Monday, May 20, 2013

How Social Attitudes Affect YA Literature

Fashion to hairstyles. Sexual orientation to lifestyles. Racism, bigotry, prejudice, bullying, and even rape. How does social attitudes affect YA literature? 
 (Splat: I was supposed to release my thoughts on the magical MG book TWERP, today, but just couldn't let this subject slide by any longer. Hope you MGers understand. Thx!)
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I recently came across a video showing a young man taking a stand against a fashion mogul. Some of you may have seen this video or read the post. I've posted links to both at the end of this article.

The gist of the story is that Abercrombie & Fitch - huge young adult fashion icon - has publicly stated they want to cut off the not-so-cool-kids from purchasing their products. Uh-hmmm. Excuse me? This is just as bad as the recent admission from Starbucks that traditional marriage lovers should stay home. Dude, I'm cool with however someone wants to live their life, but I'm thinking that being married to the same man for over twenty years kind of makes me a traditional marriage lover.


Apparently, Starbucks believes those who've been in a traditional marriage are against anyone else's views. Or maybe they think we might be allergic to their coffee or that it causes teenage acne; teens do drink boatloads of coffee today, do they not? That must be the reason, yes? And it looks like A&F has developed a perfect description of the not-so-cool-kids in America and around the world. So, who exactly is this group of kiddos?
  • the teen boy, who wears hammy-downs from his cousin because he works two jobs to help his family buy oil for the winter?
  • or what about the sophomore girl, whose eyeglasses are too big for her face but her parents can't afford to buy her more expensive ones?
  • maybe it's the high school senior unable to afford college or simply feels that school is not his/her thing?
  • could it be the teenage cashier or bus-boy, or babysitter? 
Another issue A&F has decided to go public with is their opinion of overweight people, woman in particular. A&F will not make large or extra-large clothing for woman, wanting only the fit or lean woman showing off their brand. 

What I want to discuss today is how social attitudes such as these affect young adult literature and how much responsible should rest on those larger entities for influencing our YA population. Do young adult authors include such dynamics in their stories. If they do, how much responsibility is theirs--ours?

Now, I'm not a bible toting person and I rarely refer to religion here. But the later half of the above sentence brought to mind a life lesson I've learned over the years, which just happens to be a biblical truth: Do well in the smaller things and you will be entrusted with larger things.

We've seen YA literature of the past address racism, prejudice, and teen gangs. To Kill A Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came out in a time when racism was outwardly prevalent. Did writing about such a social issue during its modern height add to social awareness or simply poke a stick at it, giving haters the nod? The Outsiders released later, but also dealt with racism, gangs, acceptance or the lack of it. Did that story open new views about such issues?

Now writers have no control over how their audience will react to the social issues they choose to explore through their work. However, they can control the manner in which it's delivered. It is my opinion that To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Outsiders did open new views on those social issues. Countless other young adult stories, whose authors had the courage to explore such social thorns and expose them for what they were/are, have done the same.

How did these authors and these particular stories open new views? Was it timing, delivery, character & story setting, a combo of both, or something more? Does society have to be ready for the challenge to change?

Granted, there are more pressing issues than the one raised here about A&F. But we, as young adult authors, are in a unique position. We can stand up and shed light on such issues. And in doing so, we can lean to the right or the left, weaving our opinions through our characters, settings, and overall arcs. We can remain neutral and thread both sides of a social attitude through our stories, letting the reader form their own opinions. We must always remember--as A&F and Starbucks have obviously forgotten--that we're dealing with impressionable teenagers. We have the ability to make a difference, change wrongs of humanities' past, and pave the road for a brighter mankind.

But on the other hand, we are merely writers. Each of us living in our own space and time, towns and ideals--social attitudes. Where do the young adult readers fit into this? My three teenagers would be the first to tell you they know it all or that they can handle it. They've even told me that I've raised them to know better. Although that is encouraging, the world is much bigger than me alone. Then you alone.

With today's social media and technology being merely a fingertip away, teens are inundated with social opinions and attitudes. So many of these are delivered by retailers through products or services attractive to young people. Just look at the Homecoming or Prom gowns of today. Most of the gowns I see make me ask "Where the heck is the rest of it?" Retailers airbrush amazing images of high school girls draped in gorgeous gowns, coxing teen girls to want whatever they are selling. Once again, how does this simple act of buying a prom dress affect YA literature?

