The other day as I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I came across this article. At first I skimmed past it, but after seeing the same link pop up from several different friends, I decided it must be worth taking a look.
I’m glad I did.
The author discusses the trend of YA fiction to be increasingly more graphic, both sexually and with gore. It really resonated with me because I’ve had some of these same thoughts, especially as I have children who are rapidly becoming more and more voracious readers. Already I’ve noticed that what they read influences their attitudes and behaviors. My seven-year-old started reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and immediately started using the words “idiot” and “moron.” Now, in the grand scheme of things, those aren’t the worst words in the world, but neither are they words I want as a regular part of my kids’ vocabularies.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually kinda like the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books. They’re clever, funny, and engaging so my kids can’t wait to get back to reading (often at the expense of homework or bedtime or getting ready for school). I like that. I remember being so enthralled with a book that I couldn’t put it down, and it thrills me that my kids are readers.
Unfortunately, the characters in books are role models, whether we like it or not. The kids in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” are a little snotty, they aren’t particularly obedient or motivated, and they aren’t uplifting. What they are is real. And, of course, as a writer I know characters have to be real and relatable. However, I don’t want that reality to be the norm. I don’t want my kids to emulate that behavior. I don’t want my kids to be just like all the other snotty, disrespectful, unmotivated little brats out there.
Once upon a time, characters in books were people we wanted to be like. Fern, from “Charlotte’s Web” was motivated, dedicated, caring, imaginative, and loyal. When I was a kid, I adored Nancy Drew. Not the newer ones like the Nancy Drew Files that came out in the 80s and 90s where Nancy was a little bit slutty, but the old ones with the yellow covers, or the even older ones with the navy blue covers from the 30s. I wanted to be Nancy Drew. She was bold and brave and smart, she had friends who helped her along, and she was relentless in solving the mystery that would help the poor soul in trouble. There was also Mandie, the Dana Girls, Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys…
I could go on, but you get my point. I wanted to be Nancy. Girls today want to be Bella, a whiny, self-absorbed little twit with no mind of her own who can’t function without her creepy stalker boyfriend.
What I would like to see is more books like Nancy Drew for middle grade readers. Stories that are clean, with children who are role models. Children worth emulating. Children who have adventures and are figuring out life without being horrible to one another. Or, if they are horrible, it is frowned on and portrayed as a bad thing, like when Edmund made fun of Lucy about Narnia. He was a realistic child with realistic flaws, but those flaws were not glorified. They were not portrayed as “normal” or uplifted in a way that makes kids want to be like him. They were shocking and a symptom of a larger heart issue that he later learned a lesson from and grew as a person because of. I don’t want my kids to think being bratty and disrespectful is the way kids behave. I want them to see that behavior as distasteful.
From the article linked above, I found this quote to be particularly poignant:
Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are naïve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”
As children get older and develop more of a sense of self, they’re more likely to choose their own books, and it is important for the adults in their lives to be aware of what they’re reading. I was in college when the Harry Potter craze hit, and a friend and I had a discussion about it because the conservative Christian crowd was in such an uproar, not allowing their children to read it, and so on. We agreed it was better not to forbid our children to read something, but rather to read it ourselves so we could discuss it with them. I still think that’s valid parenting advice, but when they’re older and have more discernment and have a solid foundation upon which to draw. I’ve thought about that in depth, particularly in reference to Harry Potter, because I originally thought I’d let my son start Harry Potter when he turned eleven, since that’s how old Harry is at the beginning of the series. That’s only a year away now. Looking at my son, judging his maturity and ability to separate truth from fiction, I’m not so sure. I definitely wouldn’t want him reading the later books yet.
I want him to read more books that are uplifting. I want him to develop a love for books and to lose himself in a story world and still maintain a sense of childish innocence. I want him to see calling names and disrespecting his parents not as “normal” but as behaviors to be disdained. I want him to identify with characters who will encourage him to be a better person.
Unfortunately, there is a sad lack of these types of characters in middle-grade literature today.
So I wrote one.
“The Treasure of Banshee Isle.” It stars two little boys who bear a remarkable resemblance to my own two boys, and it follows them on an adventure. There’s no angst. There’s no sass. There’s just pretty good kids and a magical adventure involving a supernatural creature and a treasure hunt. Personally, I think there should be more stories like “Banshee Isle” available for kids. And there are some. The Lemony Snicket “Series of Unfortunate Events” is an excellent example. The bad guy is very bad, the children are good characters who use their intellect and ingenuity to survive a series of, you know, unfortunate events. I’m sure there are more. Probably several. But they are vastly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of wimpy kids and sparkling vampires that dominate children’s and YA books. And the industry is in alignment with this craze. When I sent out queries, a got back about a thousand “Thanks but this project doesn’t seem right for us” responses. Clearly, it does not fit the current publishing trend. But it should. I suspect many parents probably agree. I’m sure many kids are open to an adventure story and won’t realize that they’re missing out on sass and angst if they have good alternatives.
I’m sure there will be those out there who won’t let their kids read “Banshee Isle” because of the banshee, and that’s okay. Those parents should protect their kids from the things they don’t think they’re ready for. But for those, like me, who just want their kids to be able to enjoy good, clean stories with role-model characters, there should be more options.