“YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.”
So said acclaimed YA fiction writer Laurie Halse Anderson in response to the controversial Wall Street Journal article entitled “Darkness Too Visible”. The article in question, which was published about a month ago, has caused a great deal of upset and general kerfuffle amongst those of us who read, write, publish, and write about young adult fiction. Simultaneously, the piece offers apparent validation of the fears of concerned parents. I’ve read many a passionate response on both sides of the argument, and I’m now going to try and cobble together a post that explains my own views on the subject.
So right off the bat, let’s just get some stuff out in the open:
- I love YA literature, even when it contains stuff that I don’t like.
- I concur with almost everything that Ms. Anderson says in her blog post .
- Reading the WSJ article made me (little nonviolent, non-confrontational me) want to hit something really, really hard.
- I understand where these worried parents are coming from.
I’ve already written one post in the past month about how I think a certain WSJ article fails the internet. This WSJ article, on the other hand, is not based on the misapprehension of an internet subculture. Rather, I think it’s a prime example of a generational shift in publishing, one that unsettles parents. Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article, which inhabits the foggy/boggy ground somewhere between a sensationalist news article and an opinion piece, describes how dramatically modern YA literature has changed in the past 30-40 years and questions whether this shift is positive or not. A quote from the first few paragraphs:
“How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
Wow. Okay, Ari. Take deep breaths. Resist urge to smash computer screen.
So why exactly does this make me so angry? Well, a number of reasons. First of all, even though the article is posted under the WSJ’s “Book Reviews” tab, I find there’s a heavy dose of 19th-century-style yellow journalism here. I’m not aiming to pick apart the exact wording of the whole thing, but:
- “So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now…directed at children…”
- “…hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.”
- “…a careless young reader–or one who seeks depravity–will find himself surrounded…by damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”
Honestly? When you have to resort to those kinds of shock-value phrases to make your point, that doesn’t bode well for the strength of your argument. The core issue discussed by the article could have been handled in a much more mature, thoughtful, respectful, and reasonable way. Frankly, I’m surprised the WSJ allowed this piece to run under its name.
Setting the writing itself aside, let’s talk a little bit about where adults like Ms. Gurdon–and the woman she quotes at the beginning of her article–are coming from. YA fiction has indeed gotten much darker in the 40 or so years since these people were teens. I will not argue with that. In fact, YA is a comparatively new phenomenon in the history of publishing–depending on the age of the parents in question, it may not even have existed at the time they were getting zits and prom dates. As Ms. Gurdon discusses, up until the 1960′s or 1970′s, there was no such thing as YA literature–only adult books that were either accessible to teens or not. It took a while before a clear market for YA books developed, and much of what teens of the mid-late 20th century read is very different from what modern teens do. It was simply a different time, with different values and taboos.
My point here is twofold:
- I think many parents are uncomfortable with their children reading about dark material because they themselves were not exposed to such material at that age. They simply have no way of gauging how reading material like that might affect their child’s psyche, and through the rosy glow of memory, they imagine that their younger selves would have been heavily traumatized by such subjects.
- I think the word “child” itself holds the key to much of this parental discomfort. YA fiction spans an age range of approximately 12-18, and within that space there is a great deal of developmental growth that takes place. As a parent, how do you know when your child is no longer truly a child (well, of course they never stop being your child, but you know what I mean)? How can you know if a thirteen-year-old is prepared to handle the sort of material that even an eighteen-year-old (or an adult) might find disturbing? How can you reconcile yourself to the fact that the being whose diapers you were changing yesterday is suddenly thrust out into a literary landscape where difficult, painful topics are discussed in very frank terms?
My answer to all of this is as follows:
Firstly, not all YA fiction is dark. Let me repeat that, in bold, italic all-caps: NOT ALL YA FICTION IS DARK. There’s been an influx of dark material into the market in the last ten years, definitely–but Ms. Gurdon is painting with a mile-wide brush if she claims to be talking about “contemporary fiction for teens” (which she does). Additionally, the fact that the mother at the beginning of the article claims she was unable to find anything in that bookstore to give her daughter seems like such an empty, ridiculous complaint to me. It’s like standing in the middle of a grocery store and complaining that, because your daughter is allergic to wheat, there is nothing there for her to eat.
To which I say: Try some yogurt, lady. And here, maybe a few corn chips. And if you can’t find the yogurt or the chips, do the intelligent thing and ask a freaking store employee for help.
