Monday, February 22, 2021

Is a hero you are not allowed to emulate really a hero?

In the last few decades young adult or YA literature has become increasingly politicized. In a sense this is nothing new. Harriet Stratemeyer started altering the texts of Nancy Drew mysteries to make Nancy more feminine and less rebellious in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the entire Stratemeyer syndicate's output, which includes Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, was rewritten to remove racial and ethnic stereotypes. This is inevitable and probably somewhat of a good thing. What has happened lately though is that young adults themselves have been entirely excluded from the process. Lists of recommended YA books are compiled by small groups librarians and teachers. These lists are then circulated and become the basis of what other librarians and teachers select for inclusion in libraries and on class reading lists. Past YA literature, whatever else one might think of it, was heavily market driven. At one point, actual young adults decided what they wanted to read; now they are told what to read and the pool of options they pick from has all been pre-approved.

Now, young people have lots of other options ranging from TV and movies to pop songs. And even those who, like me at that age, love books can always resort to the classics which are still widely available and cheap, although the busybodies are hoping to fix that. Still, I think there have been real consequences of this creeping puritanism of librarians and teachers.

One of the big reasons to read fiction is to exercise your moral imagination. What would it be like to be in a character's situation. This move is expressly forbidden with approved YA books. You read about the hero of a YA novel because she is a victim who triumphs in the face of an adversity that you could never know except by dutifully reading about her. In fact, she is your moral superior in every way and don’t you dare even contemplate playing at being her. If the hero is, for example, transgender and a victim of bullying, it would be acceptable to emulate her only if you yourself were transgender. Otherwise you can admire her as better than you. Emulate her if you’re not transgender and the very same teacher who made you read the novel will destroy your life.
As a consequence, teacher-approved YA fiction no longer plays the role it used to in the lives of kids who love to read—those kids who are, in Caitlyn Flanagan’s phrase, deep-sea divers of books. One of the glorious things about reading Treasure Island was that you could imagine yourself in the role of Jim Hawkins, who actually kills a man at one point. 
These books allowed kids to do two seemingly contradictory things at the same time. They could imagine what it was going to be like to be an independent adult—it’s no accident that one of the mainstays of traditional YA was that the hero or heroine was without one or both their parents because that allowed readers to imagine going out on their own. At the same time, they allowed readers to savour their rapidly disappearing innocence—it’s also no accident that so many of the girls in those stories were tomboys as that provided girls reading them away to delay become fully sexual beings, a very tempting option between the ages of 11 and 16.
I don’t think it is an accident that the last generation of books that actually allowed and encouraged fantasy emulation of their heroes sold incredibly well. Think of the Twilight series or Harry Potter. You actually can emulate those heroes. Critics lambaste these books because they are “so white” but those same critics would cancel any kid who dared try to role play based on a character who wasn’t so white. (By the way, someone or, more likely, a group of someones keeps editing Wikipedia’s “Vampire literature” page to remove any references to the Twilight series.) The irony of this is that reading Harry Potter, seemingly the least subversive character in the history of literature, has become an incredibly subversive act.

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