How Much of This Do We Need?
A while back, someone at Child_Lit wrote about her child who had run into one of those lists of classics students should read before entering college. Her daughter had gone over the list and noted that she hadn't read all that many of them. The mother had read far more at the same age. Mom's question to the group: Is reading YA literature cutting into young peoples' reading of classics?
Though not too many people were interested in discussing this, I thought it was an excellent question for a number of reasons.
1. Until recently, conventional wisdom was that people deep into their teenage years didn't read YA at all. It's only been with the big sales of books like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants that anyone has come to believe that teenagers read YA. So the question of whether or not reading YA cuts into reading time for other books would have to be a very new one.
2. If YA reading cuts into reading of the classics, so what? Should I care? Who decided that things like Around the World in Eighty Days and Ivanhoe are classics? Do such classics have something to say that is so life-enhancing that people need to read them and need to read them before they turn eighteen?
3. And what about the value of YA? Is it valuable enough to justify taking time from reading a so-called classic?
Well, I'm going to argue that it does have value and enough value to justify stealing time away from reading, say, Northwest Passage. Here I go--
People, I believe, read because they are seeking a sense of community, of connection with others like themselves--the authors of the books they read or at least the characters in those books. They look for books about characters like themselves or characters they'd like to be like. They look for books about situations they've been in or want to be in or believe are important somehow. Reading is a process that causes the reader to change--we change somehow when we read and form that sense of community with the author. Everything I'm saying here has been influenced by my exposure to the work of an anthropologist named Victor Turner, whose theories about change and communitas spilled over into other fields in the 1970s and 1980s. I have only a vague understanding of what he was talking about, but I definitely believe that readers are seekers of this connection with. With this connection with others, we have some hope of achieving a better understanding of themselves.
And where will YA readers find this connection with others and understanding of themselves? In the works of Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper? I don't know about that. I do know that kids need to read about kids and YAs need to read about YAs. We're denying them something when we tell them that the only literature that has value is adult-oriented works on some list somewhere. Time has to be made for YAs to read YA literature.
And if that means they can't squeeze in reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, I just don't think that's going to do them any harm.