Kids say the darndest things. Or so we’re told. Maybe, then, it is only fitting that we have turned children’s responses into a form of entertainment as adults exhibit a general reluctance to truly understand what children are saying; instead of striving to understanding the process of meaning making in the world of children, we filter their words through perspectives that, in some cases, have entirely forgotten what it means to be a kid.
In June 2011, an article published in the Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current Young Adult (YA) fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter. Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion, like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse, seem outside the scope of YA dystopia, the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.
Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society. (And here we see the humor presented by shows like Kids Say the Darndest Things, for we, as “knowing” adults, can juxtapose the answers of children with the “correct” responses.) Informed by a Romantic tradition that presupposed the legitimacy of children’s perspectives, privileging them over those of more traditional authorities, this stance also suggests that teenage protagonists are largely not responsible for understanding the intricacies of how their environments operate, expecting the realized world to instead align with their personal vision. Illustrating the potential pitfall of this practice, we need only look back a few years to the exclusive utopian vision promoted by President George W. Bush; dystopian for everyone who did not share his view, Bush’s “utopia” legitimized only one version of the truth (his). Although discontent may be an integral part of the impetus to change, we begin to glimpse elements of narcissism and indignation as protagonists develop a moral imperative for their actions.
Building upon this model (and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s) mid-20th century YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists. In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.
And even if the teenage protagonists of YA fiction represent those select few who transcend the impulse to do nothing, are they ultimately reactionary and thusly not truly empowered? An initial reading of genres like YA dystopian fiction might suggest that readers can extract philosophical lenses or skills through their identification with protagonists who struggle not only to survive but to thrive. However, further rumination causes one to question the accessibility of the supposed themes of empowerment at play: although characters in dystopian fiction provide value by suggesting that hegemonic forces can be challenged, the trajectories of these extraordinary figures rarely do much to actively cultivate or encourage the enactment or development of similar abilities in the real world. In essence, young readers are exposed to the ideals, but not realistic actionable steps. Furthermore, although Roberta Seelinger Trites correctly cites power and powerlessness as integral issues in YA dystopia, one is left to question whether true power is a result of internal struggle and achievement or is instead conferred upon the protagonist through some external force. Perhaps a product of a youth mindset that tends to focus on the self, teenage protagonists often fail to recognize (and thus comment on) the role of external factors that aid their quests; Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, routinely fails to mention (or seemingly appreciate) the ways in which her success are intimately connected to those who bestow gifts of various kinds upon her. Further challenging notions of empowerment, although Katniss develops throughout the course of the trilogy, she gives no indication that she would have become involved in rebellion had she not been forced (i.e., chosen) into a situation that she could not escape.
Echoing this idea, Lara Cain-Gray sees similar trends in the dystopian tendencies of teen realist fiction. In her analysis of Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, Cain-Gray argues that the protagonist, Plum, longs for some measure of extraordinariness—a saving grace from a dystopian world born out of banality. Here again we see that agency is ascribed to an external source as characters yearn for salvation; individuals long for someone to save them because they have not yet learned how to save themselves. Regardless of later strides made by Plum, a lack of scaffolding means that her model remains inaccessible to readers unless they have also received a jump start. If we refer back to the idea that utopia and dystopia inherently contain political elements, it seems to follow that encouraging a wider recognition of, and sensitivity to, existing social structures might address gaps in the developmental process and help youth to become more active in real life, while combatting the adult-imposed label of apathy that is currently in vogue.
Perhaps the problem lies in how we traditionally conceptualize youth as political agents (if at all). Although there are assuredly exceptions to this, the primary readership for YA dystopia—loosely bounded by an age demographic that includes individuals between 12-18 years of age—largely does not possess a type of political power commonly recognized in the United States. Prohibited from voting, a majority of the YA audience is often not formally encouraged to exercise any form of political voice; it is not until they near the age of adulthood that the process even begins to take shape with, at best, a course on Civics in high school. And, in absence of a structured educational process that promotes reflection, critical thinking, outreach, and activism, youth might be seen to cobble together their political knowledge from sources readily available to them. As author Jack Zipes suggests in his book Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, youth seek out agency through literature like dystopian fiction. However, one might argue that what youth are really after is a sense of empowerment that they are unable to find elsewhere in meaningful quantities.
