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You Are What You Read

You are shaped by the company you keep, I was trying to explain to my son recently. He’d been watching a Youtuber known for vulgarity and disrespect. Find someone more wholesome, I told my boy, because even though you think he won’t, this guy will live in your head and that’s not who I want you to be.

My son doesn’t really know it yet, but whether you absorb the ‘person’ through reading, watching, or just hanging out, you are influenced by those you keep company with. I know that happens to me when I’m writing – my voice on paper changes if I have been reading someone with a strong voice. Unconsciously, I choose words and sentence structures more like what’s been in my head most recently. Since I’m aware of this, I can control it by not reading, say, Mickey Spillane while I’m trying to write something that isn’t gritty and noir. 

The company you keep extends far deeper than your writing, of course. Whether it is books, people, or even, yes, the television and videos you watch, they mold you into something different. I love to watch cooking shows like Chopped and Iron Chef, and find that they inspire me to make different decisions when meal preparation times come along. My interest in cooking also extends to cookbooks, and after being given some of the cookbooks my grandmother and great-grandmother had used, I started to collect more antique cookbooks and started a series of blog posts cooking recipes from a Vintage Kitchen. That even filters into my books, where readers tell me I mention food often, although it wasn’t entirely my intent to do so – it’s just that I love to cook (and eat!) and it goes into my stories.

I’ve seen this from the outside, too. It’s not only children who are malleable enough to be led astray by their companions. I watched a creative who I had once admired and respected morph into a different person because of the company he chose to keep, until the day came I had to walk away from my ongoing support and consuming his work, because he started advocating against basic human rights. I couldn’t risk keeping on taking his work into me, because just like a disease, this is how it spreads. I’m not likely to ever advocate for the removal of anyone’s right to self-defense, but there are other ways it could seep into my life and besides, there are things you just don’t support. You tell them what they did, and you walk away. Then you grieve a little.

I got in trouble (hah!) a few years back for being open about not wanting my then barely-teen daughters to be reading YA books that advocated for incest, rape, and other abuses. Torture porn is, sadly, prevalent in a lot of the YA fic and I wasn’t going to let my daughters read it. Censorship! evil controlling mother, forbidding her children from reading. Um, no. What I was doing, and stated then, was protecting young minds from influences that they didn’t need to have. to somewhat self-consciously quote myself: “The vast majority of teens will never experience something that terrible. But we hold up all these examples and say “here, this could happen to you!” Is this a healthy thing to do to teen girls? And most especially if they are given no choice, and required to read them, for a true victim it could cause them to have to relive horrors. For an innocent bystander, it gives them a thrill at the expense of those who are not in need of fiction to help them cope. It does not teach them to avoid those behaviours, they are teenagers, they need parental guidance, strong, mature role models, and the education to defend themselves. Teen boys don’t need to think that all boys do is harm girls. They need to know that gallantry and chivalry need not die out.” 

This is why when Thirteen Reasons hit Netflix, I asked my daughters not to watch it. I knew it was going to add glamour to a terribly, cowardly act. I knew that my girls didn’t need that narrative in their head. And I wasn’t alone in my reservations about the show, either. Movies, and books, tap into the emotions we already have – that’s part of the way we connect to a particularly compelling narrative. We have feelings about something already, and the media amplifies those feelings, until we start to feel like we have facts. As Mark Henick comments in the above blog post, feelings are not facts. It’s hard enough for adults to make that connection, it’s that much more difficult for teens to do it.

So evaluate what you are influenced by. The books you read, the Youtubers you let into your brain (ok, ok, most of us reading this are old fuddy-duddies who barely know who those strange creatures are… at least that’s what my daughters tell me), and even the people you hang out with. Not that you want to form an echo chamber but… do you want to be known for keeping company with the bitter, the liars, the vile 666s of the world? Or do you want to surround yourself with people who challenge you to do better, write more, explore new information and keep learning and growing? I know what I want for my kids, and I try to model that for them. They don’t get a choice about being around me!

97 Comments
  1. c4c…

    March 17, 2018
  2. Yep. I pretty much let my daughter read whatever she wanted after a certain age, but I told her on many occasions to be careful what she put into her head because, once there, she could never get it out again. And I told her if she had any questions or concerns about what she read to come to me. Looking back, I probably should’ve watched closer, but she was inhaling books at a rate I couldn’t keep up with (and I’m not a slow reader). She’s 24 now and I can only hope she doesn’t have too much unhealthy crap swimming around in her head – and that the healthy stuff we put in there can combat the crap.

    March 17, 2018
    • Mine were, at the time I wrote the original essay, not living with me, so I was simply encouraging them to talk to me about what they were into – anime, comics, and books. And then talking with them about what they were reading. I was very relieved when my daughter found the incest book ‘boring’ and didn’t read much of it.

      March 17, 2018
    • As someone who has read widely and extensively, I can say that I consumed quite a bit of unhealthy crap—but I had a lot of healthy stuff to balance it out and give perspective. I have an on-again, off-again relationship with horror, for instance, and some of that is quite brutal. I love dark versions of fairy tales, some of which do not end happily. I’ve even gotten into true crime stories alongside the mysteries. And all of that darkness is counterbalanced by, for example, a deep and abiding love of L.M. Montgomery.

      It’s the too much that is a problem, like the time i read through an entire Harlan Ellison collection and my mom said, Don’t do that. 🙂

      March 17, 2018
  3. This reminds me… I need to get some hard-copies of good YA stuff for Day Job, including for my classroom.

    March 17, 2018
    • *insert plug here* I have a couple of titles…

      More seriously, I have lists of decent recommended YA if you need some ideas.

      March 17, 2018
      • I’ve been browsing through them for a while… *big kitty grin*

        March 17, 2018
  4. A man I admired once said that we are the company we keep and the books we read. As I look back on life, (being an old guy) I see that is an almost obvious fact.

    March 17, 2018
  5. I had virtually no adult supervision in my reading as a child, and the local library shelved all science fiction in one section. As a consequence, I read a lot of New Wave SF that dealt with mature themes in junior high and high school–Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Philip Dick, Harlan Ellison, even William Burroughs. I was also exposed to a lot of poetry that was above my level, both in terms of theme and readability, e e cummings, T S Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde. These influences shaped my adult writing style–I still consider myself a New Wave writer, despite the Wave having gone back out to sea forty years ago.

