#YA Entertains: a first stab (ha) at addressing darkness in YA

Ok, I’m way late to the party on this one because I was in the middle of wrapping up my school year, but: a couple of weeks ago, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a column called “Darkness Too Visible” in the WSJ about dark YA lit. There’s too much of it nowadays, teens are inundated with “explicit abuse, violence and depravity” in their literature, that’s damaging. Go read the article if you haven’t.

It seriously has taken me weeks to wade through the explosion of responses. The YA community circled wagons and wrote a lot of inspiring posts about how some teens need dark books (see #YAsaves on Twitter); YA needs to come in a variety of flavors just like adult books do; there’s a difference between censorship by institutional gatekeepers and guidance by parents. I don’t disagree with any of that, and I’m not going to get into it much because everybody has already said it at least as well as I could. Similarly, the internet has pretty well covered the point that Gurdon’s examples are cherry-picked and ignore how we’ve been having this conversation for more than 30 years.

There are a few things going on here that I do want to address. First, teen readers come from vastly different backgrounds — from homes where at 12 they have already experienced violence and drug use and sex, and from homes where those things are distant fiction. And all those kids want different sorts of things out of their reading material. Liz of A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy expresses this mix well:

What this article ignores is the questions of why people read what they do — one of the areas I find fascinating just because, and also because it helps with readers advisory. Some kids in terrible circumstances read about kids in terrible circumstances and find comfort and hope, even in the bleakest book; others live it, so don’t want to read it. Some read for windows; some, for mirrors. Some kids in crappy circumstances want to read about kids who have it worse off, so they can think, “at least my life isn’t bad as so and sos.” Some teens love literary books; some teens get so much literature during the school year that recreational reading is all about the popcorn. Each reader’s “popcorn” is different; for some it’s vampires and horror, for others it’s books that make them cry, like books about suicide, for others its books that talk frankly about what is whispered around school, like self-mutilation.

And for others, of course, it’s totally fluffy romances or brand porn like The Clique series. So the “YA saves” refrain makes an important point, but it’s limiting. Roger Sutton calls shenanigans on it as the dominant message in this conversation: sure, maybe Go Ask Alice convinced some girls in the ’70s and ’80s not to become drug addicts or helped them understand the addicts in their lives, but mostly it probably titillated a lot of middle-class girls with nice lives who wanted a thrill. When I was a kid I read a ton of Lurlene McDaniel precisely because I didn’t know anyone who’d died tragically young of leukemia: it was a safely lurid emotional release. And that’s fine. Books can be wonderful therapy, but how boring a world would it be if the only times we read books were when we needed to heal from something? Expecting all YA books — even all dark, violent, sad YA books — to be read as therapy is just as limiting as expecting all YA books to present some other “positive message.”

Another issue here is the range of what’s considered “YA.” Kids need their parents to know what they’re reading and to discuss it; teens much less so — and it’s the borderline of young adolescence, when parents still need to guide but kids no longer make it easy, that’s scariest for parents. If I were the parent of one of my 7th graders who’s reading Hunger Games, I’d absolutely want to read it myself and discuss it with her. As the parent of an 11th grader that would feel much less crucial. (As their librarian, I discuss it with both age groups, and far more 7th graders than 11th graders put it down or don’t pick it up in the first place because it creeps them out. Kids are pretty good at monitoring their own reading material.)

And on that note, I very much wish I could have found more teen responses in the vast sea of librarian, teacher, bookseller, reviewer, and author blog posts. Emma of Booking Through 365 wrote an excellent one; if you’ve found (or written) more, please let me know. However involved in the lives of teen readers we are, we are still adults, and our days as 14-year-olds reading Flowers in the Attic are increasingly distant. The open platform of the internet should give us access to the opinions of current teenagers so we aren’t just talking to each other.

Ultimately, Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon wrote perhaps my favorite response, a fairly balanced (the insult in the following quote notwithstanding) consideration in which she makes the lovely point that, “One of the terrific side effects of an obviously click-baiting piece of editorial twaddle like Gurdon’s is that it reminds people how many fellow passionate readers there are in the world.” People wouldn’t have gotten so upset about this column all over the internet if they didn’t love books. And I hope that’s something we can all agree is a good thing.

I’d very much like to hear what my fellow “YA community” members think about this, but I’m even more curious to hear the thoughts of those of you who aren’t steeped in the YA world every day.

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9 Responses to #YA Entertains: a first stab (ha) at addressing darkness in YA

  1. Sam says:

    Ren, I think that’s a really great point, about being able to see mistakes without having to make them yourself. I know I’ve learned a lot from books the same way.

  2. Ren says:

    Definitely. I have had many of my viewpoints change or be strengthened by the books I have read. I have gotten to see mistakes without having to make them myself.

  3. Sam says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Ren! Like I said, I really appreciate hearing from teens themselves on this. Do you think reading those books changed your outlook on those issues for the better? (ie., did Hunger Games make you think even more negatively about violence?)

  4. Ren says:

    I agree with you. I am 17 and I read a myriad of things in my early teens and still do now. At 13 I read Crank by Ellen Hopkins but I don’t do drugs. At 14 I read the Hunger Games but I don’t think violence is the best answer. At 15 I read Forever by Judy Blume but I still have not had sex. My point is I am proof (as are my bookish friends) that what books you read may change your outlook but maybe that will be for the betterment of you.

  5. Sam says:

    Yup, absolutely. I’m all in favor of kids (and adults) reading as many different perspectives as possible — and I think you’re right that they want to, often more so than adults do.

  6. Ryan McMahon says:

    Emphasis on the “semi” part of semi-complete, of course. What I meant was that at least books put things in some sort of perspective from outside adolescent space, and also make kids realize that they’re not so alone in their private thoughts and concerns. Just that’s helpful to them in sorting out the world. Even Stephen King probably taught me a lot that had little to do with his macabre subject matter.

    True about biases. Fortunately, it does seem that kids that age, at least bookish kids, are naturally curious about the world and pretty good at exploring different topics on their own. I think that they often WANT to know that there are different perspectives. In fact, it seems kind of funny, looking back, that as much as I preferred spaceships and wizards, I’d still pick up pretty much anything printed I found lying around. Little did Mom know some of the things I learned from her romance novels (though, upon reflection, maybe “the roguish highlander” wasn’t the most fruitful of mental role models).

  7. Sam says:

    Some books will have a semi-complete version of those subjects (to the extent that such a thing is possible) and some won’t, but all will have a bias, and those absolutely shape the way kids think about things. But you know, we (teachers, parents, society) can’t control adolescents’ minds — we can’t dictate every single thing they read or watch or hear or what they’ll think about it. That’s a *wonderful* thing; it means they’re maturing, and I want them to have as many inputs as possible while they’re doing so! Including Twilight, for the kids who think it’s fun, so long as they get other perspectives, too.

    And you’re right, some kids have very dark sensibilities. These books wouldn’t be popular if they didn’t speak to many kids on some level.

  8. Ryan says:

    Seems like the WSJ writer is overblowing it just a bit.

    I think kids’ sensibilities are naturally darker than adults give them credit for. I wasn’t scarred by reading Stephen King and other lurid stuff in 7th grade, and my brother and I already had pretty grotesque imaginations all on our own. Kids are going to hear about realities like broken families, drugs, violence, sex, etc. anyway, and it’s probably better that they get a semi-complete version of the truth from books, than be shaped by the dubious understanding of these things that they get from other kids.

    (Of course, this is not a defense of Twilight.)

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