Two years ago, I proposed a small seminar on Young Adult: Fiction and Film. My motivation for developing the course had to do with the fact that almost every adult I knew, at the time, was reading and passing around YA novels. It wasn’t long before I became curious about what YA was doing in the world. Or more specifically, what was its value to adults and how was it being put to use? About that seminar, turns out what was supposed to be 18 students ballooned into 100 students in a departmental effort to maximize the BIS (Butts In Seats or B+S=$) quotient. I wanted to be a good citizen and went with the flow, but the pilot class, where ideas are supposed be test driven, theoretical frameworks formulated, and assignments honed, became a large scale, all-or-nothing affair. In the true spirit of “go big or go home,” it was mostly improv and powering through the adjusted economy of scale.
This semester is my third go round with the topic, and over the summer, in preparation for my current class, I came across the following dialogue: old people whose age number doesn’t have a “teen” in it, should step away from Harry Perks, Twilight Hunger. For those of you unfamiliar with the kerfuffle involving biblioshaming, it goes a little something like this: in June 2014, Ruth Graham argued “Against YA,” specifically, that adults should be “ashamed” to read books written for children and teens and that we should make “better” reading choices. Good thing she didn’t condescend because I would have sent her an emoji filled tweet-rant (#getalife #imabeme #teamalexie). Similar to my response to an unexpectedly loud borborygmos in a lecture hall with great acoustics, I was flabbergasted to learn that I am supposed to be ashamed of reading YA. For the record, I’m not. The TwiMoms still embarrass me, the genre, not so much. [Check "disgruntled" in the green mini-dress giving the side eye to the 18-24s.]
Now, I recognize that this conversation is a thousand years old in Instagram years, and as the former elitistacademic, I complained about the near-immediate expiration date on popular culture, but three months isn’t terribly stale. It’s about the exact amount of time it takes for peanut butter to acquire a 3″ oily top layer. So grab your spoon, and let’s start stirring.
Of the many thoughtful retorts to “Ms. Let’s-Hate-On-Adult-YA-Readers,” my favorite, imagined as a conversation between the writer and Graham, was penned by young adult fiction author Kathleen Hale: “A Young Adult Author’s Fantastic Crusade to Defend Literature’s Most Maligned Genre.” Hale’s fully sharpened satirical wit combines facts with a good old fashion take down that is a nod to Marxism and relies on genre history and a feminist critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Most of the article deftly hits its mark: she’s spot on about the vampires, cancers, virginity, and the MO mix tape. She doesn’t, however, meaningfully engage with race or ethnicity because talking about white power and privilege isn’t enough.
Now, I am not going to use that to initiate a take down of my own because faulting someone for not writing about what you want them to write about is like getting a free meal and then complaining it’s not puttanesca made by a miserable orphan trio. Well not exactly, though it is a move that academics do with some frequency. (Thanks for your talk on X, you didn’t mention A-W or Z for that matter. Translation: I am totally judging you and find you lacking and badly dressed.) The problem of race in YA is longstanding. Jen Doll’s piece “The On-Going Problem of Race in YA” from 2012 succinctly lays out the issue, though primarily on a black/white axis. In July, Ashley Strickland asked, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or Mexican Katniss?” To Ms. Strickland, I would say, the Mexican Katniss, with her “olive skin” and “straight black hair,” is in the novel. The dyed and bronzed-up blonde is in the movie.
Why does race matter in the YA genre? For the same reason Nancy Larrick sites in her 1965 article “The All-White World of Children’s Books”: “But the impact of the all-white books upon 39,600,000 white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books” (63, Saturday Review).
Flash forward to the premiere of Maze Runner, an adaptation of the YA dystopian sci-fi novel about a group of boys who live in a glade outside of an inescapable unsolvable maze filled with killer slug-like machines (think blast-ended skrewts outfitted with buzzsaws and ginormous needles). The book is deeply depressing with no Scooby ending in sight. The world is bad; it’s confusing; it gets worse, and worse, and worse. And then it gets devastating. Some questionable omissions were made in the adaptation, but one thing the film did right was to diversify the cast. With few exceptions, the race of the “Gladers” is not made clear in the book, so the filmmakers took the opportunity to cast F-I-V-E Latinos–5.
“That’s huge!” one might say, but none survives and one looks vaguely East Asian or Middle Eastern, which is great in terms of diversity and terrible in so many other ways (all POC are interchangeable). Let’s add them to kill them off!! Their demise, and lack of specificity, suggests that Latinos are expendable, not worthy of saving even in an post-apocalyptic-diseased-Lord-of-the-Maze world. Almost 50 years later, with YA popularity at an all-time high, Larrick’s argument still holds true. People of color still linger in the background, and we have yet to truly imagine them as heroic. I’m not ashamed I know that, and you should know it, too.