Laurie Halse Anderson spotlighted the topic of teen rape in her amazing book SPEAK. The gripping story of a young girl, who was raped yet feared to tell anyone, created a great stir among teen and adult groups alike. As most of you know, that book was placed on a band book list years ago.

Let's talk about branding and platforms. As authors, we all want to sell books. For the most part, authors say they write because they want to share stories with the world, love to create and explore, and simply enjoy writing. But let's be honest, we also have to make a living. So that lends to the subject of platform. What content do I use on my blog? What topics do I steer away from? What social attitudes am I willing to include in my work, and will any of those alienate a group of readers, marketers, publishers? I'm not sure about you, but even though I write for kids/tweens/teens, I'd love for my books to be read by everyone regardless of age, race, status, etc.... The question we have to ask ourselves here is "Am I willing to sellout my personal ideals, morals, and opinions to sell my books? If not, how far am I willing to push the envelope of bucking-the-social-system?"

So why would A&F cut off certain buyers? Is it solely for appearances? Social status? Do authors do the same thing?

How do young adult authors incorporate these social attitudes in our stories without preaching? How do we deliver material in such a way that gives the young adult reader the freedom to form his/her own attitudes and feel courageous enough to stand up for them?

My answer to those two questions is simple: I will remain true to myself in all things, even if it goes against the grain of accepted social attitudes. What is your answer? 
Tomorrow is Be Positive Day!
Help spread the shine & encourage
others, using hashtag #bepositive!

Here are the links:
ARTICLE - VIDEO. (I would love it if you'd share this article. I'd really like to start a discussion about this, maybe make a difference. THX!)

46 comments:

  1. I think Starbucks was referring to people who oppose gay marriage, believing traditional marriage should be the only kind. But still, by saying "Your kind aren't welcome here," they are espousing the same kind of intolerance they purport to be fighting. And that is NOT being socially responsible or much of a role model.

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  2. Can't believe businesses want to cut off certain groups of people. I definitely won't be shopping at those type of places. That's the power we have as consumers.

    Like you, I'm going to be true to myself and inclusive in what I write. You're right about kids being swamped with media messages and it's important we reflect on how what we say could influence them and be sure it's something we're proud of.

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  3. I'm surprised at Starbucks; I thought they were all-inclusive. A&F doesn't surprise me; I always thought the brand was geared toward the perfectly affluent and now they've just come out and said it. I certainly won't be buying from them and I think it's a shame that a big company like that would publicly state that it's targeted audience is limited to those who meet their 'perfect' criteria. A pox upon them, I say.

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  4. Hi, Sheri,

    WOW... this was certainly an eye-opening post! I mirror your passion for this subject matter. How INSANE IS THIS? As a m/g and y/a writer myself, I BELIEVE ALL SUBJECT matters need to be incorporated into our works. No matter the social outrage. My second novel deals with a military brat's abuse by his alcoholic and psychotic father. It is intense, it is REAL. Many teens have to cope with this and NEED to know that they are NOT alone. Several of my blogger friends have read this ms and most accepted it for a very real and poignant story. However there was a token few who found the subject matter TOO disturbing.

    Yet, a reader from my target audience( a sixteen-year-old girl) found the story enlightening and wasn't disturbed by it at all. Sadly these issues are part of OUR WORLD and need to be in the literary world.

    I absolutely will keep this going. I will share this article AND link back to your post as well on Wednesday!

    Thanks for sharing this information with us. I am as outraged as your are....

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    1. No. I truly believe as writers of MG/YA lit we must be honest to the reality of the real world. I have no issues with authors 'telling it how it is', so to speak. I just wonder how much of the 'fake' we can safely allow in our fictitious worlds without influencing young adults in a negative way. You know??

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  5. YA and MG writers can incorporate social attitudes in our stories by simply by keeping things real to the stories we're telling — which means from the characters POV and their feelings towards these situations.

    p.s. You've just given me one more reason to hate A+F. Their stores are bad enough-- as in I can't last more than two minutes in them without getting a migraine.