Elizabeth Braithwaite comments on one such example of the YA dystopia’s potential political influence and agency in her discussion of post-disaster fiction. Building upon work by Erich Fromm, Braithwaite notes the important difference between social orders labeled as “freedom from” and “freedom to”:
Fromm explains that the two types of freedom are very different: a person can be free of constraints, be they obviously negative or the ‘sweet bondage of paradise’, without necessarily being ‘free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.’
Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States.
On a level arguably more immediately pressing for a teenage readership, however, let us invoke the issue of bullying, which has become a somewhat high-profile topic in recent educational news. In line with the discussion surrounding forms of oppression elsewhere, much of the rhetoric present in this topic focuses on a removal of the negative—and admittedly quite caustic—influences of teenage aggressors. Prompted by a rash of high-profile suicides attributed to this phenomenon, New York Times columnist Dan Savage started a project entitled “It Gets Better.” Ostensibly designed to encourage youth to refrain from suicide (and, to a lesser extent, self-harm), “It Gets Better” seemed to effuse a position saturated with the ideology of “freedom from.” Although an admirable attempt, “It Gets Better” ultimately projects a hope for a static utopia free from bullying—which, as has been previously demonstrated, inevitably leads to a dystopia of one sort or another. By telling youth that things will get better someday (i.e., not now) we are ultimately choosing to withhold information about how to make it better. Intentional or not, we have begun to slide into a practice of knowledge containment that mirrors the regimes of dystopian societies as we fail to challenge youth to become active participants in the process of change. Propelled by thinking grounded in a stance of “freedom from,” we are, in indirect ways, in the name of protection or aid, stripping youth’s access to information that would act to empower them.
In marked contrast, we witness a different tonality in movements like those involved in the support of gay marriage or the Dream Act. Perhaps coincidentally, both efforts have embraced the notion of “coming out” and the liberation that this freedom of self-expression brings. “Freedom to,” it would seem, allows individuals in the modern age to effectively begin the process of challenging patriarchal and heteronormative stances—as any child of the 1970s and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be…You and Me” well knows.
So what do we do, then, with the complex space represented by the intersection of youth, adults, publishers, and YA fiction? Ultimately, I argue for a reevaluation of the value of youth voices in discussion surrounding YA fiction. As adults, our natural inclination may be to protect children, but we must also endeavor to understand the long-term implications of our actions—after all, isn’t our real goal to equip the next generation with the tools that they will need to become successful citizens of the world? We must walk a narrow line, fighting our tendency to view modern youth as romanticized wunderkind while respecting the demographic as one that is increasingly capable of amazing resilience. If our generation is to have any hope of disrupting the adversarial cycle so prevalent in YA dystopian fiction, we must take it upon ourselves to educate youth in a way that encourages their empowerment while remaining open to all that they have to teach us. It is only through this integration, and a more sophisticated flow of information, that we can hope to avoid the manufacture of a disenfranchised generation destined to suffer the ultimate indignity of being born into a dystopia. To get there, we must whole-heartedly engage with children, seeking to understand the ways in which they process information and perceive their environment. Although we are armed with mountains of theory, we need to realize that we do not necessarily know better—we merely know differently. We need to take the time to truly listen to our youth and attempt to see the world through their eyes: focus groups can be used to ascertain descriptive language while large-scale surveys provide an element of generalizability. Inventories might help researchers get a sense of things like the pervasiveness of self-harm or the recuperative value of YA fiction. Follow-up interviews or focus groups could help us to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs, allowing us to alter our course should the need arise. In short, we need to actually talk (and listen!) to those whom we would serve.
 See Meghan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible.” The Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011 and Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal. June 9, 2011 for constrasting views on this topic.
 Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.
 See Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” 2006 and Maureen F. Moran, “Educating Desire: Magic, Power, and Control in Tanith Lee’s Unicorn Trilogy.” In Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Adults, 139-155. (New York: Routledge, 2003).
 See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000).
 Trites, Disturbing the Universe. 2000.
 Lara Cain-Gray, “Longing For a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 35-38.
 Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. (New York: Routledge, 2002).
 See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Erich H. Fromm, Escape from Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994: 34).
September 11, 2011 | Categories: Books, Community, Youth | Tags: #YASaves, Bullying, Civics, Dan Savage, Dystopia, Eating Disorder, Free to Be...You and Me, George W. Bush, It Gets Better, Kids Say the Darndest Things, Marlo Thomas, Romanticism, Self-Harm, Twitter, Utopia, YA | Leave a comment