    Negative effects? Sure. Much of the adolescent nihilism of my rebellious years can no doubt be traced to me reading things like Camp Concentration and Confessions Of A Crap Artist in junior high school. All in all, though, I don’t think I would have developed the passion that I have for language if my early reading had been more controlled.

    March 17, 2018
    • RCPete #

      I was lucky. Growing up in the ’60s, I caught a lot of Heinlein juveniles around age 10, and then the adult SF section was fairly optimistic. I read the Cities in Flight series and the Robot novels (those in print at the time), and when I was about 15, my brother’s BIL gifted his Heinlein paperbacks.

      I was in college by the time New Wave came out and was old enough to be skeptical of the worldview. ‘Sides, if I wanted true dysfunction, there was H.P. Lovecraft. 🙂 The rest of the Robot Novels and the more modern Heinlein filled the rest. (Still don’t care much for I Will Fear No Evil, while Time Enough for Love is a favorite.)

      March 17, 2018
  6. I tend to disagree, because the research shows correlation not causation. But what I would agree with is that children need to be taught, by example, that emotions are here to serve us, not control us. So when one reads something and it is, for example exciting or horrific,then an adult understands the emotion and can choose whether or not it serves then, or not.

    It’s like the old adage,” Two wolves live inside a person. One evil, one good. The one that wins is the one that you feed.” In this case, feeding is a metaphor for choice.

    It’s a complicated subject that’s highly emotional. But, I don’t believe that we’re made victims by what we watch or read. YMMV.

    March 17, 2018
    • Ashley, I’m not sure that is what Cedar originally posted. It is damn sure not what I have experienced. “Made victims?”

      I sincerely believe that had I not read “Starship Troopers,” I would not have joined the USMC, especially as a “mere” infantryman, though my ASVAB scores qualified me for anything my nearsightedness would not preclude. Turned out to be one of the best decisions in my life. What we read can have positive effects as well as make us victims.

      Of course, there have been politicians that argue that I was done a disservice by reading something to persuade me to enlist, and made a victim, but if you believe them, we can’t agree on much at all. 🙂

      March 17, 2018
      • May I respectably suggest that you’ve taken a word out of context in the sentence, and come to the opposite conclusion to what I intended. This is probably down to me trying to be succinct and not writing clearly.

        I am arguing the opposite; that books don’t make us violent. We are responsible for our behaviours.

        March 17, 2018
        • I am totally responsible for my own misapprehensions. My apologies.

          March 17, 2018
          • And I still wrote the wrong word too, it should have been respectfully. We all make mistakes. My apologies too.

            March 18, 2018
    • Um, no. Not made victims. But vulnerable kids (I specifically have one of mine in mind) can have an exacerbation of their emotions through deliberate manipulation, which is what 13 reasons does. It’s probably fine for nine kids out of ten. That tenth can be sent further into a spiral.

      March 17, 2018
      • Draven #

        As an adult even seeing ads for that show made me go “WHY do you want teenagers watching THIS???!?!?!”

        March 19, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      I wouldn’t say that what we read/watch/listen to/who we hang out with makes us into victims, per se. However, it does shape how we think and how we react:

      1.) The stories we take in help shape our perception of how to react to the world. Seriously, if you stick small children from middle class suburbia in front of rap videos, they will come home from daycare believing that the correct way to respond to authority telling them to do something – in this case, put up their toys and wash their hands before dinner – is to respond “Yo, b**ch, I’ma pop a cap in yo azz!” with hands imitating sideways guns firing.

      (That was, shall we say, a very interesting day in several households. Leading to rapid change in daycares.)

      Let’s look at other narratives – there was a recent article by a lady noting that while she is in a loving relationship with a faithful, caring man she trusts deeply, after reading a surfeit of articles about “toxic masculinity”, she freaked out when he wanted to get, ah, forceful while they were frisky.

      This carries over from books – I have noted some ladies I know, upon reading romance, promptly feel like dragging their partners off to bed, and upon reading one of the paranormal romance / urban fantasies that signal “strong female lead” by having the protagonist be sarcastic as well as verbally and/or physically abusive to her male friends, will also be rather verbally abusive and snarky to the men in their life until called on it.

      2.) Stories shape our expectations of the world, and what our place can be in it.

      Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura on the original Star Trek, mentioned in an interview that she actually quit the show – but Martin Luther King, Jr. actually talked her back into the show by pointing out how valuable a role model she was for all the young black kids watching TV, and seeing her up there as an officer in charge of the starship.

      Similarly, Jimmy Doogan, who played Scotty, received an honorary engineering degree because he inspired so many kids to grow up and become engineers. (To say nothing of how many people working on rockets and men in infantry were inspired by Heinlein.)

      Or, to quote one of Heinlein’s own characters:

      “What did I want?
      I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword,. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get u feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a like wench for my droit du seigneur–I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.
      I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.
      I wanted Prestor John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be–instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.”
      ― Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road

      3.) Stories can easily put us into an emotional state – because that’s what stories are. Whether it’s a dystopian story making us feel that the world is full of dark depair, people dying everywhere, and the remainder will be ugly souls doing ugly things to each other, or Indiana Jones and the last Crusade leaving the kids running whooping around the back yard, turning the jump rope into a bullwhip and imaging the sandbox as a snake pit, triumphing over the bad guys… stories make us feel.

      This emotional state may not wear off easily or quickly – as many a parent has found out after showing a movie they thought was fine, and seriously regretted after the third night of the small kiddo having nightmares in a row. (“Who knew the Black Cauldron” was so terrifying? Her older brother loved it!”)

      If they don’t produce an emotional state? Well, “I don’t care what happens to these people” is the kiss of death for an entertainer.

      To sum up – the entertainment we intake, and the people we are around, teach us how to act and react, show us how to do so, and tell us how that will work out for us… and give us an emotional state that reinforces same. It’s up to the person consuming the media to act or react – but the pump will be primed by the media they intake.

