It all started with a conversation that I had over the weekend with one of my friends regarding a particular novel that is trendy with young readers right now. She wanted to know if I thought the book is suitable for children who are younger than the American Library Association's recommended reading level. The novel is part of a series that has been adapted to movies. Those movies have been popular with kids, and her children have been asking to read the first book since there is so much buzz about it at school. They are advanced readers and she knew that they would be proficient enough to understand it. The bigger issue for her was whether or not they should understand it.
That is, by the way, an important distinction that sometimes gets overlooked by parents who are simply happy that their kids are actually reading instead of playing video games. Unfortunately, many parents do not realize that just because a book is labeled as young adult, just because it is an award winning book for young adults, just because it is a book that their children checked out of their school library doesn't necessarily mean that it is suitable literature for young, developing minds.
My friend is savvy enough that know that there are a good many children's books out in the market place that just don't meet her standards, so she went online seeking a review and synopsis of the book that her children wanted to read and found that the summaries lacked the detail she needed to help her to make an educated choice regarding appropriate reading materials for her kids.
I gave her my particular observations about the book, but I found myself bothered that it should be so difficult for an involved parent to discern the content of reading materials when the subject matter of children's stories should be made as clear as is humanly possible. Ought there be ambiguity about the content of children's books? Is there a legitimate purpose for making it difficult for parents to screen their children's reading materials and I'm just not aware of it?
Are there any moral implications with regard to adults making books that contain ethically problematic situations available to children regardless of how parents might feel about it?
What if there were organizations that were responsible for keeping track of recommended reading for students that were not only neglecting proper parental notification regarding sexually explicit subject matters in children's literature but, in some cases, were seeming to frustrate a parent's ability to discern whether a book is inappropriate for her kids?
Those were my primary questions while vetting American trends in literature for children, and so began my tedious and completely disheartening pursuit of book descriptions for young adults - frustrating because the first place that my search landed me was…did the lights just dim?...the American Library Association and its "2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults" list. Woohoo.
The 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list includes 102 titles and was created from 200 nominated books that were recommended for children between the ages of 12 to 18. Now if, at this moment, you are trying to understand how any list of recommended reading materials could possibly bridge the vast abyss of maturity and comprehension that exists between the ages of 12 and 18, then you'll be happy to learn that I'm right there with you. Allow me the honor of reporting to you that this "Best of" list primarily focuses on mature themes in spite of the Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA) assertions that YA is for kids from 12 to 18.
YALSA is a division of the American Library Association. Quoting from the ALA website:
The American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world, providing association information, news, events, and advocacy resources for members, librarians, and library users.
Founded on October 6, 1876 during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the mission of ALA is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.
Also from the ALA Website:
On April 10, 2013, President Barack Obama sent his FY 2014 budget request to Congress, outlining his priorities for the upcoming fiscal year and starting the legislative work on drafting and passing a federal budget for next year. In the President's budget request the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) be funded at $177 million, slightly above the FY'13 enacted level of $175 million but still well below the pre-sequestration level of $184.7 million.
Yes, we all know that the American Library Association receives federal funding and few people would suggest that they should not. We are simply establishing that you and I pay for the existence of the ALA so that the ALA and its YALSA division can advise libraries across the nation about the content of new books. This is a pretty important job if you ask me because I just don't have time to read every latest installment of The Hunger Games or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I rely on these professionals who are tasked with screening such books to do their jobs:
"I am very proud of the hard work, patience and dedication each committee member took this year in selecting the 2013 BFYA list," said Chair Ted Schelvan. "After much deliberation and discussion, our final list is comprised of books a library can be proud to add to their Young Adult collection."
Got that? The 2013 BFYA list provides the names of books that any library could be proud to offer its readers.
You know, it's funny. It didn't take long for me hit a road block when I started perusing the fifteen page BFYA online document that I used for determining who the target audience of young adult literature would ultimately be because the list began with a book called Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson.
"Tiger Lily," thought I. "I wonder what that's all about." So I looked to the YALSA description for a clue about the title's subject matter. It read like so:
Before Wendy came into Peter Pan's life, there was only Tiger Lily.
Yep. With such insightful clarifications, how could a library go wrong? I repeated to myself, "Tiger Lily. I wonder what that's all about."
Peter Pan? That sounded to me like it would appeal to an 8 to 12 year old girl, and so it seemed that I was already at a dead end. Never one to be side tracked and without skipping a beat, I went to the Amazon book tab for further enlightenment.
Jodi Lynn Anderson explores the world of Neverland and the elation and heartbreak of first love in her dark, romantic, and very original YA novel Tiger Lily. Tinkerbell narrates the magical, bittersweet love story between Tiger Lily and Peter Pan. Tiger Lily has never been truly accepted by her tribe, and now the elders have decreed marriage to a man she doesn't love. She spends more and more time alone in the woods, where she meets wild, fearless Peter Pan, leader of the Lost Boys. Tiger Lily is intoxicated by the freedom she feels with Peter, and falls under his spell. Their love is all-consuming, and she risks everything to be with him. Then Wendy Darling arrives in Neverland.
Forget the Wendy part. Forget that she was brought to Neverland to act as mother to the Lost Boys and that she was quickly educated on the finer points of a self-sacrificing, unrequited love that wasn't all that appealing. It spawned an entire psychological genre as therapists explored various gradations of emotionally stinted men with the hope of stinting them more. Forget all that. Focus on the "all-consuming love" part. I know I did because – still dissatisfied with the book description – I went to Goodreads and read thirty of the 3,000 reviews of Tiger Lily before I learned that Peter Pan and Tiger Lily had achieved a level of intimacy that could rival those found within the pages of a Harlequin Blaze novel.
And by all means, please notice the jarring break in character that Peter Pan undergoes in the Anderson novel since Peter Pan, by definition, was emotionally unable to participate in an all-consuming love let alone a pseudo-sexual relationship. So you tell me. From the literary modernist's standpoint, was the J.M. Barrie's classic lacking because Peter Pan isn't sexually active enough? Was this such a terrible problem that it is now incumbent upon modern writers to correct the oversight? Did YALSA actually reward the author of Tiger Lily because she was able to effectively turn Tiger Lily into a more suitable sex pot?
Folks, that was just the first book on the list. It was at this moment that I thought to myself, "Good Lord. What on earth have I gotten myself into?"
Over the next couple of posts, we will continue to explore some of the 102 books of 2013 that YALSA and the ALA believe should be proudly displayed on every library shelf in America. I suspect that many of you will be surprised what passes for young adult reading in the year 2013.