Discussing the “dark” qualities of YA books and their strong language is much in vogue of late. Yes, books can“scar” you–in that they effect you, they leave their mark, they cause an emotional reaction that sticks with you after you’ve read them. There seems to be an impulse to keep teens “unscarred” in the well-meaning, but perhaps naive hope that they will avoid the complex, complicated and disturbing aspects of life.
Now, not all kids have the luxury of being protected from life’s challenges and reading a book in which a character shares their struggle can be cathartic, reassuring. And what better way to get kids to wrestle with these issues than through literature? Where the Red Fern Grows or Lord of the Flies may have upset me greatly when I read them, but that’s what made them great, instructive and memorable.
Terry Trueman is the author of Stuck in Neutral, which was challenged recently in Texas. The book is a powerful story told from the point of view of a teenager named Shawn who suffers from cerebral palsy, and as such can’t move, speak or even really focus his vision. He fears that his father might be trying to kill him to “put him out of his misery.” A parent in the Humble school district complained about “obscene” language in the book and said its discussion of euthanasia wasn’t age-appropriate. We talked to Trueman about the book:
Your book is told from the point of view of a child with cerebral palsy – what makes this story unique in YA literature and literature generally?
Terry Trueman: Well, I don’t think you can name another story the entire plot of which is based on the protagonist’s inability to communicate that is told totally from that protagonists point of view. But far more importantly– and I suspect a major reason for the book’s ongoing popularity–is that this kid is just like any other kid, but trapped in a body that he can’t control or use. Most teens feel misunderstood and unknown; Shawn truly IS!
The greatest honor of my life has been to write a novel that has changed the ways hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, mostly younger people look at a kid being pushed along in a wheelchair and seeming, on first glance, to be ‘all messed up’. Once you’ve read Stuck in Neutral you can never jump to that conclusion again.
The ideas in the book – the paralysis of the narrator and the concept of euthanasia – are challenging realities. Some don’t think their children should read and be exposed to dark realities, as we see again and again with challenges. What are your thoughts on this?
Every parent has a right and a responsiblity to decide what they feel is in the best interests of their child. Childhood is short and precious and we must protect our kids from dangers they don’t even know exist. But given these truths, my personal thought is that you do your child a disservice by trying to protect him from ideas and thoughts and emotions that are ubiquitous and real.
Literature is one of the places kids can go to discover the world where they are safe. Disturbing subjects are unavoidable; Isn’t it better to have a sensative and intelligent platfrom from which to begin these hard conversations than to have your child exposed to it in more harsh and dangerous ways?
Don’t even get me started on some narrow-minded adult trying to tell me as a parent what I should or shouldn’t do in raising my kids to be the best people they can be.
If you don’t want your child to read my books, ask for an alternative, but do NOT try to tell all the other parents what they should be deciding is in the best interests of their kids. Doesn’t this seem pretty obvious?
What dark or challenging books did you read as a child and what effect did they have on you? What about on your children?
I read comic books and Mad magazine and sports pages of the newspaper and LOOK and LIFE magazine when I was a kid. I’m 64 years old and I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know how to read.
Dick and Jane and Spot all came very quickly to me, letters, sounds, words. But when I was in school books like The Old Man and the Sea or Silas Marner held no interest for me at all. The invention of Young Adult books, the recognition of Y.A. as a group to whom books could be marketed, happened too late to do me much good as a kid.
Today all the biggest, best-selling books and series of books by far are kid or Y.A. books, Harry Potter, followed by the Twilight series and now The Hunger Games, these books have created a generation of readers.
…I don’t think anything I read shaped me nearly as much as the fact that I was simply reading, that I could find materials out there that captured my imagination and interest.
What do you see as the benefits to an open discussion about books like yours, or other “objectionable books”?
Isn’t it best to help our children deal with new, possibly fightening and difficult subjects through the intelligent and caring platform of literature rather than to just leave difficult and painful parts of life to happenestances and the scribblings on public restroom walls?
I would hope that the situations shown in great books, or any books would be useful for helping our children grasp some of the harder realties of life, and by discussing these subjects with the adults in their lives, come to healthier attitudes and feelings about things like euthanasia, racism, violence, death etc.
There should be and I think for most people is a very obvious and clear line between material that is profane or gratutious and unnecessarily negative on the one hand and material that is useful and necessary on the other.