      As mom said, “The friends you choose will reflect who you will become! You will not hang out with them, because they are not people I want my children to become!” (Okay, roughly translated from emphatic, spoon-waving Spanish.) … and the stories and entertainment you choose will do same.

      March 17, 2018
  7. Christopher M. Chupik #

    I like to balance my reading out with heavier and lighter stuff. Also, when embarking on a new writing project, I often read or reread something in that genre to get myself in the headspace.

    March 17, 2018
  8. Young YA with incest? Seriously? The world has changed that such things are read by young YA.

    March 17, 2018
    • Joe in PNG #

      Back when I was a YA, the book passed around was “Flowers in the Attic”, which had a fair amount.

      March 17, 2018
      • I saw a movie adaptation of that when I was in college, entirely by accident. (We were watching something, and were caught by the vintage 80s titles, and it was interesting enough to keep watching.) They definitely made the incest disappear in that; the implication was that the kids naturally clung to each other in their circumstances, and that the adults were misinterpreting what they saw.

        March 17, 2018
        • Zsuzsa #

          It seems like it would be pretty hard to make the incest disappear from that story. Even if you didn’t include the Chris/Cathy stuff, you’re going to have to explain what the deal was with the parents and why the grandparents thought the kids ought to be locked in the attic…

          March 17, 2018
          • The parents was passed off as an “inappropriate” marriage, exercise as to why left to the reader. The sticking the kids in the attic was presented as increasing abuse, which is unfortunately known enough that it passed without comment. The grandparents wanted her to make a “good marriage.”

            Of course, it was a long time ago that I saw it, and it could be that I missed something.

            March 19, 2018
    • Mary #

      I feel obliged to observe that classic fairy tales frequently carry the threat of incest. For instance, the Grimm Brothers’ All Kinds of Fur had to run away to escape marriage to her father. Most variants of The Girl Without Hands have that threat, or marriage to her brother.

      Much, of course, depends on treatment.

      March 18, 2018
  9. It’s hard for teens and children to understand why they aren’t allowed to do certain things. There are shows and books I wasn’t allowed to consume when I was young, and I didn’t understand it as a child. But as I grew up, I gained that awareness of how media influenced me, and I totally understood why and appreciated that my parents didn’t let me feed that kind of information into my brain. It was about the same point in time I started seeing most of the modern cartoons and thinking, “Wow, I am never letting my future kids see this garbage.”

    March 17, 2018
    • There were a few books I read between ages 10-15 that I really, really regret. I was too young to be exposed to sexual sadism, gross brutality, and other things (post-nuclear war fiction, among others. Made the Horseclans novels pretty tame in comparison.) I was able to warn my Mom so that Sib didn’t read one of them (Sib was 10), but a little librarian intervention would have been good.

      March 17, 2018
      • I have a serious, not a rhetorical question. At what age do we we think kids of that, or any age, should be exposed to the unexpurgated versions of real historical events, events as nauseatingly violent as any I’ve seen depicted in novels? (Thirty Years War, Holodomor, Siege of Baghdad, etc.) What duty do we have (and when) as parents to inform children of man’s violence to other human’s?

        March 17, 2018
        • Holly #

          I can’t speak for others, but I find once they start thinking logically-when they choose to-in early teens, is the time. But I’m a home schooler, which means I live intimately with my students: I know who is prone to nightmares, who is as cynical at fifteen about human nature as the average fifty-year-old, who needs a swift kick in the hiney about government utopianism and man’s inhumanity to man.

          By the end of high scbool I hope to produce citizens who look behind the shiney facade of political promises. Since my kids are highly intelligent, and likely to apply for early college-at least for some of them-I have a limited window.

          I hope their entertainment can capture the inspiration of some of man’s best moments, rather than emphasize his worst.

          March 17, 2018
        • Not sure. I know I saw, without comprehending, some horrific stuff out of Vietnam when very very young. Teenage years I saw some weapons effect (long-suppressed post-nuke footage from Hiroshima. If that wasn’t ‘nightmare fuel’ I dunwanna know what is.) stuff that haunts me. Yeah, I know, conventional firestorms were NOT nicer. But there’s “knowing” and there seeing and believing. Mr. L doesn’t talk about his (conventional) WWII experience save for one light story… and I will not ask him to. The closest he gets is that one film set at the time, showing nasty things (cleaned up enough to be merely R), he leaned over and told Ma, “Yeah, it was like that.”

          March 17, 2018
          • BobtheRegisterredFool #

            Vietnam War: Some of that was probably enemy action. Feeding the civilian and child imagery that they were not prepared for, devoid of context, in order to break their will. That picture of the crying guy in civilian garb with a gun held to his head by a uniformed man? Tears had just carried out the murder of the uniformed man’s friend, and the friend’s family.

            More generally, need to know, safe to know, and interesting to know are different things.

            Some stuff is dull if you don’t have the experience or development to appreciate it. I knew That Hideous Strength was that way, and still bounced off it because I was too young. I lacked interest in sexual excitement before my libido developed. I think most kids would naturally ignore that material unless they have been abused, and some presentations of such material are clearly intended to be abusive. I think a lot of stuff with sexual content is better avoided until one has a solid sense of right and wrong in sexual matters, and until one understands what is realistic and what is bizarre fantasy with no basis in reality.

            I understood something about pedophiles before the age of ten. I know this for certain because I had already studied, found countermeasures, and internalized the countermeasures so completely that by the age of ten or so that when I was in a classroom where I needed them, I didn’t really notice that something was wrong. There was a creepy conversation that was only obviously related in hindsight with knowledge of what else had occurred. I obviously thought this information was vital at the time I identified countermeasures. Since I have broadened my ideas of what is absolutely vital for anyone going into a public school to know. Problem is, the information is damaging. Just the little I had then seems to have damaged me, and I am perhaps better equipped to handle it than most.

            I am careful about what I say to other people’s children, because I don’t want to step on the parent’s rights, and because the parents are better able to judge what is too damaging.

            March 18, 2018
        • Coming up on 62, there’s a lot of “unexpurgated versions of real historical events” that I’m very happy not knowing about. I do not need to wallow in the reality of a nuclear blast wave, it doesn’t improve my life.

