What happens when we're growing up, with our bodies, with our souls, and with our sexuality, can change the way we look at things and who we are, forever...
Especially if that something that happens is negative, bad, and sad.
Reality and survival, in YA literature is a serious thing to explore. The truth is, stuff... happens. It's important to know that others have survived. Period.
Many people prefer to pretend that stuff doesn't happen, so they cultivate a community of silence -- maybe in their homes, certainly in their schools, and it reflects on the bookshelves they want within their schools. Uncomfortable people trying to control reality...encouraging silence, figuring that some things are too horrible for YA readers to know about or to talk about... and so, we get true-to-reality stories being smushed away, hushed up, and put in a box.
No matter that this is important work, and that any work that says, "Hey, this happened to me, to someone I know, maybe to you. It was sucky/hard/weird/breathtaking. But I survived. So can you" is vital. It's important to tell truths, and let in the light about the real facts of life. Yet books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou and The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer by Gary Paulsen, have been challenged, taken off of reading lists, and banned.
Though it was first published in 1969, Maya Angelou's novel received its most recent challenge from an Annapolis, MD high school in 2006 when it was removed from the freshman English reading list. The challenges for this book are because of sexual exploration by teenagers, rape and homosexuality. In 2003 it was challenged in Fairfax (VA) school libraries by a group called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (such a group, yes, Virginia, exists!) for "profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture."
"Bad." Such a thoroughly non-descriptive word. Bad books. Misbehaving storylines. Errant facts. I didn't find this 'badness' morally degenerating, when I read this book. I found what happened to Maya shocking, indeed. I read of a girl becoming a woman who faced enormous setbacks to becoming an adult, a sane person, an artist, yet who endured, came away strong, and better still, walked away with her scars to be an inspiration to others. Maya Angelou did more than merely survive. She kicked butt.
The troubled boy who wakes up with his mother in his bed and flees to become an agricultural laborer is based loosely on Paulsen himself. This book has been challenged because the narrator is a runaway, has disturbing thoughts about his mother's "wrong" need for him, graphic lustful thoughts about a sleazy carny dancer, and eventually describes intercourse with her. Though the phrase is tired, it is a coming of age novel, and is a realistic portrayal of a boy with few positive role models from which to choose. In a parallel with the first novel, this narrator, too, goes on from that precarious, hurtful time in his life to grow stronger in time. He stumbles, but he gets up and keeps on ticking. Those are the facts of life:
Stuff happens, but we can choose to survive.
To us, the YA Readers, Young, Adult, or Young Adult:
May the books you read add titanium steel to your backbone.
May they get you through a dark night.
May they let you know that someone else has been there, too.
May they tell you the whole truth when you're ready to read it.
Celebrate the freedom to read books about things so bad it's hard to talk about them... Celebrate being free to read!