Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

'Mockingjay': Is It YA That Makes You Stupider or Smarter?

mockingjay etc.I would not ever have been caught dead with a copy of Harry Potter in public. When I'd see my fellow adults, some of whom may have been kidults actually, toting those books around, I'd feel a very real horror. I think it is embarrassing for them! And so I didn't ever even read it. It wasn't just the squeamishness about the popular and mass market, even though I'm a little bit of a snob, sure-it's really just a fear of being someone who reads books that don't require advanced reading skills. Even in a world where there's lists like The Best YA for Adults 2009, and where "His Dark Materials" was basically considered grown-up dinner party conversation, I still think a certain amount of shame about being an adult who reads things meant for 12-year-olds is appropriate. So I was a little skeeved out by myself at midnight, while I was reloading Amazon.com, waiting for Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay to be released.

The book, if you don't know it, is the finale of a YA scifi-ish [N.B. technically "dystopian future"] trilogy, called "Hunger Games," which stars a teen woman who lives in a terrible time in which everyone's a slave and young people are forced to star in reality TV shows where they battle each other to the death. This latest and final book has a first printing of 1.2 million copies.

Unlike another YA scifi series that stars a strong young woman character, the Books of Ember series, this trilogy is kept linear and short enough-it's all narrative, no backtracking-and from the beginning, the point of the books is clear: that the heroine is supposed to basically smash the state and liberate the people and so on.

This is also way more interesting than Harry Potter's tiresome obsession with avenging his parents or whatever! I mean, that's the kind of value system I want to inculcate in the young!

But similarly, the "Hunger Games" series is also very clean in that soothing YA way. Everything is clear-including our heroine's romantic choices (there are two boys! Et cetera!)-and all is spelled out in fairly big block letters.

Is it making me stupider? Maybe! But only for a couple of hours. I mean, this kind of book goes down fast.

Though I can't tell you for sure yet. It turns out that Amazon is a west coast company at heart. And their idea of a "midnight" release is what people over here on the real coast of America call "3 a.m."? Only the kids can stay up that late to get their books. (Also? Check it out! Young people, staying up late at night for books again!) But from the first page, all I had time to scarf down over breakfast, I would say that the book is like totally awesome, you know?

55 Comments / Post A Comment

David (#192)

And then there is always everything written by Ursula K. Le Guin

deepomega (#1,720)

Is YA more or less embarrassing than reality shows? I can't think of anyone who hates both of these things.

wallsdonotfall (#6,378)

YA requires literacy, and that's one thing to be proud of.

barnhouse (#1,326)

omg no, no shame! No book can ever make you stupider. How can we be serious judges of all that is going on if we aren't willing to enter into everything fully??

Also, His Dark Materials is in every way a grownup book, and of the most rarefied literary quality; he is a very scholarly man. Pullman's conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the best things. But I have been railing against the moral turpitude and ghastly writing in Harry Potter for about forever (very embarrassingly once, when I was unknowingly thus railing at one of the movies' producers at some cocktail party.)

oudemia (#177)

I once had lunch with one of the producers of the HDM movie and quarreled with him about atheism (something they didn't have to worry about too much in the first and, it turned out, only movie, but which they seemingly planned to run for the hills from in the sequels) but approved of the casting of Nicole Kidman.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I TOTALLY imagined her as Mrs. Coulter the entire time I was reading it!!! Did you know that Tom Stoppard had been attached to it originally but then (I bet they were being all stupid with the God Squad nonsense) he quit.

semiserious (#2,430)

"No book can ever make you stupider." Are you not familiar with the works of Glenn Beck?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh sure. I actually read that sort of stuff once in a while, just to see what's in there (and sharpen my rage.) Not kidding, I do. The craziest thing I ever read in that vein was the first volume of the Left Behind series. Mind-boggling, eye-crossing, sidesplitting stuff, but I don't think it made me any dumber.

semiserious (#2,430)

Maybe it actually doesn't make people dumber, but it sure makes people more secure and stubborn with their ignorance.

GiovanniGF (#224)

The recent essay (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/books/review/Paul-t.html) in the NY Times Sunday Book review defending adults reading YA titles drove me crazy (it starts out talking about the eagerness for the release of Mockingjay).

I remind myself that I watch many dumb movies, so why should I be so annoyed by adults reading books for kids? But I am! I can't help it!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I'm right there with you, giovanni. And it makes me feel like a bad person, when I sneer in judgment at a grownup reading Goblet of Fire on the train, only to go home and watch Real World/Road Rules Challenge. These days, most of my intellectual faculties are focused on developing a logically consistent argument that makes me somehow not a blazing hypocrite.

roboloki (#1,724)

bod, just join the tea party. problem solved!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Oh lord. If that's the solution, sign me up for the Twilight books.

GiovanniGF (#224)

There were quotes in that Times article that made me hyperventilate: "Y.A. authors aren't writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people," or "the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn't bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy."

