July 25th, 2013

YA Round Up part 2: Moral Ambiguity

Following up on my first post on my YA reading experiences, I’d like to talk about a topic not particularly dear to my heart but, I feel, still necessary to being a human: moral ambiguity.

This is one area where I feel that YA writers have advanced considerably since my youth. Maybe I’m just misremembering, or was reading the wrong books at the time, but I recall the YA novels of the late eighties and early nineties being exclusively about exclusively good people. Earnest souls trying to do the right thing while still having a good time and maybe getting a boyfriend/girlfriend. Whereas, in Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet does something truly terrible in the first chapter–tricks her toddler half-sisters into eating cat excrement. She’s mad at her dad and taking it out on the little and vulnerable, but it takes her the whole book to own up to her failing. And that’s not even the plot of the book–lots of other stuff is going on, and Violet’s realization that she has hurt little children for no reason is interleaved carefully, not a huge moment, but a quiet meaningful one.

Just to be clear, the George Clooney book is technically middle-grades: the protagonist is 12 and the recommended readers are 10+. When you get to the teen years, a few things change–most particularly, genres split off from the whole mass of “age-appropriate books.” For instance, I read two Harlequin Teen books by Hannah Harrington (I didn’t mean to read two by the same author–I got confused–so I’ll try someone else from the imprint soon). In both of the these books, the heroine (definitely a heroine and not a protagonist) is kept pure as the driven–she feels so sensitive, so *guilty* for something that’s gone wrong, but in both the terrible Saving June and the kind of ok Speechless, the final catharsis is not the heroine taking responsibility for her actions but in fact, deciding her guilt is unreasonable and she’s not at fault for anything. Powerful role models–ha!

In better books, the characters are more complex and it’s not as simple as “good person/bad person” or even “good action/bad action.” In the super-famous The Hunger Games, 24 children battle to the death (I know, when you put it that way…) I was really scared that author Suzanne Collins would carefully set up the action so that protagonist Katniss Everdeen would never have to deliberately kill anyone, but somehow through her strength and ingenuity still win anyway. Such a classic YA move. But Collins comes through in the end, with Katniss causing some deaths indirectly and finally actually murdering some kid. It’s an odd kind of victory, but hurray!

Authors of the protagonists-are-heros camp believe that young readers can only root for a character that never does anything wrong. Actually, lots of writers of adult fiction believe that too, and hell, it’s true for some readers. But it’s condescending to assume I can’t tell the difference between someone who was put in a bad position or screwed up, and someone purely evil. I think it’s a good lesson for young adults to learn, and also reading about these grey-area folks makes reading so much lesson boring.

That said, I do feel the characters in Gossip Girl are so bad they’re boring. If no one ever tells the truth, it’s as predictable and dull as if they always are honest. My dislike of this book (I refer only to the first GG book, not the series–I think I’m done now) might stem not from the moral-one-noteness but from the entirely separate issue of incredibly low stakes. Who cares if the couple that has no love or respect for each other has sex with each other or other people entirely? Who cares if a pretty girl feels lonely at a party for a minute? I mean, I’ve known some shallow rich people in my day, but come *on.*

I think I’m going to read a grown-up book next–I need a break from all this youth! But I’ll be back with more YA roundup in August, promise!

You know you love me (Gossip Girl joke!)

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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