To begin with, let's take a look at two recent pieces written by Wall Street Journal book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon. The first starts like this:
Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.
She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." She left the store empty-handed.
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.
Gurdon goes on to take a close look at much of what is published for young adults these days, and offers this insight:
But whether it's language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch's 2005 novel, "Inexcusable," which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. "I don't, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books," the editor grumbled, "I don't want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don't want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers."
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it's appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In the parenting trade, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste." It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"
Emphasis added. And, obviously, I concur.
For having made this rather innocuous set of observations: that YA books are often quite dark and full of explicit language, sex, and violence that not every parent is comfortable having every child read--and remember, the YA target market is children from age eleven on up--Gurdon was savaged in print, on Twitter, and elsewhere by the proponents of YA books. Using the rather hysterical hashtag "YA Saves!" teen lit fans took to Twitter to bash Gurdon's article with messianic fervor, as if a somewhat mild observation that perhaps not every parent is keen on letting every child immerse himself or herself in a world full of sexy bad-boy vamps and werewolves, teens who practice cutting as a way of dealing with lifelong sexual abuse which is described in painstaking and graphic detail, chat-speak bad-girl wannabes who LOL over the sexual habits and drug use of their peers, and similar YA offerings is exactly the same thing as holding public book burnings or exiling authors. Gurdon wrote an opinion piece about the whole thing here, and received another flood of negative comments--though a few defenders of her viewpoints also turned up. To me, the most amusing exchange took place here:
What's really going on here? In her opinion piece I mentioned above, Gurdon says the following:
(Commenter A): The reason these books are gaining popularity is because teens are craving something real they can relate to. What's the point of sugar-coating this stuff? You're patronizing them, Ms. Gurdon, and they can smell it a mile away.
(Commenter B):"...teens are craving something real they can relate to."
So they seek out fiction. About vampires.
Again, I agree: it shouldn't be outrageous to discuss what effects, if any, dark and violent literature can have on the developing minds of children and teens. But if we're actually going to discuss that question, I think that we have to set some parameters for the discussion.
In the outpouring of response to my essay, I've been told that I fail to understand the brutal realities faced by modern teens. Adolescence, I've been instructed, is a prolonged period of racism, homophobia, bullying, eating disorders, abusive sexual episodes, and every other manner of unpleasantness.
Author Sherman Alexie asked, in a piece for WSJ.com titled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood": "Does Mrs. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?"
No, I don't. I also don't believe that the vast majority of American teenagers live in anything like hell. 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.
Sharon Slaney, who works at a high school in Idaho, touched on this nicely in an online rebuke of her irate librarian colleagues: "You are naive if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school life." It is that question—the condoning of the language and content of a strong current in young-adult literature—that creates the parental dilemma at the core of my essay. It should hardly be an outrage to discuss the subject.
One of the first things I think we need to keep in mind is that we're talking about the effects of literature on children, on minors, on adolescents. Many of us make the mistake of reading a YA book and thinking that because the book satisfies our adult escapist desires, it is therefore fine and harmless for children or teens in general. But we bring our adult experiences, our knowledge of the world in its brokenness, our awareness of the ugly dysfunctional possibilities of human existence (whether we've experienced those things ourselves, or read about them in historical accounts and newspapers, or a little of each) with us when we crack open a book about a teenage crack dealer with a heart of...iron pyrite, shall we say; children, and many teens, lack such experiences and don't always have the detachment we adults do when we read.
This is why even some great classics of literature aren't really appropriate to hand to young people. Flannery O'Connor's terrific essay, Total Effect and the Eighth Grade, makes that point: that children and young adults need a certain amount of experience of both life and literature before some of the more crudely violent modern works--such as the ones O'Connor herself wrote so masterfully--will really be properly accessible to them.
But we aren't, by and large, talking about works with any pretenses to great literary quality--there are, I will stress, a handful of exceptions among any generation's books for children, but they are exceptions for a reason. Is it fair to measure them according to literary standards? Is there no place in a young adult's world for a book that is merely escapist pleasure? And are dark themes totally out of line in such books? How are parents supposed to know the difference between a book which may, though through darkness, really enlighten their children--and a book which cynically offers kids elements of sex and violence in an exploitative and titillating way?
The exploration of those questions, among others, is intended for tomorrow's post. Stay tuned!