The WSJ Op-Ed on Young Adult Fiction that made Rita Skeeter look Impressive

Last June, I had the privilege of being invited to attend and present at the first, and I hope annual, Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature in Las Vegas. I attended many fine
talks from authors, educators and researchers, met Dr. Kia Richmond, who has written a book on mental illness in young adult literature and gave a talk on PTSD in young adult literature, including Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Perhaps most exciting aspect was the opportunity to speak about PTSD in Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and The Impossible Knife of Memorywith the author herself in the audience. Luckily for me, Ms. Anderson was both gracious with her comments and generous with her support for my work, in addition to being an all-around very cool person.

They say any publicity is good publicity, so I suppose the Summit organizer, Dr. Steven Bickmore, should have been glad to see the event as the subject of a Wall Street Journal editorial. However, the WSJ author, Steven Salerno, chose to devote 723 of 782 words of his column to criticizing the Summit, three of its guest authors and their books, for the crime of depicting a world  “spinning off its axis” with overly dark tales of dystopia, mental illness, racism, and other signs of depravity. Like theHarry Haterswho decried the Potter books as a gateway to the occult without even a cursory reading that would have detected traditional Christian symbolism and pro-social themes, Salerno apparently formulated his opinion without attending the summit or interviewing the attendees he quoted. Instead, he appears to have pulled all of his information from other published summaries. Rita Skeeter, for all her faults, at least made a pretense of speaking to a few Harry’s, Bathilda’s and Pansy’s before misrepresenting their words and  twisting them to fit the scandalous story she had already decided to tell.

As a psychology professor, I was most disturbed by Salerno’s unsupported assumptions regarding the psychological effects of reading narrative fiction.

It is difficult to understand why educators would so determinedly insist on immersing students in an unsavory worldview, portraying life in terms of its anomalies and unorthodoxies, as if there’s something wrong with you if there’s nothing wrong with you. Of course teachers want all children from all life circumstances to feel accepted, to belong—but belong to what, exactly? Classroom discussions that celebrate this or that fictive martyr, tragic figure, antihero or other outlier are bound to create more outliers: Consciously or not, adolescents will seek membership in the group that appears to be getting all the attention. And if indeed it is psychologically debilitating for the young people depicted in today’s YA literature to inhabit a world of virulent racism and interminable bullying and sexual abuse, then why make the vast majority of students, who don’t live amid such conditions, feel as if they do?

Salerno assumes authors like Chris Crutcher–  a respected therapist who works with traumatized children– write stories about difficult topics and stigmatized populations that have the fringe benefit of assuring a steady supply of troubled clients for themselves. The reality is, there is no evidence that reading fiction of any type contributes to mental health problems. In fact, actual peer-reviewed research suggests exactly the opposite. One fine example is the work of Loris Vezzali, a researcher and plenary speaker at the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference, who found that reading Harry Potter is associated with reduced prejudice and decreased stigmatization of marginalized groups. In other words, contrary to Salerno’s assertion, reading about outliers creates people not more “outliers” but people with more compassion for those outsiders. There is a very good reason for immersing students in a world out of their comfort zone through fiction: it appears to provide a safe environment that promotes empathy.

Consider  a series of studies I recently conducted with 6th grade teacher Martha Guarisco. We administered tests for empathy and theory of mind— the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others—to her students before and after a novel unit. After reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, students reported higher levels of perspective-taking, and improved ability to recognize social situations that could hurt others’ feelings. After reading Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, students expressed higher levels of empathic concern for others, and at least some subsets of students had improved ability to discern faux pas and to recognize emotions from facial expressions.

It is true that neither of these books is as “dark” as the works of Magoon, Crutcher and Anderson, but, they are also targeted towards much younger children. And they do not shy away from uncomfortable topics. The 10-year-old protagonist of Wonder has severe facial deformities that isolate him and lead to bullying not only by children, but by adults; a mother of one of his classmates tries to have him removed from his school and, when that fails, arranges to have him airbrushed from the class picture. Josh, of The Crossover, physically attacks and injures his twin brother in a fit of jealousy, and later sees his father die of a heart attack. These are not exactly “uplifting” or “comforting” topics.

