Then I read a collection of quotes snagged from responses to the article, here: YA Highway: Field Trip Friday Special Edition: The WSJ and #YASaves. Halfway through, I realized that I don't entirely agree with a majority of the responses, and I actually do have a couple of things to say.
realism: aka "this really does/did happen"
romance: literary form, "its staple subject matter is chivalric adventure, though love stories and religious allegories are sometimes interwoven. Written in the vernacular, they share a taste for the exotic, the remote, and the miraculous."
The article in the Wall Street Journal is attacking the dark subject matter of some YA fiction, both what-if dystopias like The Hunger Games and realistic "problem novels" such as those written by Judy Blume. Is it good for kids to read about violence or sexual depravity, about murders or vampires or bad language?
Very naturally, the responses to this reject such pigeonholing of YA literature. Many people tell their stories about how reading about a character struggling with the same problem they faced helped them survive as a young adult--taught them that they could get through something, or get help, or simply that they weren't alone.
I applaud this. I know many people who have been likewise blessed. And having grown up in a very conservatively Christian community, I know what happens if you don't have that. My parents were the most broadminded, but I saw how my friends struggled, growing up in an environment that feared acknowledging the darkness in the world around us.
No. You can't make it go away by ignoring it. These things happen; by all means, we should be telling those stories.
Yet on the other hand.... My experience as a young reader was that most of those "problem novels" left me frightened and horrified. It was hard enough facing the idea that a good friend had been sexually abused; reading about another person in that situation didn't much help. In most of these novels, there's not really any solution for anything; there is only pain or degradation or fear, and various attempts to come to terms with them. (Admittedly, this is often true to life, but it can be an absolute nightmare for those of us struggling to grow up. And there are exceptions, such as L'Engle's The Moon By Night.)
I did learn to stand up and brave the worst the world can throw at us. I learned that courage is the most necessary of all the virtues, and I put my face to the wind and did not evade the evil that I saw, that I knew did happen.
It's only recently that I've begun to see the flaw in that stance.
Bravely facing bad things is not the only lesson we must learn as teens. We don't just need to know we're not alone, or how to understand others, or to look the world in the face and acknowledge it.
We need to know that courage is not simply a moral stance; we need to know that it can win.
That's why I kept going back to fantasy, to science fiction, and why I usually stayed in YA for those. I didn't want the moral mazes of Game of Thrones, I wanted the self-discovery of A Wizard of Earthsea, the small, necessary boldness of Sam and Frodo, the intellectual expansion of I, Robot. The wonder and the magic and the power to confront and even defeat the monsters.
Even more than that--and here's where I'm unsure that anyone is writing what we really crave right now--we need to be told that courage is for welcoming the good things as well as facing the bad. That it's as necessary to open our hands to love and grace and happy endings as it is to draw sword against evil, speak up against oppression, stand firm in the face of lies.
Not just eucatastrophe, that sudden joyous unexpected turn, but making that welcoming courage into a part of our everyday life and living.
Courage is for realism, to write and accept what is wrong in the world. Courage is also for romance, to accept adventure and wonder and the possibility of success against the dark. Sometimes they mix and touch, but either way, both are necessary to nurture a growing person. And as we see more realistic fiction, I hope we continue to see more romantic fiction as well, to give that balance to the courage the next generation will be learning.