Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Week at And Sometimes Tea

I've been promising this since last week, so here we go: it's Book Week at And Sometimes Tea, and our focus this week will be on books written for children and young adults.

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:

(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.

What's really going on here? In her opinion piece I mentioned above, Gurdon says the following:

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.

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.

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!


Anonymous said...

Hi Erin,

Now that you're back, are you going to open comments on this other post?


- Lynette

Kimberly Margosein said...

Have you checked Harry Turtledove's "Crosstime" series? Personally, I think the YA category is a waste of time. If they can read, comprehend, and appreciate YA they can handle adult, or shall we say grown-up, fiction.

John E. said...

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.

I guess Ms. Gurdon never read Flowers In The Attic.

freddy said...

John E.:
According to my library, "Flowers in the Attic" is not classified as Young Adult fiction. Of course, that didn't stop it from being passes around my 8th and 9th grade classrooms, along with other adult novels.
I think what Erin's discussing here are books deliberately marketed to the "young adult" crowd.
Although, as I recall, "Flowers" does have much in common with some of the YA offerings of today: a peurile plot, wooden characters, and overwrought scenes and situations. ;)

Anonymous said...

My children have been homeschooled up to this point, but may have to go to school in Sept. I have 1 entering 5th grade, and the public school requires 1 title for summer reading "There's a boy in the girl's bathroom"/Sachar, which I pre-read. It is a story of a bully & his reformation, but, I find it disturbing in many ways, especially for my somewhat-sheltered homeschooled children. Just not something I would ever direct my kids to read, but probably innocuous to most parents & schools. It put more doubt in my mind about public school for my kids...not sure what to do now. But I can see where most, if not all, school selections will have to be pre-read by me, for years, if they do end up going.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

John E.,
Ditto what Freddy said for my library too. It was also published in 1990, only 20 years ago, not 40. Ms. Gurdon got it right. I don't recall the stomach-clenching detail in that book that you find in today's YA "lit".

John E. said...

I am absolutely positive Flowers in the Attic was published before 1990 because girls were reading it when I was in Junior High and I graduation High School in 1985.

Let's take a look at the internet...


Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication date November 1979

beadgirl said...

I've been interested in the debate on the role of "dark" young adult fiction for a few months now. A while back on the website SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.com there was a long discussion of the role of such books. While I would never have wanted (and still don't want) to read books that are bleak depictions of abuse and violence,* a number of women wrote that they had suffered rather horrifically in their childhoods, and reading such dark, bleak books really helped them, by helping them come to terms with their suffering and emotions and by showing them that they were not alone and it was not their fault.

I guess I'll go for the non-controversial viewpoint that there is some value in pretty much every kind of book, and that parents should pay attention to what their children are reading and guide them appropriately without stifling them.

*I place these in a separate category from the monster dark fiction, which is all about fantasy, not reality. (Although the tv show Buffy the Vampire Slayer used such fantastical elements to illustrate the problems and confusion of adolescence.)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Back when I was a teen, the YA section was full of books that were too explicit and disgusting for the adult section. It was also very small, so I skipped it and went right to adult fiction (mostly fantasy, scifi and mystery.)

The YA section has actually drastically improved since I was a kid. There are still all the drugs and rape books, BUT there actually is quite a bit of 'clean" YA-- in fact, a lot of books labeled YA now would have been plain old SFF a few years back.

Jessica Day George, Ally Carter, and Gail Carson Levine, for example, all write good YA.

I think the key, as parents, is to PREVIEW. I actually enjoy reading YA (which is a good thing, since it's right next to the children's room and is the only part of the library I can browse while keeping a close eye on the toddler at the fish tank.), so I often end up passing books on to parents of older kids.

My mother previewed books for me until I was about 16 (she also flagged books for "BORING!" and "AWFUL WRITING THAT WILL MAKE YOUR EYES BLEED.) The big problem I see is that most parents don't have the time or desire to preview. They just want 'clean books.' So I was surrounded by Catholic moms who let their kids read TWILIGHT because it was 'abstinence based.' Ugh.

But there really is a lot of Catholic-friendly YA out there. Just this week, from my YA section, I picked up "Murder Afloat" a historical fiction about a boy pressed into service on an oyster boat, "Heart of a Samuri"-historical fiction based on a true story of a shipwrecked Japanese boy, "The Last Martin"- a kind of goofy story about a boy who has to break a mysterious family curse, "The Miracle Stealer" --a story about a girl who's lost her faith after her little brother becomes known as a faith healer (really good! I expected it to be terrible, but it actually dealt with issues of faith and miracles really well--from a protestant perspective though.....)and "Princess Ben" (short for Benificence)--a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

There are good books out there. The problem I have with a lot of YA articles is they run through the bookstore, pick up a few titles, and say "All this is crud."

