Friday, 28 October 2011

I'll Take My Young Adult Fiction Dark, Please

I try to keep track of the debates surrounding fantasy and young adult fiction in the internet. You know, for thesis. ;)

The two that caused a stir recently were a) whether or not the young adult genre had themes that were too 'dark' or 'mature,' and b) the dire lack of young adult novels featuring queer characters in main roles. Two separate discussions, but overlapping on many levels (as some people in the 'young adult novels are too mature' camp seemed to consider gay characters 'too mature content.' Morons).

The thing that prompted the Are Young Adult Novels Too Dark hubbub was this gem from the Wall Street Journal: Darkness Too Visible. Read it and laugh at how grossly out of touch it is. THINK OF THE CHILDREN, THEY'RE READING BOOKS THAT CONTAIN THE WORD 'FUCK'!!!!!!!! *swoon*

The Real World is a scary place, and I understand the desire of parents to want to protect their children from the scary place for as long as possible. But here's the thing: the Real World is going to find teenagers whether their parents like it or not. If you were a parent, wouldn't you rather your kid find out about the scary side of the Real World in a novel rather than experience it first hand?

Because that's just it, kids are experiencing the Real World first hand. Okay, so they might not be killing each other in an arena for the entertainment of the corrupt estabishment a la The Hunger Games, but most teenagers will experience at least one Real World Issue in their life before reaching adulthood. I know I did, and my adolescence was comparitively sheltered. Kids do take drugs and have sex, gay teens are bashed to death, fourteen year old boys are being abused, twelve year old girls do have eating disorders. To think teenagers aren't already dealing with these issues in their lives when they pick up a young adult novel is wishful thinking at best, and ignorant at worst. It's sweeping serious issues under the rug and pretending they don't exist (or rather, that they happen to 'other people,' not ever to your kids), and that's despicable.

In the end, I think most of this discussion isn't about young adult fiction at all, but rather about parents' fears about their children facing 'adult' issues and needing an easy scapegoat to blame it all on. It's much easier to blame little Susie's coming out as lesbian on a book she once read than to accept that your child is a lesbian because that's just who she is. In addition, all of these articles seem to be written by people who haven't been teenagers for a very long time, and therefore have a rose tinted memory of their own adolescence and have conveniently forgotten that for the most part, being a teenager kind of sucks.

Which leads me on to the other discussion: the dire lack of young adult novels that feature queer protagonists, or even queer main characters.

Malinda Lo and Sarah Diemer, both fantastic authors of lesbian young adult fantasy novels, have written great articles on this issue that explain things far better than I ever could, here and here.

In summary, there's very little out there. And that's really sad.

I am Not Straight. I'm bisexual. And while I've been out of the closet for little under a year, I've been bisexual my whole life. It wasn't a recent development. I was convinced I was straight until I was about sixteen when I started questioning my sexuality, but I'd had crushes on girls for years, and it really confused me. It honestly didn't occur to me why I could daydream about Hugh Jackman one minute and Kirsten Dunst the next, until it hit me that "Oh yeah, bisexuality exists. Duh."

Why did it take me so long to reach that conclusion, when it should have been obvious? Probably because there was so little mention of bisexuality in the popular culture I consumed as a teenager. I didn't encounter a single book with a bisexual character in it in my teens, and the first book I read that featured a lesbian protagonist was Sarah Waters' Tipping The Velvet, which is a fantastic book but certainly not one that is marketed towards young adults.* So I just thought that my attraction to people of either gender was weird, and I tried to deny it for a while until one day I just decided that fuck it, I like women too.**

I would have loved a young adult book that had a bisexual or lesbian protagonist. If Malinda Lo's Ash or Sarah Diemer's The Dark Wife had been written when I was in my teens, I would have adored them.*** And not because I was ashamed of my feelings and needed to be reassured that they were okay. I'm very lucky in that I have a several gay and lesbian family members, so I never thought that homosexuality was wrong myself, nor did I have any fears about coming out to my family. I couldn't have come out to my classmates, but that's another story.

And as I said, mine is a very lucky position. Many queer teens don't have the luxury of coming out without the risk of severe bullying and in some extreme, but sadly far from uncommon cases, the risk of being cut off from their families or even death.

You can imagine how important a book with a young queer protagonist would be for these kids. The knowledge that they are not alone, that there are others out there who understand what they're going through and, above all, that it's okay to be queer, is absolutely vital. As for the straight kids, they will benefit from reading books with queer protagonists because it shows them that the so-called 'gay agenda' may not be so evil after all, or even an agenda for that matter. That queer kids are, oddly enough, just as 'normal' as straight kids (they do their homework, they sleep in on weekends, they worry about asking their crush to the dance! How about that?)!

Everyone wants a story they can relate to. So if all the stories on the shelves are ones where only straight people and straight relationships exist, you're effectively telling kids who aren't straight that they don't deserve any stories that they can relate to, thus telling them that their sexuality is not 'normal' and should be swept under the rug like all the other 'Dark Themes' that parents screech about in the Wall Street Journal.

It's not that people aren't writing young adult books with queer protagonists. They are. They just need to be published.

* That book contained some of the most graphic sex scenes I'd encountered at that point, gay or straight. Cue little sixteen year old me blushing like crazy and hiding the book in a drawer because I was paranoid. Then I remembered that my parents were okay with me reading The Stories of Eva Luna at the age of eleven and felt a bit silly.

** And lo, it was most glorious.

*** Incidently, I adore Ash and The Dark Wife as an adult and highly recommend them.