Friday, July 8, 2011

Parent's guide to evaluating YA fiction

Now that we've spent some time discussing YA fiction, a question remains: what should parents do about it all?

Some parents take the same route with YA fiction that they do with the "Juniors'" clothing department at a department store: they skip it. They figure that the handful of decent books (like the handful of relatively "normal" clothes in what some moms call the "teen skank section" of the store) are so few and far between as to make hunting for them a waste of time, money, and effort. Instead, they supply their mature readers with great classic literature of the past, including titles which may have been considered "dark" or "edgy" for their time, but secure in the overall merit of these works.

Other parents take a completely opposite approach, figuring that by the time their children are in their teens they should be able to judge for themselves whether a book is worth reading or not; they do not limit their teens' purchases in the bookstore or selections in the library, but encourage critical reading and conversation about what they are reading with their parents and others. By this, they hope to diminish teen-age interest in books of little merit, salacious writing, or other hack work.

Let me say for the record: either of these may be perfectly valid approaches for some families. Every family and every child is different, and I have great faith in the desire of most engaged parents--the sort who would even be interested in reading blog posts like this one--to steer their children in the right direction when it comes to books.

But I think that the vast majority of parents are going to fall somewhere in between these "all or nothing" extremes; they are going to want to permit their children some lighter reading that includes some YA fiction, but they are not going to want their children to be exposed too early to books which are completely contrary to the family's morals and values. In point of fact, I think this describes most religious parents' desires for their children's media consumption generally, and would be how many feel about movies, video games, music, and other offerings which it is normal for teens to want to explore.

So: how do we do this?

The first, and most obvious suggestion, is to read the books your child is interested in yourself. I still think this is the best approach for a book your child really wants to read but which you aren't sure about--provided you are able to read it critically and with sound reasons for your decision either to allow the book, to forbid it, or to postpone it until your child is older--but more about that in a moment.

The second suggestion I have is a realistic one: frankly, few of us parents have the time to read every single book our older children and teens want to read. But because we live in a media-saturated culture, the chances are excellent that it will be possible to spend a shorter amount of time researching the book in question, reading reviews from the professional to the amateur (and sometimes an amateur review by a concerned parent is worth dozens of professional book reviews, in my opinion), and otherwise learning about its plot elements, characters, and any controversial matter associated with the title. This is often enough information to be able to make a sound decision, especially if you are simply asking your teen to wait a while before reading the book. One important caveat: if there is a lot of controversy and disagreement about whether the book is valuable, meritorious, sound, etc. or whether it is not (e.g., the Harry Potter books), you may be back to option one, and be reading the book yourself.

The third suggestion is to seek recommendations from friends, family members, fellow religious believers, and others who you have good reason to trust. Some of the books my children have most enjoyed have come highly recommended by others. Here again, though, you have to be careful to be specific about what elements in a book or series are problematic for you or for your children, because even two orthodox Catholic homeschooling families may disagree quite strongly about whether teens can read books containing explicit sex scenes, for one instance, or graphic and gory violent passages, for another. The danger here is taking for granted that because some other families similar to yours have liked a book, it must be okay; my oldest daughter was disappointed that a series author decided to imply strongly a non-marital sexual relationship between some characters in the second book of a series she was quite prepared to like, and she decided on her own that the series wasn't worth finishing (because it wasn't that well-written or compelling, in the long run, to make such things worth ignoring).

To be honest, I think most parents will do a combination of these things as they evaluate books for their children and young teens. But to get back to a point I raised earlier: just how should parents critically evaluate YA books, anyway?

Here are a few questions that we can ask about books our kids are interested in, whether we're reading them ourselves, researching them, or getting recommendations from friends:

1. What is the author's central message, or theme? Is it a message or theme I (the parent) find compelling or valid in some way? Why or why not? Is it a positive, hopeful message, ultimately?

2. What is the protagonist like? Is he or she a hero, an anti-hero, a deeply flawed hero? If he/she makes immoral choices, are these validated by the author, shrugged at as "situational ethics," or seen as the result of character flaws which the character is slowly overcoming?

3. What are the other main characters like? What is the relationship between the protagonist and the other main characters? If any character is openly religious or moral, is that seen as a positive or negative thing? Does the author openly mock religion or religious leanings in his or her characters?

4. Are there any adult characters in the book? What is the author's view of adults, generally? Are some of them helpful and kind while others are unhelpful and unkind (which is realistic)? Or are all adults, or all save a select one or two who are presented as "cool" in some way, seen as hindrances to the teen characters and what they wish to accomplish?

5. How well is the book written? Does the author rely on cheap, hack writing tricks like an excessive amount of foul language, poor grammar and slang which is supposed to replicate actual teen conversation, and similar devices? Does he or she construct the book's plot well, and draw compelling, interesting characters, or does the plot drift and do the characters seem like cardboard cut-outs of teen angst? Is there anything at all memorable about the author's prose? Do descriptive passages capture the imagination? Are literary devices well-employed, and so on? Is the book a poor derivative of better works?

6. To the extent that dark elements or risky elements (graphic sex and violence, mainly) exist, are they called for by the plot, essential to the development of the story and of the author's overall theme, and constructed with care and sensitivity? Or are they gratuitous, unnecessary, distasteful, exploitative, and constructed for the maximum shock value?

7. How popular is the book, and how much of its popularity comes from a marketing campaign designed to create a great deal of hype around what may, after all, be a rather mediocre work? Is the book deliberately being marketed to children too young to handle many of its plot elements?

8. Is there any overwhelming reason why, even if the book is somewhat well-written, not exploitative, etc. that it really doesn't fit with my family's values?

Asking these, and similar, questions may help parents figure out which books are indeed worth their children's or young teens' time and effort.

There is one more thing a parent can do to help his or her children find books that will appeal to their imaginations, satisfy their desire for adventure, convey positive messages and characters whose actions take place in a universe where the notions of good and evil are still prevalent, and which end on a hopeful, uplifting note: he--or she--can attempt to write such books himself or herself. And if a parent--let's call her a "she," for the sake of argument--does such a thing, she can then share the book not only with her own children, but with her nieces and nephews, and then maybe with some friends. And then, if she's sufficiently happy with the book, she can start working on a sequel, while preparing the first book for self-publication (having decided not to bother with traditional publishing companies on the grounds that these days that might not be the best idea, especially for a niche-market book). And she might even start a blog to talk about all of that, and hopefully as a place from which to launch the book once it's ready so that like-minded parents might be able to find it for their children...

...but more about that on Monday.


Lindsey said...

Great post, thanks! This is a topic of conversation that comes up often in my homeschooling circles. I will bookmark this to come back to again for reference.

And, curious final paragraph! I'll be waiting with interest for more info. :)

JMB said...

I'd rather my children not read than read crap.

L. said...

I would be very interested to read specific YA recommendations, Erin, because while we don't share all of the same values, they likely do overlap a bit -- and I also want my kids to read something besides the Japanese comic books that comprise most of their reading for pleasure these days.

(I just ordered "The Hunger Games" trilogy for the older ones.)