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  6. You speak for me, Sheri! I will NOT shop at A&F, Starbucks(sniff), or anywhere else that hurls this kind of garbage! The junk that these companies are flinging is the root of bullying. I'm with Samantha. I get a headache just being in A&F. BLEH!

    It's insulting. Thanks for this. Will tweet it and blog this so people can read it. It's too important. YaY you! *waving*

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  7. I meant to add a thanks and loads of love for the Be Positive shout out. Yeah! (I'm positive I'm not gonna give these folks my money.) *wink*

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  8. What is normal? Seriously? And who are they, businesses, to tell us what is cool or acceptable? Crazy people.

    I think as writers we do have to be especially careful about the attitudes we cultivate and the message our characters preach through their actions. Granted, the world isn't one big ideal, but we're either helping to make it better or worse.

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  9. Someone else posted about A&F today.
    My answer is yours - I will remain true to my values and morals no matter what.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's the only way to go in my books. :)

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  10. I think the attitudes of Starbucks and Abercrombie and Fitch are deplorable. Once people realize how horrible and judgmental their views are, there could be a huge backlash. I could never promote the kind of views those companies have. My books emphasize character-building messages for children, like sharing, teamwork and perseverance. These are qualities that are lacking in today's society, I believe.

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  11. Wow--this is a BRILLIANT post. I'm glad I found your site through Michael Di Gesu. New, avid follower here!!

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    1. Oh, that's awesome!! Thank you on both fronts! It's wonderful to meet you, Randi.

      Looking forward to chatting,

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  12. OKAY...I just found this and have to post: http://www.christianpost.com/news/did-starbucks-ceo-really-say-we-dont-want-your-business-92588/. This article can broaden our thoughts and discussion about how social attitudes affect YA literature. Apparently, loads of articles have taken Starbuck's CEO's statement out of context. Someone somewhere discovered that his response was to a shareholder who was thinking about selling his shares because of the marriage issue. Hmmm...

    So, look how things were misconstrued. How can something like this (feeling unsure what to believe where social elements are concerned) affect YA writers and readers? Surely the old campfire story he-said-she-said is not the first incident like this.

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  13. Major applause for you for speaking out! You rock!

    Starbucks and A&F have flat lost it. I've had a traditional marriage for many years and am very happy with my life. Shame on Starbucks for judging me -- I'm not a religious person but a biblical verse does come to mind: Judge not lest ye be judged.

    So, okay, Starbucks: You make lousy coffee, overpriced, dreadful coffee. And A&F: I'm a trim size 8 but, guess what? I stopped going into your store years ago because I didn't approve your Made in China stuff. (One can't call what you sell 'fashion'). But most of all, A&F, shame, shame on you for being elitist jerks at the expense of young kids who are doing the best they can with what they have.

    (Hmm, I said all that without an expletive. *pats self on back*)

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  14. Thank you, Deanie & Kittie. I really appreciate you both stopping by and chiming in. I agree with you, Kittie. I've only been into an A&F store a few times. Firstly, the music is too dang loud and the smells are way overpowering; makes me sick. Secondly, although the models are beautiful, it'd be nice if they'd try wearing some of the clothes they are supposed to be encouraging the consumer to purchase. Can I hear a Yea??

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  15. I'm with you, Sheri. I stay true to who I am. If that means my book doesn't sell, I still know I upheld my beliefs and I'm okay with that.

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  16. Good for you for highlighting this ongoing problem. Too much of society is dominated by shallow, reactionary and ill-informed people. Prejudice and small-mindedness are alive and well in America's "heartland." Only when people start valuing traits like honesty, intelligence, loyalty, empathy and responsibility -- as opposed to wealth, fame and power -- will anything change. Sadly, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

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    1. Well said! I think there are more of 'us' out there. We need to make our values more public in our daily lives; not preachy or in-your-face, but through our simple interactions with others. Here in lies change, which will influence our young adult readers and our stories.