Secondly, kids are pretty good at knowing when they’re okay with something and when they aren’t. The maturity levels of young readers can vary greatly, and thus, I think the readers themselves are some the best judges of what they can and cannot handle. If they come across something that makes them uncomfortable, they’ll usually just stop reading it. So required school reading (and the controversy of banned books) aside, the real fear seems to be that the kids might actually be interested in reading about a subject their parents are uncomfortable with…
…which leads me to my third point: I often hear and read concerns that the material of a given story will “promote” or “endorse” the behavior in it (e.g. a book containing a casual sex scene will promote casual sex). Ms. Gurdon’s follow-up article touches on this fear when she writes, “Adolescence can be a turbulent time, but it doesn’t last forever and often—leaving aside the saddest cases—it feels more dramatic at the time than it will in retrospect. It is surely worth our taking into account whether we do young people a disservice by seeming to endorse the worst that life has to offer.” I strongly, strongly disagree with this ideology because it presupposes three things:
- that teenagers are incapable of anything even resembling critical thinking,
- that the emotional experiences of teens are somehow invalid because they’re more intense than those of adults, and
- that the way in which a subject is treated has no effect on a reader’s perception of it.
These things are simply not true, something many writers and teachers point out when confronted with this attitude. It’s not just the material itself but the way in which it’s portrayed and the way the characters react to it. John Green of the Vlogbrothers has this to say on the matter:
Fourthly, the fact of the matter is this: parents, many teenagers are exposed to far more difficult material in their everyday lives than you think. This is not universally true, but just because your kids don’t talk about it with you doesn’t mean they don’t experience it. There are teens who curse, cut, starve themselves, drink, do drugs, experience depression and other mental illnesses, experiment sexually, struggle with their sexual identity, etc. in secret, and even if your kid isn’t doing any of these things, there’s a good chance s/he knows someone who is. I led a fairly sheltered teenaged life and attended a wonderful, supportive, safe high school in a great community–and I know people who had these kinds of experiences. It’s not the sort of thing you can completely shield your kid from.
Finally, reading YA literature that addresses such topics allows teens who do experience these things to feel acknowledged and understood (if you haven’t already, go watch the video up at the top of the page). Reading YA literature that addresses such topics allows teens who do not experience these things to understand what their peers are going through, because reading is an act of empathy in which you briefly live someone else’s life, if only for a few hours. You don’t have to like the character or agree with his/her choices, but if you understand this fictional person better by the end of the book, you are more attuned to the three-dimensional complexity of the people around you. For myself, I would argue that reading books (of all sorts) has made me a far more compassionate person than I would be otherwise.
Okay, so after all this novel-length rambling, Ari, let’s pull it all together.
What I’m trying to explain is that:
- I am of the opinion that darkness in YA fiction is valid because it comes from real life, and much as parents would like to protect their kids from the former, they can’t necessarily protect them from the latter.
- I think Ms. Gurdon and many of the people she interviewed are exaggerating to make it sound like all contemporary YA fiction is dark and grim. It’s simply not true. There may be more dark material on the market these days, but it doesn’t mean there’s no lighter material to be found. So to be clear: what I am talking about is a specific subset of YA fiction that deals with more intense/dark subject matter.
- I don’t think that simply reading about a behavior makes someone more likely to go out and try it.
- I also think Ms. Gurdon muddies the waters by constantly describing teens as “children”–which invokes a strong, protective parental response–and by not giving teenagers any credit for being able to make their own choices about reading material. I’m no stranger to this protectiveness. Having a younger sister who is at the lower end of the YA age spectrum, I honestly do understand how difficult it can be to think of your baby (in my case, baby sister) being exposed to stuff that makes you uncomfortable. That said, having been a teen myself not that long ago, I understand what teens are capable of and think society has a terrible way of condescending to and underestimating them. I would much rather have my sister first see these darker issues in fiction–and be able to think about them in the calm light of day–than first be exposed to them in the heat of the moment at a party, or in school gossip, or at friend’s house. I think it’s fine to suggest that a teenager read one thing over another, or to have a calm conversation with a teen about why a particular book makes you uncomfortable. However, if you’re a parent who is still acting as a gatekeeper for your kids’ reading material by the time they reach late middle school and early high school, you need to take a deep breath and let go of the reins.
So: Maybe your kids will be disturbed by the content of a book and maybe they won’t, but either way, give them the freedom to make their own decisions and (in the words of the indomitable Ms. Frizzle) “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” in the world of books. It’s a tall order for some parents, I think, but a good learning experience for all involved. I’m not suggesting that books replace discourse on difficult subjects, but neither should they be discouraged.
And not to get all sappy on you at the end of this, but Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this: thank you so much for letting me do my own thing where books are concerned, for occasionally talking to me about the subjects in those books, and for trusting your daughters to take care of themselves.