          Your duty as a parent is to raise that child as strong and capable as they can get. I’m very unconvinced that they need to know the gritty details when I don’t. Knowing it happened is usually enough.

          March 17, 2018
          • Holly #

            Maybe we need to define terms here.
            6 million died in the Holocaust, Soviets, Brittain, France, and USA divided the Germanies= eleven-year-old kid version.
            Ethics of using medical knowledge gained from the horrific experiments, what the experiments were, so on= young adult version.

            Watching videos thereof? Nope. Not gonna happen here. Reading what some of those monsters said and comparing that to what they did, and discussing it? That’s teen history. That’s what I would call unexpurgated. I really don’t think that video is a necessary or even useful part of education. I may be, as the kids complain, hoplessly old-fashioned.

            March 17, 2018
            • More precisely, 6 million Jews—but about 20 million total “undesirables.” I dislike that they’ve left off the latter, since it’s important to point out that the category included a lot of people who the regime just didn’t like, including people who said that the Nazi Party was wrong.

              March 19, 2018
        • Dorothy Grant #

          The best answer I have to that is this:
          There’s plenty of ways to present the factual knowledge without rubbing their noses in the gritty details and photos of the mutilated corpses. Just the sheer stark facts of the existence of the Holomodor and selections from the Black Book of Communism is enough to sober preteens.

          When Peter gave a talk about colonialism, its legacy, and the end of apartheid from an African’s point of view to a group of middle schoolers, he didn’t use some of the common pictures of necklacings, or people hacked to death with machetes, or bare feet sticking out of a burning bus. The only photograph he used was of a teenaged boy running from the Afrikaner police after they fired on schoolkids protesting having to learn everything in Afrikaans – with his little brother, who’d been shot in the head, in his arms.

          That was enough.

          March 17, 2018
          • Dorothy, I had read about, and had knowledge of, the Holodomor, and it read like just another Stalinist atrocity. It was only a few years ago that I saw one picture, ONE, that made it real for me, and with that realization the true horror of it became real in ways no words could have made so visceral.

            I find it worth noting that I had lived the greatest part of my adult life, was a history major, served in the military during the Cold War, and been a fervent anti-communist all the while, without ever having seen that pic. I actively RESENT that I was “protected” from ever having seen that photo.

            I should carry that photo in my pocket to show to any smug kid that wants to lecture me about the virtues of communism. My daughter is almost 30, so I have no qualms about her seeing it. I don’t know when a young person should see it, but at some point they SHOULD. I don’t think presenting “sanitized” versions of the way some men can treat “others” by restricting their knowledge to nightmare-free versions of historical events is doing justice to the presentee.

            Pollyanna might be a wonderful person, but I do not want her as Secretary of State. Or even to get the vote.

            March 17, 2018
        • That is a difficult question. About a decade ago, I was writing articles for ready-reference books (market dried up after the housing bubble burst), and I did some articles about those kinds of subjects. It was a balancing act to be clear about the facts of those dark periods of history without wallowing in the horrors.

          There needs to be enough information to make the basic hows and whys of these terrible events clear, along with some basic notions of how historical evidence works (starting with history is not a sweater, and doesn’t fall apart because you pulled one detail loose and proved it false). And it’s complicated by the problem that the level of detail that may give one person nightmares for weeks may be torture-porn and a source of excitement for another.

          March 17, 2018
    • Mary #

      I have a cousin who has never forgiven the profession of librarian for the particular one who thought bunnies=kiddie lit and put Watership Down in the children’s section.

      1984 with rabbits, he observed. Not for kids.

      March 18, 2018
      • Yikes.

        March 18, 2018
      • Yeah. I personally loved it as a child, but I was a weird child, and I knew even then that it wasn’t for my peers.

        March 19, 2018
        • snelson134 #

          We got it in a high school (10th grade) English class, but I had read it before.

          March 19, 2018
          • My favorite book when I was eight years old. EIGHT.

            March 19, 2018
  10. When did it change? I’d say early nineties but living in a small town in the middle of the prairies meant that a lot of times we were a few years behind on the trends.

    When I was a kid YA as it exists now did not exist, there were picture books for little kids, and kids books (from memory I’d say they were intended for up to 12), and then adult. But when I was around 18-19 I remember seeing books intended for teenagers and being caught off guard.

    They weren’t intended for me (apparently male teenagers can’t word the reads) but I read them anyway as a curiosity and they concerned me. They were uglyish, with no adventure, no hope, much wallowing, and a ‘realism’ that was so dark I wondered what evil the writers lived with that made them write like that. This is coming from a guy who had a terrible high school experience, who barely graduated, who had a hard time regaining his sense of self because of the crap he went through, and me, that guy, I thought they went way over the top.

    My reaction to them was also informed by the girls I saw reading them; completely average (I don’t mean that as a pejorative, just girls in the middle) girls who hadn’t received a tenth of the abuse (if any at all) I and others like me had received (hell, a lot of them were responsible for the abuse) and yet they empathized with the main characters, who were treated much like the way the readers treated the people around them. Every second male character was gay, and bullied for it, and suicidal because of the bullying. Every other male character was either a remora who hung around the main character and truly just wanted to be friends, or were jerks who needed the main character to make them a decent person (or the main character needed to make them realize they were gay and needed to hook up with the suicidal gay dude). A lot of them were about losing their virginity (which as a 18 year old I should have been extremely interested in) but it was always portrayed as ugly and degrading, while at the same time being empowering (for the girl) and emasculating (for the boy). Just bizarre. Which would kind of make sense if the writer wanted the girls to hold on but it seemed more like the writer was trying to pressure the girls into giving it up. While at the same time making it seem awful. As if the only way to be normal was to get messed up like the writer was, or dreamed of being. Manipulative.

    Small stories. Ugly stories. At their core about controlling others and the world.

    After about a month of reading those books (I like to understand things I don’t understand or at least to make the attempt) I just gave up. The realization that made me stop was that these despicable main characters were meant to be loved. The writers thought those characters were sympathetic. Which made me wonder about them as people themselves.