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  17. I firmly believe writers should write the stories they believe feel should be written, regardless of any taboo or socially unacceptable viewpoint. I also think, when it comes to platform, that authors should exhibit those same ideals. However...I don't think authors should use their platforms to promote personal agendas. This happens during every presidential election and it shocks me every time.

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  18. I think if we don't write what we believe, our work will come off as false. I write adult, and although I still have a responsibility, it's nowhere near as great as that you and other kidlit writers bear.

    Good going for addressing this issue. I could barely believe my eyes when I read that A/F story the other day. Good grief. I'd like to see that guy's Karma come home.

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  19. Sheri! What a FANTASTIC post and so so true! As authors we have so much power to get people talking. I guess you know I kind of tried to do that w/the two "The Truth" books--show both sides of the issue; hopefully get people thinking/talkin. *shrugs* Who knows.

    But I think it's a wonderful challenge authors can take up if they choose! And wow... did not know that about the Starbucks thing. Why can't we just show tolerance across the board? ugh.

    But good stuff here~ <3

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  20. A&F's policies are really shameful! I think we as authors do have a right and responsibility to illustrate real aspects of the world, even if we write fantasy. That said, the issue needs to be an organic part of the story, and the story must be bigger than the issue. No harranging allowed!

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  21. I don't approve of A&F stand either, but you know there will be plenty of people that do. No matter what the issue, someone will always be for or against, and their opinions are just as valid to them as ours are to us. Few people think they are doing harm with their views.

    Yes, all we can do as authors is write from our heart and stand true to our convictions. it may offend some, or start a revolution, or just make someone reassess their own views. Books have been shaping my world views since I first learned to make sense of the words on the page. I don't believe there are just two sides to anything; something may not be right for myself, but it doesn't mean I'm against it.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Shari. I don't read/write this genre, but the same can be said for any genre.

    .......dhole

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    1. The fact that people will reside on both sides of social attitudes is a given. Very true. As writers, we outline, map out, and summarize our stories. And even though some write off the cuff, they still have put some thought into their developing story. I think we need to think about our current culture/social attitudes as we write, too. At least, that's what I'm trying to get us to think about. :)

      Thank you so much for stopping by and adding your thoughts!

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  22. Hi Sheri - you've said some interesting things here .. and the links to the books will make us sit up and think. We're still discussion Dickens' approach to life in the 1800s, the artists of the day, eg Turner, let us know about technology - the advantages of the future, while reminding us of our past ...

    All author-artists will inevitably write about social norms - all social norms ..

    Very interesting to read .. cheers Hilary

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  23. Hi Sheri .. meant to say I came over from Michael's referral ... so glad I did. H

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  24. I agree with you, Sheri. I will not compromise who I am to gain readers/fame. What am I teaching my children if I do this. In my stories, I do want to present a real view of the society in which we live so not all my characters are "role models" but I try...in a non didactic manner to provide a moral lesson-even if that lesson goes against what has become the social norm.

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    1. Thank you for your words, Dawn. So glad you stopped by to read and comment. I think it's a subject we need to keep in the forefront of our minds while we right. It doesn't mean our individuals decisions to add social attitude content or to not add it is right or wrong. Just means we need to be conscious of what we write and remember it will impact someone.

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  25. I think it's horrible the way Abercrombie & Fitch and Starbucks are treating people. I think that people should be respected no matter what they look like, how they dress or who they marry and for how long. Great post, Sheri! I'm going to retweet.

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  26. This is a shocker! As bad as the IRS and Tea Parties, but that's another story. Remaining true to my beliefs is the only way for me to remain sane in an otherwise insane world.

    Great post! Lot of food for though here.

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  27. As a parent the message of being anorexic thin is not healthy to me. My son didn't shop at A&F because he didn't like to conform. All I can do is raise my boys to love everyone, stay firm in their beliefs, and treat others with respect. Beyond that, I have no control.

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  28. Amazing post and this gives me much to think about.

    I wish people were more accepting of others and all the lifestyles that exist.

    There have been many books that focus on difficult subjects with terrific story lines and without being preachy.

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  29. This is a great topic and fantastic post. I can't believe what A&F is doing. That's just so cruel. Teenagers go through enough self-doubt without adding that to the mix. It reminds me of Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, and a good answer, I think, to your question. The author takes up the topic of being plain in comparison to beautiful people and how a teenager deals with it (though it's a historical that takes place in Paris, the topic is still relevant today).

