What Youth Lit Can Teach: It’s Not Good

The "real life" books for teenagers give bad answers to the kids' problems.

By David Mills Published on May 13, 2015

Popular “youth lit” isn’t Little House on the Prairie anymore. It’s not The Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Harry Potter. A lot of it’s about vampires and other monsters, but a lot of it’s “gritty” and “realistic” stories about “real life.”

For examples, go to your local chain bookstore. Find the youth lit table. It’s probably put in an aisle so customers have to walk around it to get where they’re going. (People who have to walk around a table will look at it as they walk by.) You will find lots of books with racy covers and lines on the back like this: “Zach: Sophisticated college boy, wise in the ways of French painting as well as other French things.”

These supposedly realistic books mostly describe the typical teenage struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, controlling parents, dysfunctional parents, vicious peers and partying peers, insecure untrustworthy peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs and other physical features different from the ideal seen on TV. Sometimes the children struggle with problems like sexual abuse and drug addiction. Not too often, though, because the books are aimed at average teenagers who want to read about their own problems.

I read youth lit for almost twenty years as an adult, beginning when our eldest was about eight. The “real life” books I vetted especially carefully. The bad ones far outweighed the good. The writers and the teachers who push them may think they’re helping children understand the real world and avoid harm, and some of these books may — let me stress that “may” — actually help some kids do that. But then so do the classics like Little House and Lord of the Rings, and more profoundly.

The Real Problem

The  problem with the”real life” books is that they just aren’t realistic. They tell only one story, and that story’s partly true, but they tell it as if it were the only story. The world they describe isn’t the world that actually exists. In these books:

• Kids have horribly difficult lives, even if they have every comfort and pleasure in the world. This is true of pretty much every kid in every story. Their families are dysfunctional, their parents self-absorbed or distant or controlling, their peers cruel and their schools Darwinian. The best parents may love their child, but they just don’t understand her problems (the main character is usually a girl). In many books, though not all, added to these problems are bad skin and hair and the rest of the list I mentioned already.

• Families are rarely “havens in a heartless world.” More often the family is a trial that for obscure reasons must be endured on the way to adulthood and freedom. Parents are either clueless, controlling or dysfunctional, though sometimes one parent is okay (usually the mother) but can’t do much about the other parent, who isn’t at all okay. Some siblings are kind, but most are either unconcerned (if older) or annoying (if younger), though they may be an ally in resisting their parents. Occasionally the sibling is the parents’ favorite, an example of success the protagonist can never match, and thus another source of oppression that is the parents’ fault. The child’s real family is her set of friends. In a few stories, the main character may admire someone else’s parents or family life, but almost never her own.

• Parents impose lots of rules, but never give good reasons for their rules.

• No one understands the teenagers, the people in authority over them least of all. The authorities do not see what the child actually experiences, and the child has little or no hope they ever will, which makes their advice and guidance laughably useless. You will, however, find many more sympathetic teachers in these stories than sympathetic parents, and many more wise teachers than wise parents. You can see why teachers like these books.

• Kids are alone to handle their problems, though they may have friends to help, and sometimes a sympathetic but often powerless teacher. Even then, sometimes their friends and teachers fail them or turn against them. Trust is dangerous.

• Girls are strong but often cruel and manipulative; boys are soft and stupid, though they can be physically brutal. Many of the girls’ books include one kind and supportive male, though he is sometimes a homosexual or at least “sensitive.” Attractive boys are rarely trustworthy, though such a boy sometimes becomes devoted to the girl after he has slept with her, and she feels empowered in dropping him.

• Talking explicitly about bodily functions, especially menstruation, is a sign of maturity and realism. Doing so embarrasses parents, because they are not as open and natural, and by implication mature, as their children.

• Sexual activity is not governed by any form of morality, at least any morality that can be formulated as a rule or law. It is at best wise or unwise, not right or wrong. Social standards are irrelevant. No one saves herself for marriage, unless she will see the pointlessness of this by the end of the book. (Sex is defined in the Clintonian way, with other sexual behaviors treated as if they weren’t exactly sexual.)

• But giving up your virginity is still treated as somehow special, governed by feelings that giving it up to this person is, somehow, right, and to another one wrong. Virginity is something to be treasured and given up only to someone for whom you have some kind of affectionate feelings. That’s a morality of a sort, but not one that gives the child any criteria by which to measure those feelings.

• That said, other sexual encounters are not governed by even a vague morality, but simply by calculation of the pleasures and costs involved, if engaged in freely and at the appropriate age. Your body is to be saved or spent in much the same way you save or spend the money in your bank account. To the extent sexual activity involves an exclusive commitment to someone else, it is a tool to be used in getting or securing that commitment, though not a very good tool.

• As a rule, sexual activity is mainly recreational. It ought to be “safe,” though safety is almost always defined as protection from disease and conception, and sometimes from relational complications or emotional harm (always underestimated).

• College is understood as the reward for surviving middle and high school, mostly because it liberates the child from her parents, hometown and school, and because it gives her a chance to recreate herself, now that she’s learned the lessons of “real life.”

• Learning has no real value. Grades do, as a means to the end of escaping home to the best college possible. The stories often contain a friend who’s a “brain” or a “nerd,” who occasionally answers a hard math problem or quotes Shakespeare, but being a brain is no more valuable than being a very good volleyball player.

• Religion has no active role in life, unless it makes people smug and self-righteous. If a serious Christian appears in one of these books, the odds are about ten to one she’s dislikable. Buddhists and Hindus are cool, though. Muslims are especially cool and harassed by jerks.

• The child may lie to her parents, trick her teachers, cheat her friends, all without censure, but she must not take drugs, make racist remarks, insist that God has spoken, or think sexual differences mean anything. Those may be the sole fixed moral points in these books.

• Politics rarely comes up. Basic liberalism is assumed to be good. Republicans and conservatives if mentioned are always selfish and if the book includes racial minorities, racist.

• No one seems to have an ideal. They have goals, usually good ones, but nothing heroic.

The Problem

You will have noticed that these books appeal to the teenager’s sense of being a victim and her (and his) desire to make her own decisions and run her own life. They tell the story the child wants to hear. And they sell huge numbers of copies.

The deepest problem with these books, I think, isn’t their deceptive description of the world we live in. That’s bad, but it’s not as bad as what the books teach the child to do about it. The problem is their vision of how the child should live in the world. The successful child is the child who lives and wins by that world’s rules.

That world has no room for obedience, chastity, and the other virtues. It has no room for kindness, heroism, self-restraint, sacrifice, no room for Laura Ingalls Wilder or Samwise Gamgee. You could not write Laura or Sam into one of these stories. They just wouldn’t fit. Yet Laura and Sam live lives fuller, richer, more interesting and infinitely happier than the poor lost children these “real life” books hold up as models.


The longer essay from which this is adapted, “Bad Books for Kids,” appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone and can be found here. It won the Associated Church Press’s Award of Excellence (first place) in the “personally useful article” section for 2009. Readers may also want to read Five Rules for Your Child’s Reading

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