    That was just a sampling, obviously I didn’t do an in-depth study, and as far as I know I just happened to pick the very few ugly ones and the rest could have been optimistic and celebratory of the human spirit. Now I can only go on anecdotes as I have no wish to subject myself to those novels again and I’m sure there are more variety and less full-on ugly (because of how much more product is available now then there was then) but I wonder if even the optimistic writers include the ugly because they believe it’s part of the ‘genre’ or rules of YA (YA is an age range, not quite sure why it’s called a genre).

    Because the writers can’t all be sociopaths trying to make their readers as miserable as they are. Can they?

    Steve

    March 17, 2018
    • “Because the writers can’t all be sociopaths trying to make their readers as miserable as they are. Can they?”

      Did you see the Sasquan Hugo awards ceremony? Sure they can.

      I don’t think you are imagining it, they are trying to hurt you. They hate your guts and want you to suffer.

      Note that they -never- go after Lefty scared cows, always conservative ones. The gay kid is never the bad one, the football player always is. There are never any parents present, unless they are evil and abusive. Teachers and adults generally are always uncaring and useless. Et cetera.

      Besides, think of this: they had to come up with that nightmarish stuff and hold it in their minds long enough to write it down. Must be pretty wrong in there, don’t ya think?

      March 17, 2018
      • Thing is, I don’t think the “jock as villain” trope is a result of leftist bias. It’s a result of most writers being, well, nerds.
        Nerds tend to, at least, actively resent the fact that school athletics get ludicrous amounts of recognition and the athletes get lots of leeway. At worst, said athletes actively go out of their way to treat them like garbage, and nothing is done about it, because sports.
        So the writers get back at them by making them the villains in the stories they write.

        March 18, 2018
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          Could be politics. Saying ‘the jock is bad’ could be away of undermining the establishment insofar as what is popular tends to constitute the establishment.

          March 18, 2018
        • You’re right, but I do wonder if there isn’t something different going on. Most kids (even geeks) at my schools weren’t bullied exactly, most were just ignored and they wanted to be lauded and celebrated as they thought the jocks were. From talking to people that’s more common than the full-out bullying you see in most books/films/tv shows. Partly I think that kind of bullying is portrayed so often because it makes for good drama. Partly I think it’s also because those ignored nerds are getting revenge for not being on the top of the social level of high school and become the bullies they always wish they could have been.

          It could be I just have a different perspective because of my upbringing (Canadian prairie small town) and the fact I was not the target of physical bullying past early elementary. What I did have to deal with is social bullying, which is why I was sensitive to it and could see it happening to others.

          In my High School the jocks didn’t get any special privileges (my brother was QB of the football team so I have nearly first hand knowledge), but got a lot of ‘extra supervision’ from the teachers who seemed to expect them to act like the stereotypical jocks they’d see from American TV. One of my sort of friends hated jocks (and we’d been in the same classes for a long time and I knew she’d had no interactions with them, positive or negative) and would take any opportunity to put them down. Going so far as to protest whenever she saw them get a break from a teacher, like the jocks being asked to stop talking instead of immediately being sent to the office. Y’know, the same break the teacher gave everyone else as well. She didn’t gasp and roll her eyes, she literally stayed after class to demand the teacher ‘enforce the rules’ on those dirty jocks. Then complained to me that the teacher didn’t apologize to her and told her to essentially mind her own business. She found out the football team got jackets and put a petition together to ban them from school and have the team pay back the money. She wouldn’t listen when I told her how much they cost and how the jocks paid for the jackets themselves (my parents were pretty annoyed about it but the QB kinda sorta had to not be the only one without the jacket).

          Every time they’d win a game the principal would announce the score on the morning announcements. No big deal, they won eight games, those congratulations all combined took up less than a minute but she acted like it was an act of super oppression having to be exposed to sports like that. Morning announcements should be kept for important stuff, like anything else. Even though everything else was mentioned and getting people’s attention for something interesting like sports scores is a good way of getting kids to pay attention to the more important stuff.

          Eventually I told her I thought she was bullying them and she basically lit up over it and said something like ‘good’. Like she was getting revenge for all the nerds out there who were actually being bullied.

          And, quite frankly, I thought her bullying was worse in its way than the stereotypical bullying jocks because it was meant to isolate and divide while also trying to make her look like the hero. Bullies generally looked like bullies and you could deal with that. A bully who saw herself and was seen by others as a hero? Harder to deal with.

          I know this is anecdotal but it made me look a little closer at the writers who wrote the jocks as bullies and wonder about their motivations. Whether they were getting revenge (understandable) or just perpetuating a stereotype that made their self-identification (nerd) look better than they were and the other (jock) look worse.

          Not putting down nerds, not praising jocks here, I’m a nerd through and through, but because of being in athletics as a kid, being pretty athletic, and coming from an athletic family I have feet in both camps and can feel empathetic towards both sides.

          Steve

          March 18, 2018
          • BobtheRegisterredFool #

            Accidentally dropped my reply down at the bottom.

            March 18, 2018
          • Zsuzsa #

            My personal experience was a complete lack of interaction with the stereotypical “popular” kids. It was a big high school, I didn’t share any classes with anyone who was a cheerleader or a serious varsity athletes, I had no reason to talk to them, and frankly I would probably have been as bored by them as they would have been by me.

            Outside that experience, I’ve read that in general, high status males like starting QBs are usually not bullies. To gain status, men have to defeat those stronger than they are, and there’s no glory in beating up the proverbial 90 lbs. weakling with Coke-bottle glasses. The bullies are usually near the bottom of the social hierarchy, barely above their victims.

            March 18, 2018
            • That matches my own observations at my school (Rural middle America for the data point.) The football team weren’t the bullies, it was the percussion section of the band who were assholes to everyone (especially anyone who looked like they might be socially vulnerable… and smarter than them.)

              Slightly different from DodgetheBullet’s story, the cheerleaders and football players were put on a pedestal… then were expected to live up to it. There were a couple of guys who didn’t and the rest of the football team dealt with them when they became aware of the issue.

              March 18, 2018
          • Joe in PNG #

            And to demonstrate yet another different HS dynamic, at my school, the nerds did sports (to get extra xp towards college admission), and both groups were on the track team together.
            The student body president, and most popular guy on campus was a serious Mechwarrior geek.

