Discussion: The “Outsiders” in YA

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I read a lot of YA books, but over the years I’ve noticed a lot of changes taking place. No longer are YA books the lighter fare that I was used to while growing up, but instead they’ve changed into serious stories, some ranging from fantasy or supernatural tales, or even some hardcore contemporary books.

One of the things I’ve noticed while reading some of my favourite stories is the division between groups of people. In the “real world,” I feel like we’re learning how to accept people of different ages, nationalities — we learn that we’re all the same, human beings built of bones and blood, all here for the same thing, all of us just trying to be accepted and trying to accept ourselves. Throughout the centuries, it’s been a struggle, but as a whole, I like to think that society is becoming more accepting of the differences between all of us.

Now, move this into the world of YA books. One thing I’ve noticed is that we have the main group of people in a book, the people we’re supposed to root for, and then we have the DIFFERENT people. More times than not, the groups fight and argue and mean things are said about their differences. Think about how in the “real world” it’s not okay to say politically incorrect things or really mean things straight out at anyone — we’re all so cautious to say the “right” thing that when I see people in books just being so obviously rude, I wonder what it’s teaching our kids.

Some of my favourite dystopian books are like this. Let’s take a totally popular book like The Hunger Games, for instance. Basically, the premise of the book is kids killing kids. There are different districts dividing the people. There is major hatred going on between a lot of the people and that HUGE dividing line between the districts and the Capitol. I know that parents and teachers will teach kids how to tell the difference between fiction and real life, but sometimes I feel like the line between the two — especially for kids who could get lost in so many books — is very fine.

Take books based in high school (Gossip Girl, anyone?) — we have the prom queen, the bully, the school bitch, the nerds, etc. As I write this, I even recall finishing one of my favourite books. In it, one of the characters was a HUGE bitch. Could a book like this teach someone to be JUST like that character? Maybe some kids think it’s okay to act like that?

Maybe this is just me thinking like this, and maybe this is why I find myself veering towards contemporaries these days, but sometimes so much hatred in a book can even get to me — someone who generally is very accepting in life. It makes ME sad and I have to remind myself that it’s just fiction.

Am I being too sensitive? Do you think that most kids will know how to tell the difference between the fiction of books and the reality of life? Do you think that some YA books ARE just a little too serious and maybe just a little too harsh when it comes to the differences between different cultures or societies? 

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12 thoughts on “Discussion: The “Outsiders” in YA

  1. Hmm, perhaps the intent behind those book is to make kids thing about whether such divisions are right? Also, like you, I’m a very accepting person, but, unfortunately, I encounter the examples of not so accepting people, daily, whether in person, or via media. And, perhaps this is what those books portray, after all fiction is often a reflection of life and sadly many people are not as sensitive to political correctness or generally acceptning of different people as you and I.

    • So true. Of course, now that you point it out it is nice that these books do make kids think, as opposed to some of the fluffier kids books out there. And really, it’s a great kind of book to open up dialogue between child and parent.

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  3. I think that it’s unfortunately a very real representation of life for some people. I know there are a lot of places where people are just downright rude and unaccepting of people who are different. Actually, my own family can be pretty unaccepting of certain types of people and it drives me crazy. To the point of it being embarrassing to go out in public with them.

    I don’t think that books will encourage many people to act a certain way, but sometimes if it’s too bad, it might turn people off of reading it in disgust. I don’t know because I’m a very accepting person, so half the time I don’t notice things that would bother others. I mean, I knew a total bitch in highschool and she certainly wasn’t a reader, so her actions were influenced by books. I think people will just be that way no matter what and others will know it’s wrong. It depends on the person.

    • Good points, Jenn. I agree that if a person is going to act that way, it might be more of an innate thing, rather than something they read in a book.

  4. I totally thought this was going to be about The Outsiders be SE Hinton!

    As for the topic at hand, I think we have to give readers more credit. I don’t think a book (or a song or a video game or any other media) can create something in a person that wasn’t already there – good or bad, I also do not buy the whole “reading makes you kinder/more empathetic/whatever thing – reading can help you think about things in a new way, or encourage you to see things from another point of view, or inspire a new idea… but I don’t think it turns a good person bad or vice versa. Nor do I see the point of books, or the responsibility of authors, to be teaching moral lessons (or to avoid teaching “bad” lessons, if that makes sense?)

    I think this crops up in YA so much because identity is a huge deal for teens, and the easiest way to build up an identity is to define yourself by what you’re not. You know, like the greasers and the socs in The Outsiders 🙂 Or the cool kids and the nerds, or all those groups in Divergent.

    • Great points, Laura! And I think these kinds of books will really help open up a dialogue for kids and parents — and I hope that parents will read some of the books with their kids so that they can talk to them.

      And I love the idea of building an identity — it’s wonderful to read a book and think, yes! I would totally fit in with these people!

  5. I am so passing this entry onto my friend! We were having this discussion yesterday – her 11 year old son is reading Mockingjay right now, and she’s having serious anxiety over it. (Given the bullying/school violence issue, I can’t say I blame her that she’s had anxiety over her 4th grader reading books about kids killing kids…)

    I am torn on how I feel. I love YA the way it is going (for my sake) but then I think about my 5 year old entering the realm of YA before long and it just plain scares me. I think that’s part of the hope with the newly branded “NA” genre, to move the more violent/sexual/grown up books into that category. But I just don’t see the fluffy, fun books of our YA days coming back.

    • But at least your friend has read it so that she might be able to talk to him about it afterwards, right? And like Laura mentioned in her comment, we do have to give readers more credit.

      I think the great thing about being a reader who wants to raise a reader is that we can discover these kinds of books together and maybe even talk about them afterwards. Though you’re right — there really aren’t a lot of fluffy books like we had back in the day!

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  7. I think the ‘difference hatred’ that you’re talking about CAN be quite big in books, but I think most people would read them as just part of the story. It’s like any plot device. If an MC is starving herself to be thin and popular, does that mean the reader will do the same thing? When people read books, I think most of the time they read them as that: books. Some books have terrible messages, and some books have good ones, and some books aren’t really about messages but more about the storyline and providing an escape to a reader.
    Yes, I think sometimes books might not be promoting the best morals, but is that really their job? Should an author change their story idea because they’re afraid someone might alter their way of life, even though the author in no way meant to do that?
    I think reading is like anything in life: you need to apply your own morals and your own standards, and above all view them as what they are: fiction.

    • Great points, Chiara! And you’re right — books are for escaping, not for pushing morals. I think it’s up to the individuals and parents of kids to make sure that we all know what’s right and what’s wrong. If the books had all the same kinds of people in them with no one bad, no one different, then they’d be pretty boring.

My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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