Then I started reading.
So far, I and my companion reviewers have read a lot of YA novels. Not a lot compared to all that's available, but still, we've done a hefty sampling. I think that by this point we've read enough to present a clear, birds'-eye view to parents of the YA genre as it actually is, so that we can put assumptions aside. The fact is, I'm afraid that there is an awful lot of what I would deem "trash" out there. Some of the books we have read have been shocking eye-openers. They are poorly written, filled with gratuitous teen drinking and sex, infused with occult elements and/or violence, peppered with vulgar language, or are even occasionally devoid of anything edifying whatsoever. I and another reviewer have even encountered a few YA novels that were so trashy, we couldn't get past the first couple of chapters. We didn't want to fill our own minds with its smutty content. The fact that publishers feel this is appropriate material for teens infuriates me!
And yet...although my snap judgment about the YA genre was vindicated by some truly awful or disturbing novels (Gossip Girl being a prime example), many others have reminded me that there are always gems where there is straw. The YA genre also hides within it some beautifully written novels, books I want my own girls to read--some of them maybe not in their younger teen years due to some mature content, but eventually. Between Shades of Gray and Every Soul a Star come to mind most readily as excellent examples of YA gems, but there are more. And other books are probably not destined to become juvenile classics but are still delightful, chocolate-flavored fun, such as The Luxe and The Grimm Legacy.
Does that mean that every parent will approve of the books we'd hold out as gems? Not at all. All parents, particularly those who homeschool and who must choose books for academic purposes, look for different things in a "good book." Some of us look for literary quality and accept edgy content with ease. Some of us may not want our teens to encounter even mild swearing, and some may be uncomfortable with the mildest of romances or even some other issue I have not covered in these reviews.
The only reason for disapproval that really bothers me, now that I have read a lot of novels in this genre, is literary quality. It is easy for parents to compare YA offerings with major adult classics, such as masterpieces by Austen or Dickens, and determine that YA is not worth their teens' time, because YA novels just aren't of the same caliber. This is a judgment I feel is unjust considering that the comparison is not apples-to-apples. YA novels should be compared against other novels in the same genre, because of differences in style, audience, and age-appropriate complexity. When given a deeper look, it is difficult to cast some of these books away as worthless reading. Speak, for example, is powerful, poetic, and profound. No, it is not a Bronte novel--but then it isn't meant to be, either.
It is also important to recognize that even the most well-written YA books contain content that is likely to be objectionable to some parents, because like it or not, our children are growing up and the books they read are growing up with them. Because teens mature at different rates and in different circumstances, parents will not always agree on what is age-appropriate content. All of us need to realize, however, that literature just isn't going to be as innocent and clean as we came to expect during their Ramona Quimby years. Like our teen children, plots are edging--indeed, must edge--into mature situations and sometimes danger. Characters swear as people often do in real life, and they don't always act according to the moral and religious teachings they followed unquestioningly as children. These changes are understandably disquieting to parents, including myself. I liked it better the other way.
It is this difference in actual content--not merely themes and topics--that I think is the primary reason many of us are wary about exposing our teens to YA. YA fiction, we realize, is no longer safe. We don't know what kinds of ideas our teens will pick up that will undo our years of careful parenting. I'm sure that many parents can relate to my desire to keep my children safe in mind, body, and spirit until they walk out of my hands with their entrance to adulthood. I want to know I've done everything possible in my duty before God. But I'm coming to accept during this trek through the YA genre, as well as by watching my two teen daughters experience new things over which I have no control, that because adolescence isn't going to be safe like childhood was, its modes of artistic expression are going adjust.
For me, this signals a need to adapt and relax a little. It does not mean discarding my principles of parenting and my protective instincts. It means to walk with my children as they explore new issues and situations, to talk and struggle with them, and to remember that literature (indeed all art), when chosen carefully, is a blessedly safe way for them to do that.