            March 19, 2018
          • (Nods) Where I went to school, the dynamic was much more in the “tons of money gets spent on these people because reasons.” Generally, the athletic types were off in their own little world, and left everyone else alone. (Large American suburban high school)
            But as Dodgethebullet pointed out, some people just can’t break out of the pattern of thought that jock=evil.

            March 19, 2018
          • Partly I think it’s also because those ignored nerds are getting revenge for not being on the top of the social level of high school and become the bullies they always wish they could have been.

            Being ignored by the rest of the student body in high school would have been AWESOME.

            When I had a chat online (at the old Megatokyo forums) with some other folks (mostly Americans) who were going through high school / soon to leave HS (back in my early college years) I think there was only one person in that group who didn’t have a miserable experience of HS despite being pretty geeky. I wasn’t the only one to have a violent school life either – one of the older ones related how one of the jocks thought it would be fun to throw the person relating the story through a glass door for the crime of not blending in; and attempted to blame it on the victim.

            March 19, 2018
          • Sounds like the guy at my college who had an annual article in the paper about how the Honors Program was a blight on the campus and got way too many privileges, like a house for a hangout. (You know, like debate did, and crew did, and a number of other clubs and organizations did. It was just more visible, I guess.) It was a running gag in the Honors Program, even more so when a successor took up the annual hate-fest.

            March 19, 2018
  11. Luke #

    I mostly agree, but…
    Inoculation is important.

    Toxic Marxist memes work because most people don’t immediately recognise then as such, and/or credit the creators with good intentions.
    Exposure to the source material corrects both problems.

    Schoolkids have been fed the precepts of the Progressive movement for five generations. Atlas Shrugged isn’t great literature, and is morally suspect at points, but it does do an admirable job of challenging assumptions that people don’t even realize they have.

    March 17, 2018
    • Inoculation is important, but more on the side of ‘this is good’ so when they encounter the bad, it is obvious. If they only ever see the nasty side, they won’t understand why it’s bad.

      March 17, 2018
      • I’m told that bank tellers who actually handle cash on a daily basis are very quick to spot counterfeiting. I’d imagine that’s a declining skill these days with the spread of alternate forms of payment.

        On that note, I work for a photography studio. When I was working full-time, I had to go through literally hundreds of photos at a shot, picking out the best ones. Dance photos in particular—this is before smartphones absolutely destroyed that market. (We’re lucky if we get enough photos for two cameras at most proms.) What this means in effect is that I can pick the best photo out of four almost as quick as I see them—and after the subjects have a couple of minutes to consider, they agree. Practice makes for speed, and repeated exposure to the genuine article means you know it when you see it.

        March 17, 2018
    • Bob #

      It can be good for kids. In small doses.

      March 17, 2018
  12. They made us read The Collector in high school. Bad enough for a boy, imagine being a girl forced to read that thing. Ever since, I’ve spent a fair amount of time figuring out what to do about people like that. It made an impression, one that I think I’d have been better off without.

    There’s a rule I live by these days: you can’t un-see shit.

    Increasingly, as I have been wont to mention here, I do not get past the blurbs of SF/F books at the bookstore. Anything that’s post apocalypse this, zombie that, torture-pr0nz the other, I’m not allowing it to get into my brain. 45 years later I’m still dealing with The Collector, I don’t need new nightmares.

    Thus, I find my available breadth of reading fairly curtailed. There’s a concerted push to get these destructive stories out there, particularly noticeable in YA. Really, should a -kid- be reading the Hunger Games? I think not, and kids I have anything to do with don’t.

    All part of the effort to normalize aberrant behavior. Example, S&M in books, movies, TV even, is an effort to make it seem normal and totally okay. But it isn’t okay, you can see the wreckage from it in the newspaper every day. You can see what happens with #MeToo, lives ruined and careers trashed.

    People who write and publish that stuff are not our friends and do not wish us well. They are trying to hurt us, with malice, forethought and intent.

    March 17, 2018
    • Bob #

      I’ve come close to the ‘I wish I hadn’t read/watched that’ point a handful of times. Particularly when I was very young. In hindsight, I can’t really say that. I put such fiction in the category of: stuff that makes me want to make certain where my loved ones are, that they know where I am, and to keep a firearm near at hand.

      I’d say some of that is good for kids. In small doses.

      But I’ll also say that there’s a difference between taking a trip on the Ghost Train and getting off at the end, and something being convinced the Ghost Train is good and normal.

      March 17, 2018
    • Yeah. I worked as the graphics person for my college weekly newspaper. At one point I was asked for a graphic for the anniversary of the murder of some priests in El Salvador. “We have pictures but we can’t use them.” And I asked “Why?” Shouldn’t have done that.

      The thing that really gets me is that these were 4×6 pictures (or possibly 3×5), the kind you get from the photo drops at a store. HOW did they have them? And *what* did the developer think?

      March 17, 2018
      • Dorothy Grant #

        If coming out of El Salvador, the developer was likely pretty inured to it. In South Africa, in the height of the worst years, there was a popular song by Juluka that sang of “mud-coloured dusty blood/bare feet on a burning bus / mud-coloured dusty blood; broken teeth and a rifle butt. On the road to Mdantsane…”

        Actually here: it’s pretty catchy. https://youtu.be/1JsakPTKytM

        Peter notes when you live through that sort of thing, everyone gets the black humour that over here is only really known among military, cops, paramedics, and ER room nurses and docs.

        March 18, 2018
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          That’s good world building information to have.

          March 18, 2018
        • It was a local developer, that’s why I wondered.

          March 19, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      I read The Hunger Games, on purpose, because I wanted to be able to discuss it with people from a position of knowledge (so I could know exactly why I was telling them not to read it). Did the same thing with the Twilight series. And while there’s one plot point near the end of The Hunger Games that could be useful as a way to tell kids, “Don’t trust people promising that everything will be better come the revolution; the revolutionaries are usually just as evil, and often more so, as the people they’re fighting against”… I couldn’t get past the complete character derailment involved. One of the characters introduced in the first book as a good, decent guy… is committing war crimes* by the third book? No; I don’t buy it. The revolution leader, I could see doing that. But the main character’s friend? Nope; that goes against all the character development he’s been given so far, and there’s no reason presented in the book for him to have done that. It’s just “sympathetic character suddenly does something utterly evil” for no reason.

