Battle of the Books

The problem with “problem” young-adult fiction.

I know parents who bribe their teenagers to read during the summer. In fact, I am one of those parents (though I’ve rarely been pressed to deliver on any end-of-summer reward). My standards aren’t high. I don’t insist on a lot of books, and I’m not pressing for, say, Bartleby the Scrivener, to consolidate my 11th-grader’s introduction to Melville this year, or urging The Iliad on my eighth-grader, who really enjoyed reading The Odyssey in English this spring. As school ends, I’m happy enough to see her flop down with the latest in Ann Brashares’Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. In the same spirit, I suppose I could toss Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree to my Melville reader, since I happen to have it on hand; curious about a book that has lately made waves in a Pennsylvania high school, I borrowed it from the newly refurbished YA (“young adult”) section at our local public library. The novel is “real and immediate,” according to Kirkus Reviews. But I can’t imagine my son contentedly chilling out in the company of Sura, the 12-year-old “juvie” (juvenile delinquent) who narrates the facile (and brutal) saga.

The book—described by the American Library Association as a “gripping story [that] depicts some emotional, mental, and socioeconomic factors that can contribute to youth crime”—was not a hit with Brittany Hunsicker, a junior at Muhlenberg High School in Muhlenberg, Pa., either. But she had to read it, because ever since 2000, The Buffalo Tree (1997) has been on the 11th-grade curriculum at the school in the self-described “middle-American” suburb of Reading. Here’s a sample question from the accompanying teacher’s guide to the novel, which was part of a mid-1990s surge in YA “problem” fiction: “What can we learn about the juvenile rehabilitation system from Sura’s fictional story?”

Thanks to Hunsicker, however, the novel is now off the reading list—at least for the moment. A recent article in the New York Times recounted the 11th-grader’s successful effort to get her town’s school board to ban the book this spring on the grounds of objectionable content; she read aloud from a scene featuring a kid with an erection in the detention center shower room. Not surprisingly, the controversy has been cast as “A Town’s Struggle in the Culture War” (the Times headline)—another skirmish in the polarized fight over moral values. In this story line, a politically conservative township with a growing population of evangelical Christians takes a stand against sexual explicitness. But this battle of the books actually suggests a more disconcerting cultural divide: a schism in literary values.

“I am in the 11th grade,” Hunsicker complained after her recitation. “I had to read this junk.” Set aside what might well be the prim tone of a girl who had recently been on a church mission, and the truth is, Hunsicker has a good point: Why are some 16- and 17-year-olds being assigned forgettable YA fare to analyze in English class—especially when other high-school juniors are wrestling with, say, The Grapes of Wrath, or even Moby Dick? The standard pitch for what are sometimes also called “issues” novels, as Frances FitzGerald explained in an essay on the evolution of the YA genre, is that they engage teens by serving up, in an accessible style, “hard-edged” topics relevant to adolescents in today’s troubled world.

The cohort of parents who have joined Hunsicker’s cause worry that YA literature like The Buffalo Tree exposes a vulnerable young audience to moral decadence; given that the readers who choose these thin books with catchy covers are generally between 11 and 14 (not exactly “young adults”), the content can indeed be pretty lurid—from fraught sexuality and awful divorces to child abuse. But the real trouble with such issues-oriented contemporary fiction is that it encourages what you might call (in Jeanne Kirkpatrick style) literary equivalence: The genre, as teachers have discovered with the help of accompanying guides, lends itself to trendy and tidy didacticism. And so the books can end up as assigned reading for older kids precisely when these students deserve to be discovering the difference between real literature and the melodramatic fictional equivalent of an Afterschool Special.

Problem fiction can’t be accused of being escapist trash—of which kids probably do get more than their fill, to the consternation of many adults trying to reverse our reading crisis. In Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading, a lively new book about their experience leading parent-child book groups, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone lament that kids are plied with fare that contains “no greater issues, no underlying themes, nothing to prompt critical thought”— Goosebumps-style “literary candy”—just to get them to spend time with a book. Yet the more insidious problem is arguably that kids are overdosing on a kind of literary medicine. Sitting bolt upright, they are instructed to swallow the opposite of entertaining texts, as Barbara Feinberg—a mother and the director of a creative arts program for children—ruefully observed in last year’s memoiristic Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up.

Reared on a regimen of earnest YA fare through middle school, as Feinberg’s 12-year-old son had been, kids are well-trained to discuss timely topics, like terrorism (The Way I Live Now, this year’s winner of the YA Michael L. Printz Award) or juvenile delinquency, based on schematic fictional treatments of them. They learn to look for themes that are right on the surface (“What role does time play in Sura’s life?”). They are instructed to spot trite symbols (“Consider the dead tree as a symbol in the novel. How are classic associations with a tree—life, growth—called into question in The Buffalo Tree? How are they upheld?”). They are asked to probe two-dimensional characters.

We’ve all heard kids complain that they loved, say, To Kill aMockingbird until their teacher took it apart in class, but the trouble here isn’t that such textual analysis isn’t “fun.” It’s that with formulaic fare, the exercise is critically counterproductive. A book like The Buffalo Tree can’t really bear more than reductive analysis, which reveals it to be a studiously packaged pedagogical lesson, a contrived vehicle for an ultimately upbeat psychosocial message that is at odds with the supposedly realistic setting (“At the end of the novel, Sura … has returned home with his spirit and his sanity intact”). But this is just the sort of saccharine simplicity that high-school kids, newly alert to life’s ambiguities, are beginning to pride themselves on seeing through. It’s hard to imagine an exercise more effectively designed to leave kids with the impression that fiction—in class and out, classic or not—is unlikely to be either very entertaining or enlightening.

In Deconstructing Penguins, the Goldstones peddle a cure that is not as effete as their title and that sounds very effective: Get pre-middle-schoolers and their parents hooked on the suspenseful idea “that every work of fiction is actually a mystery,” with hidden meanings awaiting discovery and debate—and give them good books that will repay the kind of sleuthing that can lead kids, and excited adults along with them, from one set of questions onto a whole new set. There’s a lesson here for classrooms in the grip of teacher’s guides, too: a reminder of how thrilled students are to find that even their teachers have something to learn from every reading of a rich text. Among the many virtues of such an approach is that by the time the kids have finished their junior year of high school, you don’t have to care if they’re relaxing with a mere beach book in June—and you can be pretty sure it won’t be a “dark and stirring” fabrication like The Buffalo Tree. Kids who have become true “book detectives,” as the Goldstones call them, are likely to be good at spotting fake profundity, which is the last thing they want as they shift into summer gear. They’re ready for some fluff, but chances are good that before too long they’ll have had enough.