Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thinking Critically About Books

A recent article in The Washington Post reported on a conference that investigated how fiction with dark themes (such as the popular dystopian literature) can alter teen brains. Valerie Strauss interviewed Maria Nikolajeva who studies children’s media and organized this conference. Here are a few of Strauss’ questions and Nikoajeva’s answers:

Strauss: Let me start by asking you this: Are kids’ brains really changed after they read the "Twilight" saga or "Harry Potter"? What does change mean, anyway, in this context?

Nikoajeva: We have always known that encounters with art and literature affect our senses. We feel joy, sorrow, fear, anxiety, grief. We empathize with the characters. We learn from them about ourselves and about other people. What we know today from neuroscience is that there are spots in the brain that are responsible for these feelings, that it is possible to identify parts of the brain affected by reading or watching a film. Adolescent brain goes through a significant and rapid change; everything that affects it leaves deep imprints. Very dark fiction creates and amplifies a sense of insecurity, which is typical of adolescence; but it can also be a liberation, when readers "share" their personal experience with that of fictional characters. So yes, all readers’ brains are changed after they have read a book, but teenage brains are especially perceptive and therefore vulnerable.

Strauss: What kind of "deep imprints"? Does deep mean lasting?

Nikoajeva: Yes, both lasting and delving deeply into the mind.

Strauss: Is there a possibility that an exclusive diet of such material [i.e. dark fiction] could negatively affect some teens?

Nikoajeva: Definitely. Here comes the question of responsibility. Writers who address young audience should, in an ideal world, be very careful about what they say. Exactly because teenage brains lack the ability to make judgments. In plain words, they may get wrong ideas. Not because they are stupid, but because their brains are wired like that. Because they are socially and emotionally unstable. The so-called social brain is under development during adolescence.

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For me, this dialogue reinforced how we as authors have an important responsibility when writing fiction for young people. Stories can impact--both positively and negatively—our readers. I haven’t read many dystopian books, but I have read several with overt sexual material. I wonder if this literature also leaves “deep imprints” in adolescents’ brains effecting their thoughts, emotions, and decisions.

In light of this discussion, here are reviews of two books which I believe are well-written but contain content that I find unnecessary and potentially harmful to vulnerable middle school or teen age audiences.

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume (Bradbury Press, 1971) shows the conflicts that 13-year-old Tony Miglione experiences when his family moves from a working class home in Jersey City to an affluent town on Long Island. His father’s electrical invention has caused the family to strike it rich and the extra money leads to interesting conflicts for Tony. Blume’s portrayal of Tony’s fears over losing the money; his discomfort with his new friend Joel’s shoplifting, covert drinking, materialism, and phone pranks; and his disapproval with his parents’ keeping up with the neighbors, all are portrayed authentically. But Blume also includes explicit accounts of Tony’s thoughts, emotions, and fantasies as he enters puberty. Does this personal information need to be front and center for middle school readers?

Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Michael Zadoff (EgmontUSA, 2009) also features an adolescent male protagonist. Andy’s conflicts include the fact that he is overweight (he wears size 42 jeans); his parents are getting divorced, he has few school friends and a domineering mother. The internal and external conflicts that occur as a result of his love/hate relationship with food are very real: he is bullied, can’t get a girlfriend and is generally considered to be a loser. Although Zadoff skillfully portrays Andy’s conflicts over these real-life issues, the book is full of locker room language and Andy’s thoughts and feelings about his sexuality. Couldn’t this book be just as powerful without the sexual content and bad language?

Blume and Zadoff apparently believe that blossoming sexuality are experiences which young people encounter and therefore should be represented in young adult literature. I question the benefit of revealing the intimate details of an adolescent’s life and thoughts. I’m not saying that sexuality shouldn’t be discussed with young people; I am questioning whether novels, with characters and images which can leave strong impressions on young people’s minds, are the best modes of communication.

Although neither of these books would be considered “dark” I believe that Nicolajeva’s conclusions also apply to suggestive and overtly sexual material in teen literature. A steady diet of reading characters’ most private thoughts may lead young adult readers to the wrong conclusions about sexuality and other private aspects of their lives.

Has our “tell all” environment cheapened intimacy? Has our saturated culture made sex too accessible to young adults? Perhaps we as young adult authors could consider using a more subtle and thought provoking manner to portray puberty and the transition from childhood to adulthood.

What do you think?


Jean said...

Here! Here! Carol. I think you're correct. Whatever we feed our minds (a steady diet of...)will mold our thinking, shape our life philosophy.

Whatsoever things are pure...


CL said...

I remember Then Again, Maybe I Won't having a huge impact on me when I was a kid- I loved it. My family never talked about sex, and I think it is really important for kids to have access to all sorts of information.
While I strongly agreed with the article and its implication about not overloading kids with dark and depressing books, I disagree that sexual content is a problem. One could potentially lead a kid to feel apathetic, depressed, hopeless, the other can do no harm but could shed light on topics that are not always discussed at home.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Connie and Jean for taking the time to post your comments. THis blog was a difficult one to write--there are many different viewpoints on this subject!

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Difficult topic, indeed, Carol. But you handled it gracefully.

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Difficult topic, indeed, Carol. But you handled it gracefully.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Bonnie. You know how I struggled over this one!

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

I guess at some level dwelling on a kid's sexual thoughts could feel like just another locker room influence.

Seems to me so much is in how it is handled and what conclusions are drawn. Just because a kid's thinking it, doesn't make it worthy of publication. Facebook bears that out!

I do believe we writers have a responsibility to explore subjects with teens in ways they can receive them. But that may not be the same as the ways their peers would process the subject.

We are not their peers. It's tricky to impart deep wisdom without being didactic but maybe that is the challenge.

Katherine Sturtevant's THE BROTHER'S STORY is a wonderful historical novel which (among other things) explores sexuality. I'd love to hear each of your reflections on that book.


Carol Baldwin said...

Joyce, Thank you for your thoughtful comments and challange. I'm going to add "The Brother's Story" on my list of books to read.

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