      THAT scene alone would be enough to make me recommend avoiding the book, let alone all the other reasons (like the moral question of “If it’s so bad for the characters to be entertained by a show where children fight to the death, why is it okay for me to be entertained by a story where children fight to the death?”) for avoiding it.

      * Deliberately setting up bombs to target, not just civilians, but children.

      March 18, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      Forgot to mention that I was about thirty years old at the time, and fully able to cope with what I was reading. Would NOT have recommended this to my teenage self. Nope, that would have been seriously harmful to me at the time.

      March 18, 2018
      • Robin Munn #

        Arg, two uses of “at the time” for two different time periods (my 30-year-old self vs. my 15-year-old self). Oh well, it was probably clear enough.

        March 18, 2018
  13. Bob #

    You are what you read.

    So read lots of stuff, preferably stuff that contradicts each other. Let them have blood-sports inside your head until something like the truth emerges as the champion, then read more stuff to give your champion some contenders.

    March 17, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      That’s . . . actually not a bad idea.

      March 18, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      That’s what I did. But I ended up in a better place not reading stuff like pornography when I was young. Some stuff I read, I read too young. Some stuff probably would have traumatized me at any age.

      Reading a lot of Japanese light novels as an adult has permanently shifted the range of stories I think about, including in ways I find hard to believe.

      March 18, 2018
  14. Joe in PNG #

    I’m blessed that by the time I hit highschool, I was reading at an adult level, and the folks suggested I check out the Travis McGee books by John D MacDonald (plus the other stuff he wrote). You have an interesting protagonist who’s moral without being overtly preachy. Plus, it was a golden age of bestselling fiction- Clancy was turning out his superior early works, and Crichton had just published Jurassic Park.

    As for the usual literary drek pushed on students, I seemed to have missed all of it. I don’t know if it was because the teachers figured the quiet kid with a different novel every two- three days didn’t need the assigned reading, or if like Susan, I just ignored Literature in favor of reading a good book. Probably the latter.

    March 17, 2018
  15. I remember rereading Jurassic Park as a young teen (after the movie came out), and some of my … ‘peers’ were surprised I could read it. “It’s so thick! Won’t you get bored?”

    “This is the third time I’m reading it. And the book is scarier.”

    I’m about to hand my son Starship Troopers. (and yes, I finally read it myself. Just finished it last night since my headaches allowed only for limited screen time and book time.)

    March 17, 2018
    • I’d read it, and when the movie came out, went to see it with my mom. At one point, I was chanting under my breath, “the lawyer bites the big one!” and then, after it happened, a quiet “the big one bit the lawyer!”

      March 17, 2018
    • Same here. On my sixth read-through, I counted all the swear words. There was somewhere around 350 in total.

      I was nine.

      March 18, 2018
      • I’d already been exposed to a lot of swearing and had accepted it as something grown-ups do but we kids weren’t to do because it was considered bad manners for us to swear, and we couldn’t yet determine when it was appropriate to swear – and with that explanation, we accepted it.

        I’ve used that explanation with my children and despite the fact that I swear a LOT (with great creativity as well) the kids don’t swear. Eldest son is starting to learn ‘when is appropriate’ – he guiltily confessed that he’d told another kid to ‘stop being a whiny little bitch’ and apologized for it, and expected punishment, but (all three adults in the room) asked for an explanation of the situation, and when we heard it, unanimously agreed that it was appropriate use, the kid was being a whiny little bitch and son’d be let off with a caution to be careful next time.

        March 18, 2018
        • Yep. And it’s funny that back in college, I ran across a book on language from the 1960s with an entire chapter devoted to the discussion of the word “fuck.” One of the discussions about it—aside from the whole “the Victorians are weird linguistically to make a whole set of words taboo instead of just crude”—was that the only way it was going to lose its taboo status was to be used all over the place. We’ve seen that happen. It’s not taboo anymore, and it’s barely even shocking, and in 50 years it’s probably going to be wholly normalized again.

          But my kids get the “appropriate” description pretty well, which is good because sometimes it just slips out.

          March 19, 2018
          • *chuckle* It’s with the ‘appropriate’ in mind that son was able to watch The Hitman’s Bodyguard. (HILARIOUS movie, great fun!)

            Ryan Reynolds ranting about Samuel L. Jackson’s swearing is comedy gold too XD

            March 19, 2018
  16. Number one child was a voracious reader from age six. When she was nine, she found a copy of Gone with the Wind; after reading about three pages she brought the book to me and said, “Mom, I think this is too old for me.”

    March 17, 2018
  17. adventuresfantastic #

    When I was growing up, my father monitored my reading material fairly closely, for which I am thankful in hindsight. But there were a few things that slipped through. I read the first two volumes of Chalker’s Well of Souls in 7th grade. Bad idea. Baaadd idea.

    March 17, 2018
  18. A few months ago, I was reading a free copy of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and I wrote a blog post on how I found it disturbing that this book was marketed to pre-teens and young teens. As soon as I saw this post, I thought back to that reaction, and the problem of how to give adult guidance to a young person without it coming across as “there’ll be a quiz” or worse, ‘you’re in trouble for reading it,” and thus risking having the young person hide their reading in the future to avoid adult disapproval and the discomfort of dealing with it.

    March 17, 2018
    • I try to go with “it will bore you right now” as a concept. And I really loathe the fact that “adult” is used as a euphemism for “sexualized” because there are quite a few movies/books/whatever that are adult in theme but not sexual. Even something like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which I first read as a teenager, was far more interesting once I’d been to college myself and had the experiences to give context. (There is sex in Tam Lin—because if you’re basing it on that ballad, it’s certainly going to be there.)

      March 19, 2018
  19. I was looking through the ‘rape book lists’ linked in your Blast from the Past post, and … the BSDM/Kidnapping / Forced books are – for the five odd preview covers I see on the list – erotica with those themes as part of the kink/fantasy. Which … shouldn’t be YA reading (though, technically they’re not, just tagged ‘rape.’)