Well, yeah, if you only look at the 'problem novels.' But they're not new... just Go Ask Alice!

(Oh, and remember that horrible series of books where every single one had the theme "My boyfriend just died of cancer and now I'm miserable!" )

Bathilda said...

Dierdre! Yea! I was going to post about reading "Go Ask Alice" when I was either 12 or 13. My mom had (obviously) not previewed it. I credit that book with keeping me off drugs! I was terrified to even be around them because of that book! It's dark, there's drug abuse, prostitution, runaways, etc. I'll let my daughter read it at about 15 or 16. I won't let her touch Twilight. whatever with the "abstinence based" nonsence. It's about a 100 year old man raping a teenager. Oh, and even though they are married, she doesn't remember the "wedding night" and wakes up covered in bruises...so married violent sex is somehow sanctioned by these women? who are these people? The heroine of Twilight is weak, and she only serves as a bad example.

Bathilda said...

Dierdre! Yea! I was going to post about reading "Go Ask Alice" when I was either 12 or 13. My mom had (obviously) not previewed it. I credit that book with keeping me off drugs! I was terrified to even be around them because of that book! It's dark, there's drug abuse, prostitution, runaways, etc. I'll let my daughter read it at about 15 or 16. I won't let her touch Twilight. whatever with the "abstinence based" nonsence. It's about a 100 year old man raping a teenager. Oh, and even though they are married, she doesn't remember the "wedding night" and wakes up covered in bruises...so married violent sex is somehow sanctioned by these women? who are these people? The heroine of Twilight is weak, and she only serves as a bad example.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Bath-- heh! My Mom wouldn't let me read Go ask Alice until I was 16 or so. At which point I thought it was pretty dumb and wondered why so many people liked it.

Judy Blume was also banned in our house.

I did sneak around and read Jane Auel as a ninth grader---but gave up halfway through the second book because, sheesh.... if you skip the sex scenes and the boring caveman technology scenes....... there's nothing.

One author I loved as a kid who I'll definitely keep my girls off of until they're adults and out of my house (and who I'm surprised my mom let me read---I think she previewed the first book and didn't read the rest of the series) is Tamora Pierce. She's a good fantasy writer, but unfortunately she also belongs to the cult of "Hygenic sex with no consequences." I'd almost rather they read a darker treatment like "I know its over" (teen sex and an abortion) than the "Sex is just like washing your face! Good for you and no other complications!" school of literature.

Fiction shouldn't tell lies to advance the author's agenda, IMO.

Nârwen said...

What if a parent doesn't have enough time and/or skill to get through what the kid is reading ? In my own childhood I was a voracious self-taught speedreader . If my mother, who was and is, a slow reader, had tried to vet everything I read, she would have driven both of us crazy.
That said, I did sneak around a bit to read some books. For example, when my mom sent me down to the local grocery for milk and bread, she had no idea I was taking these opportunities to read a book on the Zodiac murders a few pages at a time. But I wouldn't have dared to buy that and read it at home !

Deirdre Mundy said...

It probably depends on where you live, but at least in my area, the children's or YA librarians are usually a good source, especially if you can point out what you DON'T want. They tend to have a good sense of what's clean, what's dark, who tends to write books that are OK for Christian sensibilities (even when not specifically Christian) etc. BUT as I said, it may depend on your area. We're in a mid-sized midwestern town, so the "Moms who don't want their daughters reading books about rapes and cutting" is a pretty large subset of the population--in a big city, you might face more of a challenge.

Also, avoiding YA all together is always an option. Jospehine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ellis Peters all have a good range of teen-friendly mysteries, for example. (Ralph MacInerney varies-- the ending is always good, but some of the murders are disturbing, so preview!)

There is a TON of Scifi/Fantasy out there. Really what YA tends to mean these days is "Has a main character who is between 13-18 and takes a journey that leads to a life-changing event." In a sense, even the Odyssey is YA by this definition.

Rebecca was in CA now in ID said...

