Sarah Melse wrote an opinion piece in the LA Review of Books about YA lit and raising boys. I am also raising a boy (soon to be two boys), and I was interested to see what the article had to say about. I mean, as much as I'd love to pass along Anne of Green Gables and some of my other childhood favorites, I'm not holding out hope that my boys will drown in them like I did, and like a daughter might. But my daydreams of sharing books with my sons and my thoughts on raising good boys went nowhere NEAR this lady's. To wit:
You teach a daughter to be a strong, brave woman. But what, I wondered, do you teach a son? 'Don't get too full of yourself,' was about the best I could come up with.
WTF (I said this a lot while reading the column). WTF, lady. I am beyond excited to get to teach my son all KINDS of things, like smart people are hot, women are your equals, be respectful, cook, clean, look after yourself, brush your teeth, shower daily, be nice to people and animals, work hard, support your partner and family -- emotionally and intellectually, not financially. What is so crazy -- and difficult to imagine -- about that? And why CAN'T I also teach my boys to be strong and brave, as well as compassionate and smart and respectful? I get that society has all sorts of different pressures on women -- oh, boy, as a working mom do I get that -- but that doesn't mean society doesn't have pressures on men, and it doesn't mean the pressures on women don't come partly FROM men (or at least aren't fought by men). Why not jump in, excited to teach boys just what we teach girls: Respect others, respect yourself, take care of the world around you.
Beyond my initial WTF, and the worn-out debate of boys' books vs. girls' books vs. everyone should read all the books, here are my reactions to the specific issues Mesle has with YA fiction.
1. I'm curious about what YA fiction Mesle reads. She teaches gender in YA lit, according to the column, and mentions some of the biggest. Hunger Games, Twilight, John Green, Insurgent, and then, in a way that makes it look like she's reaching to fill in her argument, The Outsiders and The Scorpio Races. I'm not saying the last two aren't great books, but they're kind of a "one of these things is not like the others" in terms of recency and runaway popularity.
And here's where my arguments devolve into mild incoherence, thanks to sleeplessness and rage.
2. WTF? Since when do boys' books have to be about MANHOOD, when girls' books aren't about womanhood (hell, they hardly ever mention periods anymore)? Why does YA have to be about becoming an adult, anyway? And while we're at it, the popular culture man is hardly an adult anyway, thanks to Judd Apatow and his band of man-boys.
Also, while adulthood is something to be celebrated, I don't agree it should be portrayed as something marvelous toward which teens should rush headlong. It's not always fun, it's confusing, and scary, and while I hope we all got/get there OK in the end, growing up is not achieved as easily as Laurie achieves it in Little Women -- by meeting the right girl (something overlooked by Mesle when she holds the book up as an example of the joys of true manhood). One of the comments on the article mentions The Knife of Never Letting Go in a negative light, or at least in a light that supports bemoaning current YA lit's focus on the difficulties and general shittiness of coming of age rather than paint it as a delightful occasion with golden outcomes. I think this focus is brilliant. Life does suck, and growing up is HARD. It's possible to come out a good person, but not easy to come out unscathed, and Todd and Viola's journey to adulthood is wrenching in its realism -- and that's something teens need to read, and should find comfort in. You can get there, and scars won't kill you, even if they hurt.
3. Crappy ADULTS are a staple in YA, not just crappy men. There are just as many, if not more, shitty-ass women and mothers.
Has she ever read Okay for Now? OBVIOUSLY NOT. It examines all the things she wants -- what makes a good man, how to be a good man without a good family role model, and has an awesome man -- a librarian, no less -- who steps in and makes a big difference. Or The Book Thief! Hello, it's the inaugural winner of our Cliff Huxtable Award of Awesome Dadhood, given to all excellent male rolemodels, dads or not.
4. "My strange gender politics completely explicit: I actually believe in manhood as something that's real, that's inherently different than womanhood ... strength and compassion can be linked, that leadership is a responsibility, that privilege doesn't need to be apologized for if it is used."
How ... how is this something exclusive to men? Why does there need to be a distinction? See my initial rant about raising boys the NOT Dr. James Dobson way! And what's with all the focus on privilege? There are so many readers out there who don't have privilege, and need to read about people who learn lessons and become good people anyway. Being kind, charitable, and helpful are not exclusive to the select few who can pay someone to do it for them.
If you love the old-fashioned books where men are manly men who give pianos to poor young girls, and women are quiet women who marry and have pretty babies they love, well, they're still out there! If not, we've reviewed a ton and a half of books about boys I could easily argue are about "manhood" -- or really, adulthood. Facing up to fears, facing up to peers, facing up to tears ... Ok, that's getting silly, but seriously. Know thyself, be proud of yourself, stick up for your convictions and your friends, do the right thing. Almost Perfect and Playing With Matches by Brian Katcher, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Edges by Lena Roy, and a bunch of others. Also, give him some books with badass girls so -- if he's straight -- he has a few good examples of who to fall in love with. If he's not straight, there's a shitload of great LGBTQ lit out there. What do you suggest? What are your feelings about this subject?