YA books: a cure for optimism

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Hey kids, do you ever feel happy, laugh at funny jokes, dance like no one's watching?  Do you ever take pleasure in uplifting stories that speak to the triumph of the human spirit?  Do you, in short, have faith in humanity?

Let's cure all that for you with your middle school reading list.

Yes, reading YA fiction is an exercise in masochism, offering a dystopic worldview and a sense of the futile struggle for decency in the face of man's inhumanity to man-- in short, it is much like the experience of middle school itself.

Here, a brief rundown of some perennially popular YA titles:

* Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, 1960.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
When everyone in Karana's tribe is setting sail to leave their island home forever, Karana sees her brother being left behind and jumps ship to stay with him.  Shortly thereafter, her brother is killed by wild dogs, and Karana must survive in isolation for many years with only the animals of the island for companions.  What's even worse is that the book is based on the true story of Juana Maria, who was rescued after 18 years alone on an island, only to find that no one could understand the language she spoke--and she died a mere 7 weeks later.

* Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972.
Watership Down: A Novel
War seems somehow even more brutal when the soldiers are all cuddly little bunny rabbits.  Humans appear here too, as a kind of faceless, menacing threat of evil--they destroy the rabbits' homes, shoot them, and catch them in snares.  This is "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" but with blood and urine and carnage, and where Mr. McGregor isn't the only antagonist to fear; Flopsy might make a shiv out of a carrot and go after Cottontail.

* Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, 1977.
Bridge to Terabithia
This is one of those books that the older kids warn you about before you even know the basic plot-- you know beforehand that it's going to be sad, much like Where the Red Fern Grows or the movie My Girl.  So, while you might anticipate Leslie's death, what you don't realize is that the book will also ensure you will never use a rope swing again in your entire life.  Most elementary school-level books encourage imaginative play, but this book's message is unequivocal: imagination kills.  LARPing ruins lives. 

* Good Night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, 1981.
Good Night, Mr. Tom
Books set during World War II are rarely uplifting, and that goes double for YA books.  So how do you make a WWII YA book even more soul-crushing?  Why not add in a heartbreakingly self-loathing, bed-wetting child who is horribly abused by his own mother?  I remember not being able to sleep all night after reading one scene where the boy is locked in a closet for days holding a dead baby.  How can one face 7th grade gym class after something like that?

* The Goats by Brock Cole, 1987.
The Goats
I remember the description of the story on the back jacket of this book began with the words: "Stripped and marooned on a small island by their fellow campers, a boy and a girl..." and that was all I had to read.  I knew what "stripped" meant, but not "marooned," but the co-ed context gave me hope that "marooning" must be the term for one of those tips described in Cosmo that I didn't quite understand yet.  Sure, the kids on the front cover were quite possibly the most unattractive pair I'd ever seen, but still!  Ultimately, despite my imaginative "maroon" ideas, there was no purple prose, just some message about bullying in its stead.  Disappointing.

Lesson learned:
Even at age 13, YA lit confirms it: you will die alone, misunderstood, and unloved, and--if you're especially unlucky--marooned.

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