This avid reader and writer hated learning how to read. See, my mom had these little books she used to teach us, and on the very first page, the page that would normally be the front end paper, there would be three or four columns of words like “zipper,” “run,” and “smooch.” OK, not “smooch,” but other words that would be useful for later life.
Anyway, I hated that page because I was impatient to reach the book’s meat, its substance, its story. And once I finished learning to say the words, I quickly moved through all the little books my mother had, and onto my first chapter book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I know everyone isn’t as interested in moving through material quickly like that, and that everyone has a different pace at which they learn. But, to me, a child’s learning pace or interest doesn’t speak definitively toward their intellect or the maturity with which they can handle the big lessons of the world, so when I saw the excellent post on Guys Lit Wire about this NY Times article, I had to throw my two cents in.
The GLW post responds to the article to the effect that, “Yeah, there’s a lot of dark, dystopic lit on the market, but it’s good to have it because it shows us the world isn’t as sucky as we occasionally think it is.” The NYT article, meanwhile, by the brilliant Maria Tatar (seriously, read her work on fairy tales if you ever get the chance), posits that yes, darkness exists in the world, and in literature, but perhaps modern YA lit has forgotten how to leaven that darkness with a child’s sense of wonder.
These are both noteworthy and legitimate points of view, but it’s not like there’s a war and each viewpoint is on opposing sides. I admit, I think some of the dystopic lit today is incredible, but I also admit that I think there’s too much of it, and not enough with the singular originality of voices like Paolo Bagiculpi (Ship Breaker) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games). But it seems to me that darkness is there for more than showing how rosy our world is (it isn’t) or to ignore a child’s wonder (it doesn’t).
If our world was a basket of roses, for example, I don’t think the nation’s unemployment rate would continually hover around 9-10%, or that Zuccotti Park would be a veritable village of the sign-wielding unhappy. And while Tatar was close to something when she said the old villains like Hook had a touch of the horrific, citing the “clock ticking inside a crocodile reminds us that time is running out,” I felt she should have continued to explain how Peter Pan is also about a young girl who runs to the world of childhood wonder to avoid growing up, only to face the world’s darkness and, through that childhood lens, realizes she must leave that childhood behind. None of this is to say these writers didn’t know or understand said information, but I feel it’s an error to omit it.
Why? Two reasons:
1. The Seeing Stone
In literature like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, to use Tatar’s examples, viewing the world through Harry’s and Katniss’ eyes is like the Seeing Stone in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Without them, we see a world saddled with deadly bigotry and a murderous government’s iron fist, but as the authors position us in the heroes’ minds, we a boy who leads a a diverse world against evil and a girl who can give a rival dignity in the face of a the Capitol’s humiliating Games, and a beautiful death–impossible glimmers of light in the otherwise impenetrable dark.
2. Blown, Their Minds
Would Won’t Be
To quote GLW‘s sage words, “I want the youth of today prepared to deal with the zombie menace, you know?”
And in other words: I think kids should be prepared for waits outside the classroom, the family home. It’s a great wide world they’re gonna get swept into, and they should know that there’s darkness, there’s difficulty, there are people who are only going to look out for themselves and sabotage others to meet their ends. And there will be sadness. And betrayal. And pain.
But if they read those messages with a grain of salt of salt over their shoulders, through those wonder-filled seeing stones inside their head, they can take the hard stuff our writers and the world dish out. And they’ll be OK.