not be the only “shadow child” out there and that it may be possible to do something to change the government’s oppressive policies.
These are books you can actually enjoy!