Yet, the students’ teacher was able to see empathy in action. Remarkably, several of the students– from an expensive, predominantly White private school in the deep South–did not realize, on their first reading, that the protagonists of The Crossover were Black. Therefore, they missed the significance of a key scene, where Josh sees his father being pulled over by a police officer and becomes afraid that even his father’s fame as a basketball star may not save him from a How It Went Down situation. According to Ms. Guarisco, once the story was explained to them, the students left that classroom discussion, not traumatized by fear that the world is full of corrupt police ready to gun down the unarmed and innocent, but with newfound understanding a worldview they had never before considered.

Would similar empathy-enhancing effects be seen with the works of Crutcher, Magoon and Anderson that, according to Salerno, jeopardize their mental health by immersion in an “unsavory worldview?” That research has not been done, though a group of the scholars that convened at the Las Vegas meeting left with plans for research projects to investigate the effects of young adult literature more directly. As a longtime professor of psychology and a fan of quality young adult literature, I am eager to assist. And, the “unsavory” authors who attended were equally supportive of such research endeavors.

I have some still-unpublished data from my own work on The Hunger Games suggesting that some adolescents who do not see themselves as especially empathetic towards real-life acquaintances, nonetheless empathize strongly with the protagonists of these books. This would be consistent with current hypotheses from psychologists that reading fiction simulates social contact. And when this contact is with fictional characters outside of your safe social group, or with characters, like Katniss Everdeen, that you might steer clear of in person, empathy develops. I also have evidence these pro-social effects are not the result of fans’ fondness for movies. I was able to do a similar study on Divergent fans before the first film was released, and found the exact same results. And both of these books are dystopias, with dark themes and high body counts. But, rather than drive readers towards despair, the books seem to drive them towards compassion.

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Some critics, like Julian’s mom in Wonder, would prefer to airbrush any theme that depicts a world as less than “hospitable” from student reading assignments. Or, like Dolores Umbridge, think students must be protected from all but the safest and gentlest books in their schools. Salerno, for instance, suggests Heather Has Two Mommies as a more “uplifting” alternative for “young readers.” But, there is zero evidence that readers of young adult literature would be mentally healthier as a result. On the contrary, fiction that engages students and transports them into an unfamiliar world—even if that world is sometimes dark and depraved,—appears to promote social cognition, empathy and understanding. The very books that Salerno accuses of encouraging depression and suicide by “painting life as so much more trying than it is” may prove to be a powerful defense against the darkness of the Muggle world.

Comments

  1. This is an insightful post! I love how Dr. Freeman takes on a specific issue that Mr. Salerno misrepresents. Well done.

  2. Kia Jane Richmond says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Louise. I appreciate your extended response to Salerno’s WSJ article. Your argument about the power of YA fiction to help students gain empathy is one of the main reasons I wrote my book (“Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters”). Moreover, helping young adults to become more empathetic and informed is part of the charge given to English language arts teachers in the Common Core State Standards (see my response to Salerno’s opinion piece included on Steve Bickmore’s YA Wednesday blog: http://www.yawednesday.com/blog/finding-light-and-hope-in-young-adult-literature-a-response-to-the-wsjs-unbearable-darkness-and-misappropriated-commentary). In my own teaching of young adult literature in both English Education and Humanities classes, I have discovered that through an examination of language about mental illness used by characters in YA novels, students also consider their own language choices and acknowledge cultural stigma associated with psychological disorders (see my Language Arts Journal of Michigan article on this issue: https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2038&context=lajm). Comments such as Salerno’s, which categorizes young adult books about mental illness as “dark” and supporting an “unsavory worldview,” only reinforce stigma and social distancing of people with mental illnesses.

  3. Louise Freeman says:

    Thank you to both Kia and Steve for your comments. A study I did with Mary Baldwin honors students several years ago showed that Harry Potter readers were more likely to report being comfortable with people with mental illness and less likely to stigmatize them.

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