The Poignancy of Media for Youth

| Friday, October 19, 2012
Today's Tune: Hell + Bliss

Once upon a time, the Internet told me I should watch a show called Adventure Time because it was funny. As someone who's never strayed far from media for kids and teens, I gave it a shot. I liked it a lot. It WAS funny. So I kept watching. I found myself enjoying the writer's approach to the show -- they found a near-perfect blend of storylines suited for their younger audience and humor that could appeal to an older audience, and they did it without trying to forcibly rope in adult viewers.

So anyway, I got interested and invested in this show, which is usually irreverent and very silly, and then started noticing themes that were surprisingly moving given the general tone of the writing. I say "surprisingly," but really, this sort of content isn't a surprise to me. Children's and YA media proves, time and time again, that it has the ability for incredible plotting, deep characterization, and nuanced exploration of the human condition.

But, of course, it's not "real" literature.

Hannah Moskowitz just wrote a blog post about why she reads and writes YA, where she touches on the way certain folks will ask kidlit/YA writers when they're planning on writing REAL books, or talk about all the ways they think kidlit and YA just just not very deep, you know? (She also made a really good point about the sexism apparent in the preference for uber literary novels).

The attitude that media for youth can't possibly be meaningful or important is old. Very old. There's always been this sort of idea that anything commercial, or written for kids, or something that isn't a Very Important Literary Novel is worthless fluff for lesser minds. Something to pay the bills with, perhaps, but certainly nothing worth taking seriously or feeling proud about.

And while watching a show like Adventure Time, I could certainly see folks like that wrinkling their noses and thinking, "ugh, what mindless drivel." Because at the end of the day, AT is a show written for young people, and everyone knows young people can't appreciate nuanced themes like passion or loss or death or societal struggle or politics or personal journey. That sort of stuff DEFINITELY can't be spliced between scenes of someone beating someone up with their butt and power-crazed penguins.

Except when it can.

While watch Adventure Time or reading YA or enjoying other media for youth, you'll notice that it can drop poignancy and FEELS on you out of nowhere. As silly as AT is, it drops hints of depth and tragedy. The colorful land of Ooo is actually a post-apocolyptic world where our hero, Finn, is the last human being. We see hints of sadness and loneliness in multiple characters. Most recently, (SPOILER ALERT), the ridiculously inept Ice King was revealed to have had a deep relationship with another character; a relationship that was ruined and forgotten about when he went mad from the crown he wears. Over the course of one episode, a character generally regarded as a goofy weirdo achieved a great deal of depth and a hefty dose of tragic backstory.

This is the power of writing for young people, and why so many adults still find enjoyment reading/watching these stories. Writing for youth allows for experimentation, humor, not taking yourself too seriously, but still turning out incredibly moving, emotional, human stories. THIS is why true-blooded kidlit and YA writers roll their eyes when someone implies their writing isn't useful or interesting or "real." Because we know how very real it is.

Which isn't to stay there aren't some stinkers out there in the realm of youth media, because there sure are. But there are stinkers in every category and genre. Just as it's silly to pretend the duds don't exist, it's equally silly to act as though duds are all that exist.

The ultimate goal of any writer should be creativity and innovation, in whatever form that happens to take. Be it the Great American Novel (as Hannah says) or a weird show on Cartoon Network. Poignancy is not limited by youth. Relevance is not hindered by age.

Mistake youth for vapidity at your own risk, is what I'm saying. What say you, readers?


{ Andrew Leon } at: October 19, 2012 at 10:01 AM said...

It's the same attitude that people had about comic books before Stan Lee came along and made the heroes into real people. That pushed the reading age of comics from 8-year-olds to 18-year-olds. Then Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman came along and pushed that boundary again.

I think the issue is in the idea of writing -for- kids, because if you're writing -for- kids then you're not writing for adults. So there is a trick to writing -about- kids that isn't "dumbed down" for kids, but most people can't make that connection.

{ Seabrooke } at: October 19, 2012 at 10:40 AM said...

Great post (as always), Steph. It's kinda a funny coincidence that you and Hannah wrote about this because I just did something of a similar nature yesterday, too. Some vibe in the air? I basically echo Andrew's comment - I write about teens, but I don't write (just) for teens.

I get that same sort of response about writing/reading YA, too - even if the person you're talking to doesn't say it out loud, you can tell they're thinking it through their body language or choice of words. Usually they're people who haven't actually read any YA themselves.

Truthfully, I actually find a lot of YA to be deeper than the adult books I've read recently because it does so often tackle these heavy themes that teenagers are faced with figuring out as they gain maturity and independence. I look at the adult novels on my shelves and very few moved me or made me think as much as some of the YA I've read.

{ prerna pickett } at: October 19, 2012 at 12:37 PM said...

truth! I never watch AT, but i've heard the same thing you just wrote. And i'm sick of people assuming YA is all about kissing. There's so much more to it. And if you don't like, then don't read it.

{ linda } at: October 22, 2012 at 12:19 AM said...

I know there's been some hubbub around the YA blogosphere recently about people being dismissive of YA, but honestly, it's hard for me to get worked up about it. People say this about genres they don't like all the time. Romance, mysteries, science fiction/fantasy have all been dismissed by various people as not particularly meaningful or worthwhile categories of fiction, and some nonfiction readers are dismissive of all fiction as a total waste of time (like how novels used to be thought as non-serious writing). The people making those statements usually don't have enough exposure to the category they're dismissing, so it should be easy to say "come back when you have read a sufficiently large and varied sample size." Which is a slightly nicer version of "you have no idea what you're talking about, so I'm just going to dismiss your uninformed opinion."

I do get more annoyed by generalizations about book blogger/lay reviewers, though, since some of them are by people who ought to know better (authors, I'm looking at you).

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: October 30, 2012 at 5:49 AM said...


"Writing for youth allows for experimentation, humor, not taking yourself too seriously, but still turning out incredibly moving, emotional, human stories."

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