This month’s “are middle grade and YA books terrible for readers???” article is currently flying around Twitter. This time, it’s not a thinkpiece about the decline of literature, thank god, but a piece in the UK Times about a British headteacher who has banned books like Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Percy Jackson and Alex Rider from the school library, because they are “so simplistic, brutal or banal” that they’re not worth reading.
I hate, hate, hate the idea the idea that kids should only read “quality literature.” I hate the idea that anyone should only read “quality literature,” but it especially annoys me when it comes to kids and teens.
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of forcing younger kids to read “quality literature” at all, and I say that as an English major. I barely enjoyed any of the books I was forced to read for school when I was a teen, no matter what they were. I hated (hated) Northanger Abbey when I read it for school at 15. I hated Emma even more when I read it aged 17. Now they’re two of my favorite books. Some exposure to classic literature is good, but if classes want to teach skills like literary analysis, it helps to study books that the students actually enjoy and want to analyse. I went to Princeton, potential bastion of academic snobbery, and I have never seen an English class so enthused as when we discussed Harry Potter in one of my classes one week. People who weren’t in the class turned up anyway, just for that one discussion. And those were all academically-minded college students. If you want to teach kids to love and think about literature, you’ve got to give them literature that’s easy for them to love first.
In fact, a lot of the texts we try and force kids to read weren’t ever designed for kids to enjoy. Austen wasn’t writing for kids. Neither was Dickens, or Steinbeck, or Shakespeare. It takes a lot of extra enthusiasm and effort to get younger students to connect with these works, because they weren’t meant for people their age, even when they were originally published. You have to convince readers that reading is worthwhile first, so it seems worth it to make the extra effort with more difficult texts.
It’s also worth pointing out that modern middle grade and YA is far more inclusive than classic literature. Otherwise, students are reading a lot about British white people, or, sometimes, American white people, and almost always men. If you want students to see themselves in what they read, you either have to expand beyond the typical middle school and high school classic texts, or give them something more modern. Percy Jackson may be a fantasy story about Greek gods, but it also has diversity in race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Banning those sorts of books makes reading even more exclusionary to huge parts of the population, who see that they’re not the sort of people that “good” stories are written about.
And you know what I read when I was a teen? Fanfiction. I probably read about 10 books a year, but I devoured fanfic of Harry Potter, LOST, Buffy, Firefly… thousands of words every night, staying up til 4am when a story really gripped me. I could not get enough of it. I never read “quality literature” outside of school assignments at that age. I read Tamora Pierce, Lemony Snicket, Meg Cabot, but otherwise, fanfiction. So, so, so much fanfiction.
I now read about 100 books a year, as well as writing my own (although, of course, my books are not “quality literature” either). I read YA, classics, fantasy, biographies, speculative science fiction, modern journalism. I love Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton with a degree in English Literature, specialising in 19th century novels, and now work as a writer, because I was passionate about stories. And the reason I was that passionate about stories is because I read the books that inspired me when I was younger, and then let myself get lost in those worlds, in all their possibilities, through endless fanfic.
In short: screw you, literary snobs. Let kids read whatever the hell inspires them. It’ll take them much further than forcing them to read things that bore them until they refuse to pick up a book ever again.