A Parent's Guide to Edifying YA Stories
The characters we read and watch as children become our heroes. The heroes for teens today tend to appeal to every part of the teenaged experience that should be tempered: dictatorship of emotions, the lure of "forbidden love", violence in the face of oppression, tendency toward wrath ... I could go on.
If you are a parent or a concerned teacher (as I was when I decided to write a book), here is a handy guide that will help you distinguish which stories are harmful to your child's moral development and which are helpful.
1. Does Conscience Inform the Hero's Decisions?
When faced with a moral dilemma, many heroes' internal struggles involve little to no reference to conscience. Instead, the moral measuring stick is more of a cost-benefit game. Will making this choice result in an overall win or loss for me?
A "win" is getting closer to whatever the hero has set out to accomplish, no matter how selfish the goal. I.e., if Bella from Twilight chooses X, will she be nearer or further from her goal of being sexually desired forever? The good of the character, therefore, is dictated by whatever the character desires.
Every teenager on the planet wishes this were true. But, it is not to their benefit to think this way!
A YA reader needs to be shown that following her instincts rather than her emotions brings a better, fuller life. For a great example of a heroine who listens to her conscience, see The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.
2. Does the Hero Feel?
Children-turned-teenagers experience many emotions, some completely new and some to a completely new degree. Stories they read should show that it is ok to feel, and that there is still a way to experience emotion without becoming a slave to it.
Emotions cannot be helped; in and of themselves, they are morally neutral. It is when we respond to emotions that our actions become right or wrong. Edifying stories manifest a sensitivity to this reality.
I may get some flak for this, but the fifth in the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix is a good example of acknowledging the difficulty of battling emotions at a tender age, while making it clear to the reader that Harry's wrathful outbursts are not always condonable.
3. Who Gets the Blame When Calamity Strikes?
If a villain is to blame, make sure the villain is actually evil and not morally ambiguous.* If the fault lies with the protagonist or a supporting character, does he own up to his mistake? Or, does the reader want him to admit his flaws? Also good.
Never good is the philosophy that environment or circumstances are to blame, and should therefore be rebelled against. Of course it is true that misfortunes in our lives are sometimes inexplicable. But, refusal to endure difficult circumstances leads to life-long frustration (with the exception of moral and social injustices, of course). Hardships, even if they are not chosen, can be edifying. More on this later.
4. Are the Hero's Tough Choices Absurd or Honest?
I am reminded of many "ethics" courses offered at liberal arts colleges, where professors gleefully pose hypothetical scenarios that (they think) force their students to choose between two evils. Let me just say once and for all: there is no real-life scenario in which one is forced to do evil.
Now, I'm religious, which is why I believe stories that strain to find ways in which moral evils must be chosen are dishonest. In my fanatically religious opinion, such worlds are not analogous to reality, in which case they are not effective stories. See: The Hunger Games, in which the heroine frequently makes deals with the devil "to protect her loved ones."
Let the character's choices be difficult, absolutely! Give us a good old rock and a hard place, in which no one will come out unscathed. Let the characters falter, going right when they should have gone left. But let's avoid justification of wrongs. YA readers really don't need that example in their lives.
5. Is Selfless Sacrifice Good or Bad?
Edifying stories have lots of sacrifice for the good, in which one or many characters find themselves renewed by a difficult experience. Great loss is suffered, and something precious is rescued.
Not-so-edifying stories condemn sacrifice as cruel or unfair. Realistic fiction and dystopian novels usually fall into this trend.
Dopey romances such as such as The Fault in Our Stars, however, posture sacrifice as oh so VERY noble when it is in the name of sex or sexual tension.
Romantic sacrifice is doing what one doesn't want to do for the good of the beloved. This is in contrast to making sacrifices that are easy to make (a.k.a. ditching parents and friends, spending a lot of money, breaking the law, etc.) so as to hook up with said beloved more frequently.
Sorry to go old school, but you KNOW the romantic relationship in The Princess Bride is on point. Westley sacrifices, and he sacrifices hard.
6. What is Glorified?
It's a story -- something is going to be glorified. Otherwise, what's the point? Take a look at the climax of the book. In the hero's most victorious moment, what kind of music plays in your head? Is it in any way creepy or ominous? Probably not a good choice for your YA reader.
Good things to glorify: courage, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, friendship, dedication, perseverance, special gifts.
Not so good things to glorify: vengeance, cruelty, lust, community over the individual, death, revolt, survival, power, personal gain.
There really is a lot out there to intrigue and vivify a teenager. It's just a matter of doing the research and steering your child/student toward the lesser-known.
*RE: Villains. Personally, I do not see myself writing the anti-villain anytime soon. You know, the "I am just misunderstood" bad guy. These are alarmingly popular, particularly in fairytale retellings. An impressively nauseating example can be found in Gregory Maquire's Wicked. In general, however, I am all for more complex villains with subtler reasons for wreaking havoc. The devil can be very convincing, and it's good especially for teens to be on the lookout for subtle signs of foul play.