YA and Boys and the Problem of Limited Historical Context

There’s yet another article on YA and boys making the rounds today, this one from the LA Review of Books. Sarah Mesle writes:

I remember that quandary every time I read an essay about gender in Young Adult literature (which, since I teach it, is often). I see, in the ongoing conversation about Bella and Katniss, our culture pondering whether YA novels support the strong daughters we all want to raise. But as we debate ad nauseum whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?

Sigh. I think you can imagine that I think this argument is pants. Saundra Mitchell addresses most of my concerns regarding Mesle’s criticism of modern YA in a blog post over at Making Stuff Up for a Living. Namely, writers today are writing about manhood–and it’s weird and dated and sexist to say they’re not.

But I think it’s interesting to look closely at the very limited historical sources examined by Mesle. She discusses at length Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work which is not often even retroactively labeled a young adult novel, using it to prop up her argument that bookish men were once allowed to be men whereas now “good men [are] long forgotten.”

What a curiously cherry-picked example. If we’re going to look at historical works for and about children and teens, what about Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost, featuring a sickly and weak Philip Ammon as our love interest? Or Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, which is all about a nurturing and self-sacrificing young man who gives up winning in a skating race so that another boy could win–as if winning wasn’t everything, even back in 19th century Holland?

Or, if we’re going to look at works of “historical significance” for our models, why not turn to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for our model of manhood? At the very least–unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin–it’s a novel retroactively labeled as particularly appropriate for young adults. Huck isn’t a leader–he’s a trickster in classic Odyssean form. He struggles not with notions of leadership but with frameworks of empathy that are in direct opposition to the prevailing social mores. He does not grow into a socially upstanding man–in fact (spoilers!), he actively rejects the notion of being “civilized” by the novel’s end. Are we to think that Huck is therefore somehow not heroic?

The problem, of course, for Huck–and for us–is that manhood was not an uncomplicated notion in his day. Becoming a classical man often meant repressing emotions such as empathy and embracing one’s place in the patriarchy. This era of robust manhood was also one where women had no liberty, where homosexuals were viewed as deviant, where good men could be owned and traded like property.

And people want to go back to that? Really?!

As it was for Huck Finn, for modern boys, it’s not just a matter of becoming a leader (usually at the expense of oppressed minority groups). It’s a matter of nuance, sensitivity, and balancing notions of privilege with realities of identity–realities which have always been complex, no matter what a narrow sampling of classic works of literature might tell you. Even so, color me satisfied with the more diverse portrayals of manhood that we get in YA today.