God forbid that we as adults be burdened with reading about adult lives! Bring on the vampires and the heroic teens from the future! Good lord.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I guess "sneer in judgment" was a bit strong, because I honestly believe that if you like something, you like it; whatever blows your hair back, ya know? (I watch Gossip Girl and Teen Mom unguiltily, after all.) But I guess I always think back to my bookshelf. I brought back from my mother's house my old copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, which I loved more dearly than any other book I read as a kid, and which I often consider just picking up and breezing through one day. Unfortunately, it's sitting next to an unread copy The Brothers Karamazov, and I always wind up thinking "Wouldn't my book-reading time be better spent on something weightier than a kids' book?" So I go with the grownup book. There's too many great books out there that I'll wind up never reading for me to justify spending any significant amount of time in the YA shelves. (But I'm working on the sneering judgment thing! People can do what they want!)

Is this an untenable standard to keep up? Probably! Do I hold, for instance, the Harry Potter books to a different standard than I do the piles and piles of comic books in my closet? Yes! But even then, I know that on my deathbed, I'm going to look back and think "I never found time for Moby Dick, but I read JLA #1-75 at least two dozen times? What's the matter with me!"

iantenna (#5,160)

it's really just a fear of being someone who reads books that don't require advanced reading skills.

"shit!" puts down copy of the latest pelecanos novel, picks up gravity's rainbow and starts it for the 100th time. gets bored and confused almost immediately, picks up pelecanos again. resigns himself to the life of a unrefined simpleton.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Strange! I can get really snobby about a lot of things, but "it's for kids" just isn't one. Good kids' stories are generally just good stories that play to kids' interests. You mention The Golden Compass; I'm also fond of Gaiman's Graveyard Book and Coraline.

I suspect that some of the stuff I haven't read since being an actual kid would also hold up well; Roald Dahl and A Wrinkle in Time can't have been all that bad, surely?

When my snobbery is directed at YA, it's generally because of its non-YA qualities. Twilight is crap not because it's for kids, but because it belongs to a long tradition of crap vampire fiction.

barnhouse (#1,326)

YES unreservedly to all the above.

deepomega (#1,720)

Ding ding ding!

HiredGoons (#603)

Roald Dahl!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

oudemia (#177)

Roald Dahl is best forever. Twilight sucks because it is sexually retrograde. If all the smart kids no longer read Madeline L'Engle I will cry.

cherrispryte (#444)

And with this, I officially have a crush on DD.

uws_annajane (#6,186)

@DoctorDisaster – Thank you, yes. Agree with the books you mention: Neil Gaiman and Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman are for everyone. And there's some amazing work out of the UK lately, by which I don't mean Rowling. Most especially, check out the late Siobhan Dowd's A Swift, Pure Cry, which could very easily have been published as an adult novel, and perhaps should have been (at least in this country, where it's gotten almost no attention). Or David Almond's weird, remarkable Skellig – but on that one, for heaven's sake don't buy the U.S. edition which changes all the British slang and makes the book feel really flat.

A lot of things published 50+ years ago would be sold as Y.A. now – for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird – and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Twilight, however, the tweens can have, with my fervent blessing.

spanish bombs (#562)

To Kill a Mockingbird would be YA? I re-read that recently, and it is still good, although the stuff about Boo is noticeably weak.

While I agree with you all that you could do far worse than picking out Newberry Award winners, there is really no substitution for the true titans. But honestly, I would have no problem with someone reading time-tested kids' books than over even well-reviewed current books. My only quibble would be if they choose to ignore all the hard books.

MaryPS (#5,688)

A good book is a good book, however old you are. Some adults read books marketed to teens and some teens read books marketed to adults and some insufferable runts (I'm looking at myself, here) force themselves through War and Peace when they're ten.

Mockingjay sounds good but this discussion makes me want to re-read E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy immediately.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The sand fairy has a posse.

HiredGoons (#603)

My friends were in line for this thing at midnight last night.

They called and asked me if I wanted to come meet them.

#how you got disinvited from my dinner party

Moff (#28)

Boy, I can't wait until they find that magic chart in the sky that tells us what's good and what isn't.

Adrian Chen (#6,364)

YA novel about a kid liberating a dystopian future society reminds me of the Tripod Trilogy by "John Christopher." Really good British YA sci-fi-ish:

"Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called "caps", which suppress curiosity and creativity and leave the recipient placid and docile, incapable of dissent.""

Moff (#28)

Boy's Life ran those in comic form in every issue for a while! Oh, Beanpole.

mrschem (#1,757)

I think I have one of those.

KenWheaton (#401)

These days, Catcher in the Rye would have been published as Young Adult. (If it would have been published at all.)

spanish bombs (#562)

Catcher would have been published; its brilliance is obvious.

Suzi Lea (#5,187)

Look, I don't care if it's YA or Margaret Atwood or a damn picture book, if it's "dystopian future" related, I'm reading it. Also, I just finished the Hunger Games last night!

uws_annajane (#6,186)

There's a LOT of Y.A. "dystopian future" (and just plain "dystopian") out there. Some of it is v. good.