    Preaching to teens isn't a good idea for an author. You'll fail to reach them. Teens will figure out what the author is doing and go find a different book to read. Speak was so impacting to YA because Anderson wasn't trying to preach, she was just telling a story that people could relate to.

    It depends on whether or not the author is writing an issue YA or not. I think sometimes a genre YA that has one of these issues in it as a subplot (like eating disorders in Paper Valentine) really grab me more. Because it's part of lives, even when we might not realize it.

    As authors, we're storytellers, if we can incorporate these issues into our plot I do believe it would make it stronger. Teens have to face these issues daily (am I pretty enough? thin enough? smart enough? popular enough?).

    Your answer is really great. As long as you remain true to yourself, you can't go wrong.

    Really great post.

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    1. Wow! This is just an amazing comment. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I really appreciate it!

      Delete
  30. Great topic! I think Starbucks MEANT people who are EXCLUSIVELY traditional marriage, but they certainly didn't put it in context well. As for Abercrombie and Fitch--it's an issue that enrages me. I've struggled with weight issues my entire life, but worse, my best friend is a Bullemia survivor--these issues can actually be life and death--the struggle to be 'cool' by being 'thin enough'. Laurie Halse ALSO faced this one with Winter Girls, I believe--she's doing a phenomenal job of facing social issues head-on.

    As for literature, I think USUALLY how well a book does isn't really clear until well after the book release... when the social movement is complete and the book can be looked back to in retrospect as how well it represented the time.

    As for how WE approach it. I can't take myself out of my books--I lean left. I just do. But the trick to me isn't which way characters (or the plot) LEAN so much as making sure our plot is dense enough readers understand WHY. I read two Ayn Rand books when I was young and LOVED them, but I understood the philosophies well enough to see it wasn't because I agreed with her protaganists (or her) AT ALL. It was because she engaged me with good writing and made me really think. Likewise, Lolita doesn't come across as condoning child abuse, even though the protagonist PoV would seem to lead to that--readers are smart. They can see what's what. We just need to present an honest presentation of something the way it could really happen and the reader will make their own mind up. Yes, my choice of villains may give me away... my distrust of blindly believing what we're taught... but mostly I try to just tell the story. (with issues sometimes--mental illness, abuse)

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    1. So great I'm not the only one who can't take myself out of my books. I love that you mentioned that. This is a topic that was before, is today, and will remain tomorrow. I think it's important that, every so often, we stop and reflect.

      Thank you for your words, Hart!

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  31. I'll have to look up what Starbucks said. I've nothing against alternative lifestyles and am glad folks I know were able to marry at last. Is Starbuck afraid of catching or traditional cooties? Weird.

    As to A&F, that's just horrible. Although, when I was a kid there was a 5,7,9 shop, which is maybe very much like that. I'd love to see media embracing other types of people and make it OK. Life is stressful enough w/o anyone thinking they're 'wrong' or not cool.

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    1. It scares me where society is headed, what's acceptable - or not - and how it all is influencing young adults. Then KidLit authors need to figure out how they will incorporate these issues in stories. I don't know. Thinking about it too much makes my head spin.

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  32. I LOVE this post!! i think that yes, we put a bit of ourselves in our work. So we don't have to be "preachy" just believe in what's right to get that message across. UGH to A&F.

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  33. I can't think of a thing to add. Great post.

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  34. Staying true to yourself is the best way to go. I do think what kids read and watch is important, but the most important thing is having parents, siblings, and good friends as examples and to talk to openly so that they can keep their head on straight, even when inundated with Abercrombie & Starbucks fantasy worlds. So stay true to your values in your writing, but don't over-stress about it.

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    1. Great points! That is absolutely the best advice: staying true to oneself. Writing is such an adventure, and it's as evolutionary as society itself. Just have to pick out the weeds from the masses.

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  35. My answer is the same as yours: stay true to myself!
    I knew about the Abercrombie & Fitch story, but I didn't know that Starbucks was condemning traditional marriage lovers. Sounds ridiculous!

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