Race in YA

I read an interesting article awhile back on the YALSA Hub about race in YA, and it got me wondering, is YA too white-washed? Certainly, there are a LOT of YA books about Caucasian protagonists, especially girls, but this could be said of many literary genres. Annie Shutte, the article’s author, comments that, too often, when a protagonist is an ethnic minority, the image on the cover is a silhouette, the character’s race cannot easily be discerned, or the cover model is Caucasian. I can’t help but agree that this is a problem in publishing and is in no way limited to YA. Look at the cover of any Harlequin romance novel about a sheikh and the model you see is most likely a white guy with a really nice tan. But what should we do? Should we stop buying books like this? Should we write to the publisher and express our concerns? And what do teens think about this? Do they have trouble finding stories with characters who “look like them”? Do they want to read stories about characters of other ethnic backgrounds and if not, why not? I wish I were running a TAG group. I think this could be an interesting topic of conversation.

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Diversity in YA

GLBTQ characters in YA novels are becoming increasingly common, but are authors pressured not to include gay characters in their books? A recent article on Publisher’s Weekly by Rachel Manjia Brown and Sherwood Smith suggests this is sometimes the case. The two cowrote a novel, Stranger, which is told from the viewpoints of five different characters, one of whom is gay and has a boyfriend. An agent  offered to sign them on the condition that the gay character was made straight or that his viewpoint be removed from the book. The authors write: “When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.”

I firmly support Manjia Brown and Smith. Even with the increase in gay characters in YA books and on popular shows such as Glee and Pretty Little Liars (which is, of course, based on books), there are still not as many GLBTQ characters as there should be and the ones that exist are often minor characters. Manjia Brown an Smith also comment on the lack of ethnic diversity in YA – none of their five protagonists are white. It would be nice to see more non-white characters not just in YA but in fiction in general. This would be a more accurate reflection of the world we live in, and teens of all backgrounds need characters they can relate to. I hope in the future we will see more well-written protagonists who just happen to be GLTBTQ but whose sexual orientation is only a small part of the story and not the main focus. I believe there is a need for these books and I’m sure many teens would agree.

Let Them Eat…Doughnuts?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s intention to make drastic cuts at city hall, including cuts to Toronto Public Library, but perhaps even more attention has been given to his brother Doug Ford’s erroneous statement that Etobicoke has more libraries than Tim Hortons. Even if this were true, would that be a bad thing? Isn’t a little education, entertainment, and all-around free access to information worth a little more than a double-double or an apple fritter? Perhaps if the brothers Ford consumed less Timmies and more knowledge, they wouldn’t have such a negative and misguided view of libraries.

Does Toronto need all of its 99 branches? Truth be told, I don’t know whether all of TPL’s branches are used enough to make them worthwhile, but I don’t think closing any branch is a decision that should be made lightly. Libraries are one of the last public spaces where people of all types can gather, not simply to read books or find information, but just to be around other people. For many, the public library provides essential services such as help finding a job, settlement assistance for new Canadians, a place to learn English, or to learn to read. The library’s programs bring community members together and allow people to connect with others they may never have met otherwise, whether it be at a children’s story time, a teen movie night, or an adult book club. Many of the library’s free programs enable community members to learn new skills, such as a senior citizen learning to use e-mail to connect with family members or a teenager learning leadership skills by being involved in a teen advisory group. Not to mention the thousands upon thousand of print book, e-books, electronic journals, magazines, CDs, DVDs and more that are available absolutely free.

Personally, I can’t afford to run down to Indigo and buy every single book I want to read, nor do I have enough space in my apartment to keep them. Many people who question the importance of the library seem to have the attitude that no one needs libraries because we have bookstores. This view is incredibly ignorant. People who cannot afford to buys books or rent movies or who don’t have access to the Internet at home would argue the library is essential to their day-to-day lives. As for those who believe everything is available on the Internet, they clearly do not realize that what is available for free often doesn’t compare to what the library makes available for free by subscribing to expensive databases so that people can access accurate information. True, you can find a lot of good information for free on the Internet, but not everything, and many people need help differentiating the good from the bad. Librarians can and do help people become better adept at using the Internet to meet their information needs.

Of course, if the Fords have their way, the library as we know and love it may cease to exist. In addition to branch closures, the threat of privatization looms large. I can’t say for certain how this would affect library services, but I do feel uncomfortable with outsiders determining what is best for a community they know nothing about. Even more frightening is the prospect of fee-based services. Many people take the attitude that those who want to use the library should pay for it. I guess that means those of use without school-aged children shouldn’t pay for education through our taxes, huh? The fact is, the people who need the library the most are the ones who can’t pay.