Vulpes (#946)

Isn't it all a matter of marketing, though? I mean, compare some books that are "adult" and some that are "YA" and the only difference seems to be the position in the bookstore and the imprint, and possibly the length. And aren't a lot of the "classics" of the canon really "YA," except old and, thus, respectable? I mean like Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit and such. You're just buying into The Man's lies, man!

uws_annajane (#6,186)

Agree. As a parent I have to say there's a lot of crap published specifically for the Y.A. readership, but then there's even more crap published specifically for putatively adult readers.

Good is good, generally. And it doesn't get a whole lot better, in the surreal head-trip category, than Alice in Wonderland.

Neopythia (#353)

I think I read this book, though it was called Battle Royale.

Question about the whole Harry Potter thing: If I was in the books' target age group (more or less) when they were first being published, is it that terrible that I continued the series when I was more or less an adult?

semiserious (#2,430)

I am going to say in that example yes, but that logic shouldn't extend to everything. Then it would be totally OK for me to still be watching the Pokemon series. I mean, does Ash ever catch 'em all? I need to know!!!!

MelvinJunko (#7,078)

I suppose it depends on how you're reading it, no? If you're approaching it as entertainment, or as a piece of YA fiction, then it shouldn't mater. If you read stuff like this in lieu of more sophisticated material, then it DOES matter, but only in that it's preventing you from reading something that might teach you something.

And I don't really think a book can make someone dumb, unless it's a book about why and how to be dumb, and it's, like, super convincing.

GiovanniGF (#224)

I'm working on a proposal for a "how to be dumb" book for the "For Dummies" line.

erikonymous (#3,231)

I have wondered about the Hunger Games and, based on your stamp of approval, I might check them out.
however, I firmly believe the Harry Potter books have a solid value system with which to inculcate the young, too. it's not just about avenging his parents! with nearly every character interaction, Rowling is saying to the reader, "Look, kids, growing up is going to suck ass, but take the high road with people as often as possible, because taking the low road makes you a dick." I can get behind that message.
that being said, I judge people for reading Twilight, so … maybe I'm the dick.

cherrispryte (#444)

As the much-reblogged statement goes:

Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.

omitofo (#4,921)

love is kind of getting sidelined in today's society… especially in upper-middle-class society, "career" is seen as being the end-all be-all. So perhaps a vote for love is a positive note for teens.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

As soon as I get done with the novels, poetry and histories in the public domain I will get right on having an opinion about this subject other than OMG is that what those Hunger Games books are about? because no.

cherrispryte (#444)

As an adult, YA is like junk food: Once in awhile, it's fun to indulge (and some of it is quite enjoyable!) but it shouldn't be the only thing you're consuming.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

This is an excellent analogy.

(Can we discuss the book? With SPOILERS? On the internet? I read fast!)

I think there's a strong undercurrent of thought-provoking themes in THG series, which definitely makes up for certain aspects that can be lacking. What I love, however, is that the first book is so Battle Royale and Collins says she hasn't heard of it. Kinda makes sense.

Some YA is wonderful and some YA is terrible and any manuscript with a teen is classified as such these days. Totally depends on the book. My friend writes Ariel Levy-citing YA, which is awesome. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart is also awesome, and everyone should read it. It involves rebel art projects like SantaCon and such!

hockeymom (#143)

I asked my 13 year old if he had heard of Mockingjay and said, of course, why? I told him I was reading something about it being released and he started yelling "It's out? It's out? We have to go to the store right NOW."

And we are on vacation. On the beach. And he wants to leave to get this book. So yes, I guess it's good.

thistlefink (#7,086)

If this is YA, I guess I read YA. Fantastic novel (and soon to be a poorly adapted film!)


DENNER (#1,763)

This is why I'll soon cave to getting a Kindle, so I never have to feel embarrassed about the book I'm reading on the subway ever again, or do such things as read the final Harry Potter minus the cover, perhaps hidden behind my bag, hoping no one is looking. To read in private, kind of! Also, because sometimes one wants to re-read His Dark Materials when one is in-between "adult" books, and there's a giant picture of a cute polar bear on the front.
Also, another notable YA series is The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper. You can literally read those things in ten seconds each but they're super dreamy and really enjoyable. Another horrible movie adaptation here.

DENNER (#1,763)

Actually, those books might straight up be for kids, dang.

witte (#2,656)

I often read the same books as my niece in order to share the experience with her and further encourage her joy of reading. So, the next time you see a grown person out and about reading YA fiction, it may be heartening to consider that perhaps they have some actual young adults in their lives.

robots (#2,486)

I don't really see a problem with reading YA. I like it and I like that I can finish a YA novel in a couple days and get on with a new book, YA or regular A.

I like the question of whether reading YA is any worse than reality tv. I think it depends on both the book and the show. The Hunger Games > The Girls Next Door, but Twilight < Amazing Race.

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