Open Letter to Teachers and Librarians who Devalue, Disrespect and Dismiss Young Adult Literature

Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 5.05.11 PMLike many kidlit authors I am also a parent to a kid. And like most kidlit parents I have heard multiple variations on the general theme of disrespecting my work and the work of my colleagues from the reading professionals who serve my teen and her peers.

I’ve about had it. The last time it happened I got closer than I ever have to becoming one of those parents. You know, the ones who write a letter of complaint to an overworked and generally beleaguered teacher? I’m sure my daughter’s English teacher didn’t mean to insult both my daughter’s tastes and her mother’s profession in her literature class, but the fact remains that she did.

The below is my response, posted here to save my poor daughter the embarrassment of some kind of diplomatic incident at her school.

Open Letter to Teachers and Librarians who Devalue, Disrespect and Dismiss Young Adult Literature

Dear Reader

I’m assuming you’re a reader because you obviously like books. You teach English, or you’re a librarian. You’ve made books your life; you must like them, right? It’s just that it sometimes seems that you only like a particular type of book. Classic Literature, you call this, a designation so amorphous as to include novels, plays, poetry and even non-fiction from every century right back to the ancient Greeks, in multiple languages, and from most countries in the world (though with an unhealthy emphasis on Europe). The truth is, it seems for you “classic literature” is more easily defined by what it is not.

It is not most science fiction.

It is not Stephen King or Nora Roberts or anyone like them.

It is not part of a Disney or comic book franchise.

It is not fantasy.

It is not romance.

And it is, according to you anyway, not, most emphatically NOT, books written specifically for teens, otherwise known as (scary voice) young adult fiction.

Quite apart from the fact that you are dismissing a vast women-centered and vibrant segment of the publishing industry, and one that is, though still imperfectly, much more responsive to social changes and justice movements than the publishing industry at large, that you are dismissing me, please consider what you are saying to your teenage students and patrons when you disrespect Young Adult Fiction.

For most teen readers, YA is the only time they encounter a teen or youth character who is the captain of their own destiny. In many of your treasured examples of classic literature, teen characters exist only as victims—of murder, sexual assault, bad parenting or disastrous governing, or as insignificant side characters. Sometimes important characters appear as children or teens in the early chapters, but in these instances it seems their only goal is to leave that pointless period behind them and get to the real business of adulthood: the insecure coastal cannery job, the loveless marriage and subsequent infidelity, the inevitable loss, the misery of loneliness in a world far to cruel to understand the unbearable…eh, whatever.

Many, MANY teens of color, indigenous teens, LGBT teens, or teens with disabilities first saw a character like themselves in a YA book written in the last five years. Your so-called “classic literature” is almost devoid of racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious or body diversity. YA literature has a whole movement devoted to it (We Need Diverse Books). More books representing this diversity are published every year (progress is slow, but steady). But you dismiss them, because they’re for teens.

When you dismiss YA fiction to teens, you are dismissing them. You are saying that books written to their tastes are in bad taste, and that therefore they have bad taste. When you say a book about a teen falling in love or changing the world is silly, you are saying it is silly for your teens to think they can love or change the world. When you say that the language of YA is too simple or pedestrian to a kid who enjoys and relates to YA language, you are saying that they are simple or pedestrian.

When you tell a teen that something they like is bad, you are telling them that they are wrong for liking it.

As YA authors, we write to appeal to teens—it’s true—and to be frank most of us don’t give a moment’s thought as to whether our books appeal to adults (they do, of course. As is widely known, up to 50% of the readership of YA is made up of adults). We write for teens and to teens and we do this intentionally and with great care. When you then tell teens that this product, made for them, is not of value, what are you telling them? That we don’t value them? That they don’t have value? That we’ve measured their value as lesser, and thus tailored lesser books specifically for them?

Come on.

I have a teen daughter, and for a long time I’ve wondered why the books she is assigned in school are the same ones I read in school over 35 years ago. Why isn’t she reading one of the many of thousands of brilliant YA books written in the intervening years? I had been thinking it was budget, and access to materials, and other logistical issues but I’m beginning to wonder. Is it because schools and educators simply don’t respect these books?

What are you saying to today’s teens when you insist on assigning books written for and studied by your teens’ parents’ or grandparents’ generations? That your teens’ generation (Gen Z) or the previous one (Millennials) aren’t important? These are the generations that brought us #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #NeverAgain, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #MarriageEquality. In fact these are the generations that brought us hashtags! Can you not take a second look at the books that they love? These books are international bestsellers, win multiple awards, are translated in film, TV and graphic novels, not to mention dozens and dozens of languages. Can you not integrate them into the classroom?

Can you not, at least, respect them and more importantly, respect your teens’ desires to read them?

That’s really not that much to ask.

Sincerely

G.S (Gabrielle) Prendergast

A YA Author.

 

 


3 thoughts on “Open Letter to Teachers and Librarians who Devalue, Disrespect and Dismiss Young Adult Literature

  1. I was thinking JUST THIS the other day as we perused bookshelves for my kids’ (they homeschool) English classes. I’m always trying to get them to read new and amazing authors. Sure, there are some classics lining our shelves (Is C.S. Lewis Classic?), but when we go into the library I despair that they’ll never be able to read ALL the amazing books on those shelves.

  2. Wonderful post! When I was an English major in college I always felt like I had to almost hide the YA books I read. They sometimes made it seem like if you didn’t read the classics and only the classics that you weren’t an actual reader. It’s sad that books should have to fight to meet some sort of “official approval” into what is considered “good literature”. If a book can speak to its reader, then I consider that a book worth reading!

  3. Awesome post! I teach English foreign language in Switzerland, and this year, I’m reading “Every Day” by David Levithan with my more advanced students, and “Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli with my intermediate students. Needless to say, they love it! Also, the language used in these novels is close to the language they are aiming at being able to use when they speak with others in English – which is not something I could help them achieve by reading Shakespeare or Dickens.
    The topics are also important to me, because the classroom is like a safe haven where we can discuss things without being afraid of being judged.

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