Weighing in on the Sick Lit Debate

The other day I was listening to CBC (as is my wont). The current was airing a segment on a new genre of YA lit dubbed “sick-lit.”  I listened with great interest; a new YA lit genre  I have not heard of?

Why do tell!

Imagine my disappointment (not to mention severe, itchy case of irritation)when I discovered Sick Lit is basically  a sensationalist new term for, um, YA literature, or if you want to get specific, what librarians like to call Problem lit. But we do this mainly for the purpose of making awesome booklists for kids who like to read about the nitty gritty of real life rather than trying to denigrate its importance.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines Sick Lit as, “literature which features sick children and is written for children.” They then give the sentence where the word was used (and I might be mistaken here, but I think maybe even coined): “Children’s book expert Amanda Craig … has been sent about 12 teen sick-lit books over the past year, but she feels so strongly she will not review them.” Open dictionary

The whole debate began when the Daily Mail in the UK published an article bemoaning that well, nitty gritty books are written for children (I would argue that they are written for young adults, not children but perhaps this is just a semantic quibble). The article uses the term Sick Llit to encompass books about all sorts of issues, not just about dying children. They talk about books with teen suicide, depression and death. The main argument is that kids will use these books as How-to guides: how to commit suicide, how to have an eating disorder, how to self-harm.

Now, I obviously don’t live in London. I don’t read the Daily mail. But luckily John Green, who’s book Fault in their Stars was the  whipping boy for the argument and which I reviewed on this blog, posted this lovely video to give me a clue about what kind of newspaper they are:

Oh. Now it all makes sense…

Still,  this is a subject that comes up rather often for me as a Young Adult Librarian. It is that thorny question, IS THIS BOOK APPROPRIATE FOR THIS AGE? that causes me to go rain man.

Especially at this time of year when I am furiously reading as much as I can to find  a longlist of books that could be suitable for my school’s community reads program (which involves finding a book that  girls from 12-17 would appreciate (Yeah, I know. Talk about your wild goose chases. Your quest for the holy grail. Your needle in the haystack. Choose your cliché…)

Every year, the committee chooses a book and every year there are comments from parents saying how they can’t believe we are asking their lovely, innocent child to read a book about war, or poverty or the libido of teenage boys.

This bothers me on a few levels.  First, the basic one: fiction is meant to reflect ourselves back to us and thus help us understand the human condition a little better. Being young is intense, to put it mildly, being a young adult especially so. Your body is not only changing, but your brain. Your world expands at a rate that would give the big bang a run  for its money.  In addition to trying to figure out how things work, you are also trying to figure out how you work (both life-long endeavours I think) and where you fit in to the bigger picture.

Books are the safest place youth can explore this big bad world without getting chewed up and spit out. What is any reader looking for in a book? An entertaining read, first of all. An intriguing, original story with characters we can empathize with. In the best case scenario, characters where we see some of our own thoughts and emotions reflected, where we come close its pages and discover our understanding of the world has shifted, grown larger.

I agree with Ms. Craig that authors of young adult literature have a moral and social responsibility to their young audience. But contrary to her opinion, I think they have the moral and social responsibility to write about the hard issues. To write about depression. About the fact that people die, including kids. They have the responsibility to write about self-harm and eating disorders and poverty and substance abuse and how the world is going to hell because of humanity’s irresponsibility and to do it in a way that does not glorify these things but rather depicts the beautiful, flawed humanity behind all these bad decisions. To give them a story where at the end, they understand a little bit more about what the consequences are of such decisions and rather than making them want to take a needle and overdose, give them a character where they can recognize in themselves some of the same faults as the character and choose differently.

Or at least, give them a story they can’t put down…

Yes, kids can be very vulnerable.  And yes, some might be in a place where they will not be able to empathise in the way the author intends.  And that is terrible and sad. But blaming the book is like blaming J.D. Salinger for the murder of John Lennon. The author cannot be responsible for how her audience interprets her story.

I also think it is our responsibility as adults, parents, mentors, friends, whatever you are to the young people in your life, to talk to them. To talk to them about their life, but also about what books they are reading, nay, to go beyond that and to actually show an interest in what they are thinking. That means, I know, this is a revolutionary thought, but actually spending time with them. Have a sit down dinner. Go for a walk. Heck, take a roller coaster ride and discuss plot while in line.

In fact, I am pretty sure that reading will be what saves my relationship with my children during the turbulent teens (not that it is in danger at the moment- I am just speculating). Even if my daughter is pissed off at me for nagging her about her room, or about her homework, we can usually find some neutral ground with the simple question, “What are you reading right, now?”

And if you are not heeding your children’s book recommendations then you are shooting yourself in the foot in terms of conversation possibilities with your kids.  It is a way to talk about what matters to you, what your values are on a topic that is not too personal and without being preachy. It also gives them the opportunity to disagree with you- to hone their critical skills on something other than your cooking or your obsessive need to have wet towels hung up rather than left on their bedroom floor.

But mainly, I take umbrage with this paranoid need to control the information our children receive. In addition to the fact that it is a futile endeavour (they will learn about death, depression, drugs, doom (all those good Ds) regardless of our locking up that particular cookie jar and in other, more harmful venues than a novel.

I am of the opinion that this type of helicopter parenting belittles our children. Do we not trust that they know the difference between fiction and reality? Do we not think our children will be able to understand the meaning of the stories presented to them? It speaks to our lack of trust in our own children’s intellectual ability.

How are they ever supposed to grow up to be thinking, empathetic citizens of the world if we insist on slamming the door to this very world in their face? What are we trying to accomplish here? How will controlling what they read in any way benefit our children?

Having said that, a certain amount of mediation is needed. Every kid is different. Every kid has a threshold where if they go beyond a certain point they will be traumatized by what they read (but honestly, it will probably be more what they watch on TV or in the cinema).  As a librarian, I have the responsibility to warn the student if I think the subject matter might be difficult for them.

But do I have the authority to stop them from reading it?

No, I do not. And more often than not, when the kid does not heed my warning and takes the book out anyway, they will self-regulate. If it is too much for them, they will stop reading, simple as that.

Our job as parents applies to our children as readers: we need to open the door wide and trust them to navigate their way. And when they stumble, which they inevitably will, to be by their side with hand extended. But to not give them the chance, to keep books away from them because the subject matter offends our very fragile parental sensibilities is not only wrong-headed, it is negligent.

3 thoughts on “Weighing in on the Sick Lit Debate

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