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.