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Not just kids’ stuff: Kat Rosenfield, The Black Witch, and the controversy that gripped 'YA Twitter'

For most bookish adults, the actual reading of a teen book – decoding and comprehending the content – is easy. So it's natural for the assumption to follow that any controversy that arises in the world of books for young people must also be easy, too.

But the controversies of YA publishing shouldn't be considered the toddler tantrums of the grown-up literary world. They often bring to light tough, complex questions that readers, writers, publishers, librarians and educators debate passionately, with seemingly no grey area to be found.

The latest controversy – an article published this week by New York Magazine – is being debated even more passionately than usual. It's a subject that is has become so inflammatory that even an attempt at a neutral description will likely offend some.

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Luckily, in this case, the article's headline and byline do most of the work: freelance writer and YA author Kat Rosenfield wrote a long piece titled "The Toxic Drama of YA: Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social media call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons – sometimes before anybody's even read them."

Rosenfield focuses on the prepublication social-media reaction to The Black Witch, a debut YA fantasy novel by Laurie Forest about a teen girl living in a kind of caste-based society. Rosenfeld argues that the buzz before The Black Witch's release was positive until an adult book blogger deemed it flagrantly and irresponsibly racist and made condemning the book a "clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic [an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other marginalizations]." Rosenfield uses this, in addition to quotes from several anonymous sources, as evidence in her argument about "a growing dysfunction in the world of YA publishing."

Not surprisingly, the backlash was intense. The backlash to the backlash was intense. Even Roxane Gay got dragged into the fray after retweeting Rosenfield's article, with some accusing her, simply by retweeting the piece, of stepping into a debate she has no business entering (Gay doesn't need a reason to retweet anything, but it's relevant that she has a YA book coming out in 2018).

To be clear, I'm not here to offer an opinion on whether or not The Black Witch is racist. I haven't read it yet and I didn't review it in my column on YA books, which runs in this newspaper, for a few reasons, including the fact that it didn't seem to have an obviously new or inventive premise, nor was it by an author from a marginalized or underrepresented community – all things I keep in mind when deciding what to review.

In my work as a youth librarian, I often do school visits for groups of very young children and when I ask if anyone has a question, a kindergartener will inevitably raise their hand and scream out, "I have a dog!" This spawns a gentle conversation on the difference between comments and questions. I come to this latest controversy in the spirit of the questioner, not the screaming canine commenter.

What I do have to offer is the observation that this kind of intense, emotional debate on books for young people springs, in part, from an age-old, core question for anyone working in this field: What is the role of the adult in creating, disseminating and recommending books for teens? Because it's trickier for teens than for any other audience.

Most accept that books for children require some sort of adult gatekeeper to physically put enriching, inspiring books in the hands of infants and to help steer older children toward what is developmentally appropriate. Most also accept that books for adults have, if not gatekeepers, tastemakers to help folks wade through the sheer mass of what is published in a given year. But what about teens? How involved should adults be in deciding what's worthwhile, and what is so offensive that it could be permanently damaging?

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This is something that repeatedly comes up in the graduate course on children's materials that I teach at the University of British Columbia. It can be frustrating and divisive – everyone in the room was a teen once, so aren't we all experts? And we're not alone in our dogged questioning; for decades – if not centuries – children's and YA scholars have attempted to figure out what to do about the inescapable influence of adults in books for young people.

One of the most well-known, Dr. Perry Nodelman, professor emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, wrote a seminal book back in 2008 called The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature. To condense his 300-plus-page book into one sentence, Nodelman argues that adults inevitably have their influence all over books for children – as the creators, evaluators and buyers, it's impossible for their shadow not to loom large.

And that adult shadow, as Rosenfield demonstrates with ample evidence, can become overpowering when social media is involved. But I don't believe that Rosenfield has uncovered a singular problem labelled "YA Twitter." Her article details far larger debates that those of us working with kids and teen books struggle with every day: Am I guilty of censorship if I withhold this book? Where is the line between intellectual freedom and hate? How can I passionately and productively disagree when I think a book does harm? Am I being influenced by social media in my appraisal of this book and, if so, how?

An article – or a series of articles – delving into these questions with multiple perspectives would have been less inflammatory and, more importantly, given a fuller picture of the YA Twitter community. My Twitter feed is full of YA authors, editors and publishers. I check it approximately every 19 minutes. Rosenfield's article was the first I ever heard of The Black Witch controversy. I missed it completely. The discourse around YA on Twitter is not all mouth foam – far from it.

So the Coles Notes version of this controversy should neither read "YA people are psychos" nor "Rosenfield is a hack." Rosenfield wrote a piece about a series of debates and tough questions – some new, but most very old – framed and executed as an exposé rather than a discussion. And that's fine. But just as you shouldn't form an opinion about all of YA literature after reading just one book, Rosenfield's shouldn't be the one article you read to get a sense of today's YA publishing climate.

Shannon Ozirny is head of youth services at the West Vancouver Memorial Library. Her column Grown Up-ish appears monthly in The Globe.

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Editor’s Note In an earlier version of this article it was stated that Dr. Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature was published in the late 1980s. In fact, it was published in 2008. Nodelman’s book Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Books was published in 1988.
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