    I’m not sure why anyone would classify ‘A Child Called It’ as YA – I haven’t read it but know it’s an autobiography describing the abuse the author suffered and have always shied from it, even as an adult.

    Matilda by Roald Dahl is also listed. Which has me going O_o

    March 18, 2018
    • Nope, what the hell, why are some of these listed as YA novels?!

      The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is explicitly NOT marketed towards YA, nor is The Color Purple, or Lolita, or My Sister’s Keeper , or a number of the child abuse survivor stories (The Saddest Girl in the World, Cut: The True story of…etc; Damaged: the Heartbreaking True Story of…; Mummy Told me Not To Tell; Beautiful Child, etc etc) – a number of these books are adult reading and I wouldn’t hand them to a teenager on the ‘YA’ tag.

      March 18, 2018
      • When some “genius” decided that YA vs J vs everything else was determined mostly by the age of the characters, you start getting really strangely-shaped pegs shoved into round holes.

        For example, if you go solely on protagonist age, _Elizabeth of Starland_ could be considered YA. That’s not how I’d market it, however.

        March 19, 2018
        • You know, I didn’t realize Elizabeth was that young, but now that you point it out, it makes sense.

          March 19, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Yeah, Matilda is for a younger audience. 🙂

      Hey, I read it. I’m obviously sane, rational, and functional, so it obviously hasn’t hurt me any. XD

      March 18, 2018
    • A Child Called It is pretty horrifying, though a bit more clinical than graphic in its descriptions, but I got to meet Dave Pelzer once and he’s a surprisingly funny guy. As in the group of people who came to hear him talk were laughing hysterically, which is not what I expected. You’d probably like some of his later books, like The Privilege of Youth, which talk about his years in foster care and how some wonderful adults helped him to get past his abuse. He works with kids now, and he says the hardest part is in getting them to realize that they have choices and agency over their own lives, and they can act rather than just react. Once they get to that point, it’s a matter of self-training new habits in, but until they’re there, nothing much is going to work.

      March 19, 2018
      • I’d read a bit about the author’s work with kids and survivors, and I think he’s actually effective, versus the so-called experts in victimology. He’s right about people having agency, which is something that victimologists don’t want to acknowledge exists.

        March 19, 2018
  20. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I’ve seen a lot of stories set in Asian schools use it, and there are several reasons. (I’ve much less experience with western YA these days.) A wide range of stories, so I’ll conflating several distinct types.

    Some of it is for drama, or for explaining why the student is so isolated or desperate. Bullied to death, used as a bread shuttle until one learns magic kung fu, etc… Your classmates are who you spend the most time with, and are perhaps the relationships you value. If the key influencers are out to get you, it can easily be a purely unpleasant experience. Or if the whole school gets sent to another world, and the de facto leaders stupidly lead everyone else to death. Having no positive connections to society is widely used to set up characters in stories generally.

    Some of it is vicious competitiveness of the school experience, and appealing to the audience. The intelligent hard working high scorers are also vicious and evil, etc… Hardcore super nerdery is not, as far as I know, widely celebrated in Japan. Being good at athletics or academics is a bit higher status. Folks spending a lot of time and money on nerdery are perhaps a niche audience, who sometimes appreciate some pandering. Ergo common design choices becoming stock characters.

    But there is also the possibility that something is written by someone who does not understand how someone can be happy or successful without tearing others down. If a jock is happy, or rewarded, or popular, or whatever, then it must be because they are a vicious brute like the writer doesn’t know how not to be.

    March 18, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      Hardcore super nerdery is not, as far as I know, widely celebrated in Japan.

      One of my favorite anime shows, Twelve Kingdoms, depicts this. It starts out set in Japan before the main characters get pulled into a magical world. One of them is the girl whom everyone picks on. (Her reaction to being bullied ends up driving a large part of the show’s early plot). In one scene, she’s shown reading a fantasy novel; the anime focuses briefly on the words “dragon” and “knight” in the novel (in Japanese, but helpfully subtitled in the English version) so you know what she’s reading. Another main character, who fits the “popular girl” stereotype, sees her and tries to suggest, “Maybe you could try to fit in a little more… you know, read something a bit more… normal?” Which demonstrates what you were saying.

      March 18, 2018
      • Japan’s tendency to shove anything that is fantasy/sci-fi into ‘otaku culture’ is part of the reason why those genres are considered ‘not normal.’ Thriller, slice of life, romance, detective fiction, etc are considered ‘normal’ but the land that created Godzilla eschews fantasy and sci-fi as ‘weird’ or escapist.

        Which, quite honestly, is one of the things that doesn’t make sense to me. Japan’s ‘otaku culture’ is one of the things that drives the media industry there. The thought of say, Sailor Moon, or Black Butler, or video games having stage plays and musicals would be absurd in Western entertainment, but they have those in Japan – with apparently strong popularity.

        March 19, 2018
  21. John R. Ellis #

    Man, there was so much stuff in the junior high school library that would have made my poor Mom (who sincerely tried her best to make sure we were given access to uplifting, age appropriate material) a complex.

    It’s the “one size fits all” thing in rating systems that seems to create so many problems. Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang brought up the example of an 11 year old who came to the signing of his graphic novel American Born Chinese. Which (among other things) features excerpts of a deliberately offensive, shockingly racist sitcom called “Everyone Ruvs Chinky”.

    These scenes have a purpose. They aren’t just there for shock value or to provoke controversy. But he knew it was material best kept to a more mature audience. But the kid was able to handle it.

    Someone knows a kid like that and some people start to assume -all- young readers are ready for the (shall we say) more challenging stuff. So they start pushing it at young readers who maybe still get a bit skittish about the harsh stuff. Not everyone toughens immediately.

    It took me a long time before I did. I remember the first time I read THE SHINING, I had to leave the lights on at night for weeks.

    March 19, 2018
  22. Draven #

    So I’m a Kindle web page.

    March 19, 2018
    • Oh, you’ve been reading code, have you? 😉

      March 20, 2018
      • Draven #

        i’ve been reading a kindle and web pages soooo…

        March 20, 2018

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