What makes literature great? According to Katie Ashford, Deputy Head and Director of Inclusion at *that school* in England, it’s got something to do with “aspects of the human condition that transcend time, place and personal interest”.
That, dear reader, is what is known as “motherhood statement” because it doesn’t really tell us very much. We have to deduce its meaning from clues elsewhere in the article. To me, the most telling clues are the statements indicating what is NOT great literature.
The Hunger Games, a three-part series written by Suzanne Collins, is offered as an example of teenage “pap”, which I find fascinating given that my daughter wrote about it in her final year of school.
In a speech responding to the prompt “Is Young Adult Fiction just for kids?”, she compared The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984 (an author who apparently does meet with Ashford’s approval). I think her points are highly relevant here:
Is Young Adult Fiction “just for kids”? *
Young Adult Fiction doesn’t have a great reputation. It isn’t considered high class literature; literature with a capital ‘L’. Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth: these are all considered great works of literature and each are named in the literary canon. The canon is a body of literature that is considered to be of superior or artistic merit; the type of literature that engages with deep ideas about what it means to be human. This is what gives great literature its ‘timeless’ appeal. For example, the jealousy and ambition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still relevant today. That’s clear from the TV series, House of Cards. Frank and Claire Underwood could have been modelled on Lord and Lady Macbeth! But, literature that entertains is often called “popular” literature, as if there is something wrong with being entertaining.
Young Adult Fiction is dismissed in much the same way. Some people make the mistake of assuming that kids’ books aren’t capable of dealing with deep ideas. For that reason, Young Adult Fiction is perceived as a waste of time. Something that is “just for kids”. YAF typically focuses on a young lead character and explores themes that are important to adolescents. Things like relationships, jealousy, love, power, betrayal, class, and loss. As a reader of well-known Young Adult Fiction novels such as Red Queen, Outlander, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, I am here to persuade you that YA fiction is not “just for kids”. What most people don’t understand is that some YA novels deal with the same timeless themes as the great works of literature. I will demonstrate this today by comparing George Orwell’s 1984 with The Hunger Games, a now famous example of Young Adult Fiction, written by Suzanne Collins.
1984 is a dystopian novel that was written in 1949, just after the second World War. It tells the story of Winston Smith who lives in a country called Oceania, which is in a state of perpetual war and ruled by a ruthless political party: IngSoc. The head of this party is the infamous ‘Big Brother’ who is never actually seen in person but who is on posters and statues everywhere. We’ve all heard of the TV show ‘Big Brother’ and it may surprise you to know that the concept came from this novel.
1984 was futuristic in that it tried to predict what life would be like in 35 year’s time. On the wall of virtually every room is a ‘telescreen’; a big flat-screen that can never be switched off. It is a two-way telescreen and has two functions: it can broadcast propaganda, like the outcome of trials and the number of people killed in the war, and it can also watch what everyone is doing. No one knows when they are being watched or by who. This means that people begin to police their own behaviour, as well as distrust one another. The central point is that people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
There is a clear parallel here between 1984 and ‘The Hunger Games’. Also set in a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two “tributes” – one boy, one girl – are picked at random from each district to participate in the “Hunger Games”. The televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem. There is only one survivor from the 24 tributes and the districts are pitted against each other. As in ‘1984’, the footage of the games is played back to the people. This is in the form of reality TV to supposedly “entertain” but it actually increases the distrust between the districts. If the Districts fear each other, they’re hardly likely to rise up against the Capitol. Does this sound familiar?? Like I said earlier in relation to 1984, people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
Every morning and afternoon on the train, I see grown adults reading Young Adult Fiction. It may not be for everyone but, as I have just demonstrated, some YA books deal with the same timeless concepts as classic adult literature. Concepts like freedom, power, and manipulation. The difference is that YA fiction engages with these concepts in ways that are more engaging and relevant to young people. It doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as juvenile, simply because it is entertaining.
Anyway, if my daughter’s right and The Hunger Games, and other YAF novels like it, touch on “aspects of the human condition” like freedom, power, manipulation, love, fear, jealousy and more, what makes the works of someone like Orwell or (god forbid), Chaucer, superior?
To borrow Ashford’s metaphor, why should we force our children to chew through these literary greens?
What makes these books preferred reading material for adolescents in the first few years of high school (as Ms Ashford’s students are)?
In other words, are Chaucer etc appropriate for 12-14 year olds? Does it matter?
I think it does.
I was a voracious reader as a young person. My mother used to buy me stacks of books from the second-hand bookstore, but she could never buy enough to keep pace with me. So, when I had nothing to read, I would raid my Dad’s bookcase.
By the age of 10, I was reading Jane Austen, Wilbur Smith, Harold Robbins (!), George Orwell, James Joyce, Jeffrey Archer, Maeve Binchy, Daphne Du Maurier, Robert Ludlum, and more.
I didn’t really understand much of what I was reading, although the experience vastly expanded my vocabulary. A common childhood memory is my older sister sniping, “Don’t use words you don’t understand”. To which I’d smugly reply, “No, I think I’m using words you don’t understand”.
The concepts though, were well beyond my comprehension and it wasn’t until I was much older that I appreciated the subtext. Yes, we could have “discussed” the meaning over broccoli (bleuh), but for the most part Dad’s books didn’t interest me. In fact, some (Ulysses, WTAF??) just confirmed what I had long suspected: adults are weird.
I have two teenagers of my own now and all reports suggest that opinion of adults hasn’t changed. So what then is the purpose in making young people read books that were never actually written for them?
Let me phrase that another way to make an associated point: could there be value in the books that ARE written for them?
I think there is. And some of the books that my children’s teachers have selected have been outstanding. Not only are they age appropriate but they deal with complex concepts. You know, the kind supposedly only covered by “great (adult) literature”?
The ones that have stuck in my mind over recent years are:
In a diverse and complex world, these are the types of books I want my children to read and I’m grateful to my kids’ teachers for selecting them. There’s plenty of time for dead white guys, should they ever choose to read them. In the meantime, they get to learn about each other and the heritage of their friends.
They learn that everyone – no matter where they’re from, what they look like or what culture/religion they embrace – feels pain, sadness, joy and love.
They learn that people can do unspeakable things when one group feels superior to another.
They also learn that they – as white, middle class children of professional parents living in Australia – have freedoms and privileges of which some children can only dream.
And if I (or my son’s teachers) have to use The Day my Bum went Psycho covered in macaroni cheese as a gate-way drug to get my rugby-loving, school-hating son to read in order to learn these truths, that’s what we’ll do.
Because there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d read Chaucer, let alone develop a life-long love of reading from the experience.
And that’s not the result of low expectations, people. That’s reality.
Try it sometime.
* Shared with my daughter’s permission and, yes, she had my help.