Don’t let the Ford brothers and their ilk ruin Toronto’s vibrant library system. Take a minute to sign the petition, and if you live in Toronto, send a message to your councilor and tell him or her you oppose cuts to the Toronto Public Library.

Library Services for Children and Youth

I read this article on the Library Journal site with interest. As a new librarian about to enter the workforce in five (hopefully short) weeks, it is always disturbing to read about positions being cut, particularly in public libraries since I am hoping to work in one soon. There seems to be a growing trend, at least in the States, to reduce positions in children’s and youth services. To me, this makes little sense. Young people are the future of the library. We’re always hearing about how important it is to get teens into the library, and how if we lose children as teenagers they may not come back as adults. But how can we get teens interested in the library without having a librarian dedicated to providing teen services? Too often, youth services falls by the wayside. Teens are obviously too old for story time but the adult programming is not necessarily going to interest them either (how many teens are going to sign up for a workshop on basic computer skills?). Without youth services librarians, teen programming will suffer and teens will lose the opportunity to gain valuable leadership skills and make new friends by participating in teen advisory groups. Children also need quality library services such as literacy programs and summer reading programs that will help them develop a love of reading. If we lose age-targeted librarian positions, do we end up with librarian generalists who serve all users, but none particularly well? Don’t we want to provide quality library services for all users?

The Dark Side of YA

There has been a lot of controversy lately regarding Young Adult (YA) literature and what some consider its dark undertones. A recent article by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal caused a stir among authors, publishers, and librarians for condemning YA books featuring themes such as sexual abuse and self-harm. The following paragraph stood out to me:

“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

I don’t agree that these books are “hideously distorted portrayals” of real life. The unfortunate reality is that for many teens, these things are all too real. I also take offense to the idea that someone who reads these books is “seek[ing] out depravity.” Teens reading these books are not “depraved,” but rather are looking for confirmation that they are not alone, that others are going through the same things they are. Or maybe they have a friend going through a difficult time and don’t know how to help. Or maybe they have never experienced these issues and they are curious. All are valid reasons for picking up a book.

Gurdon goes on to argue that “it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.” I wonder whether Gurdon has actually read any of these books. I recently finished Cut by Patricia McCormick, and I can honestly say there is nothing in here that would drive impressionable teens to cut themselves. Yes, the book is about a girl, Callie, who is in therapy because she cuts herself. But self-harm is not glamourized in any way, and in fact the book is about Callie’s coming to terms with the incident that caused her to begin cutting herself. If anything, the novel affirms that hope is out there.

Perhaps more disturbing than Gurdon’s article is one by author Ru Freeman on the Huffington Post in which she agrees with Gurdon. Freeman compares giving teens books about anorexia to “giv[ing] a young anorexic girl a great ball-by-ball account of how to starve herself to death.” I think it a gross insult to teens’ intelligence to assume that just because someone reads a book he or she will imitate the characters’ behaviour. Teens may be impressionable but they also have judgement. I doubt reading a book about anorexia will cause a teen to develop an eating disorder any more than the millions of adults who read books featuring murder would become murderers. I have yet to find a book that shows anorexia in a desirable light, as a thing to aspire to.

Freeman also writes “I can assure you that, growing up, I did not sit around wishing I could read about the hardships I was undergoing.” That’s great, but that doesn’t mean no one else wants to read about characters they identify with. Freeman is at her most presumptuous when she states “Here’s to all those adults who, having undertaken to have children of their own, choose to care for all children.” Thanks, but when I have children, I’ll decide how to raise them just as you did for yours. And I for one will not blindly assume I can protect my teenage children from the evils of the world by censoring what they choose to read. The world is not made of sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns, and while I agree that young children do not need to be exposed to the dark side of life and I understand parents wishing to preserve their children’s innocence as long as possible, if you think teenagers don’t know about rape, drug abuse, or self-harm, you are seriously deluding yourself.  The fact of the matter is teens are referred to as young adults for a reason. You can’t protect them forever, and while I would never suggest forcing any type of literature on your children I also think there comes a time when you should let them choose for themselves. And if a teen happens to choose one of these “dark” books he or she shouldn’t be judged for it, especially when the book in question may be providing a much-needed lifeline.  YA saves, whether the Gurdons and Freemans of the world like it or not.