Red, this is really coming up as an issue for me because my oldest, now eleven, is a voracious reader and also pretty precocious. She enjoys reading books written for adults (like my homeschooling books, nutrition books, etc), but she also still likes to sit down with TinTin Comics or Oz books. She is very respectful of the fact that I approve every book she reads, and I approve it only if I have read it or if I fully trust the person recommending it. There's no tension there; it's just that I seem to be running out of really good material. She still is really of an age of innocence. Even though I know she would eat up Dickens, for example, there is some adult matter there which I just don't think she's ready for. My parents let me roam the shelves when I was a kid and for the most part I was just picking up Agatha Christie at the worst, but I did pick up books now and then which struck me so vividly with their darkness that those passages were seared on my mind. I don't want that to happen to my children--just as I would never want them to witness a rape, I would not want them to "witness" it virtually through vivid images in literature. Anyway, I would love to hear more about what authors and books you recommend for this age and into the young teen years. Things are getting pretty thin around here!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting topic of discussion. When questioned about birthday gifts, my brother told me that his daughter enjoyed reading, and she might even like books I picked up pre-read. So, I went to the used book store to find the books I enjoyed at 11 years of age, and was heartily surprised to find most are now out of print, or considered antiques.

It seems that there are a lot of silly paperbacks of series, not even as intesting as Nancy Drew or Cherry Ames, etc., but that was my interest. Maybe kids nowadays are interested in parties, school activities, and that awful Stine collection.

Nevertheless I did find some on the internet. I tried to look at Caldecott and Newbery winners, but am not familiar with the authors.

With my sons, I guess my husband and I must have hit the non-fiction section pretty hard, because I didn't have too many typical boys-type adolescent books left on the shelves to pass along.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

"...craving something they can relate to..." I am reminded of the chaplain at a women's prison who thought the way to build relationships with his charges was to chain-smoke and curse, just like them. He found his office quite lonely, and eventually asked one of the few who talked to him why everyone stayed away. "Father, you're supposed to be making us more like you," she said. "Instead, you're becoming more like us."

Kids really do look for something more from adults than a mirror of the most difficult and rough features of their peer group.

I am also reminded of a movie I saw about Jimmy Hoffa. It was done with a "realistic" script. Every other sentence out of his mouth contained a ten letter word I've never seen Erin even abbreviate. It's much more perverted than f***ing, even if it is legally an expression of marriage in New York now. I have no doubt that in private conversations, or among male cronies, Hoffa did talk like that. But, I'm equally certain that he NEVER used that kind of language in mixed company, or while speaking from a rostrum in front of a large crowd in public. But to make a "realistic" movie did exactly that. May "realistic" movies and books aren't really so "realistic."

The most hardened people have some sense of propriety in their real lives, but realistic authors and scriptwriters cast that aside, thereby inspiring REAL life to become much rougher than it really was.

One thing John E., Gary Fouse, and I have all agreed on at one time or another, I think Lance Christian Johnson also, is that bringing back the classics would be a good thing. It won't drive the YA genre out of business, it won't stop kids passing around lurid, titillating books wherever they find them, but it will add some other options to the mix, and it ain't necessarily so that the classics are all boring. A teacher has to WORK at MAKING them boring, and some do succeed.

Patrick said...

I read "Red Badge of Courage". It must a lot easier raising boys.

Bathilda said...

Some of the classics are way more lurid and provocative than some contemporary work. Just because it's old doesn't make it clean...see above comments regarding Dickens. People love to quote, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." but chapter four of "two cities" starts out something like, "Those were drinking days, and the men drank hard."

Even a great teacher would have some trouble making Moby Dick palatable to most 13 year olds. I could barely make it through at 39!

Many classics are great and should indeed be making a comeback, but don't give up previewing, just because it's a classic. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" deals with alchoholism, child molestation, pre-marital sex, condoms, serial monogamy, etc. It's from the late 40's, and a "classic".

Siarlys Jenkins said...

P.S. Since I made the first snide remark about comments being shut down on "Oh America," I feel it is my responsibility to drain the swamp and let Erin carry on in peace. Yes, I too was just chomping at the bit to share my two cents worth with an eagerly awaiting world. And now I have done so. Anyone who just had to say something on the subject may share their comments here:


Erin is also welcome to drop by if she wants to check on progress, but it is not her responsibility to do so every five minutes.

John E: could you let Lance and our pagan friend know the door is open?

Red Cardigan said...

Siarlys, thanks--I honestly have been too busy to do the kind of "comment monitoring" that sort of post takes, and then there's the whole question as to whether it's good policy to open comments on an "old" post, etc. I encourage anyone who wants to discuss such things to check out Siarlys's post!

Rebecca in ID said...

Patrick, my daughter loves all those "boy" classics...but I think she's read them all! I agree that not all classics are clean...and not necessarily appropriate for all ages, even if the material isn't inherently objectionable. I think Dickens is clean but he deals with some heavy adult matter at times which I don't think a twelve year old is necessarily ready to grapple with. Anyway, there are tons of great classics--the Oz series, everything by Howard Pyle, Marguerite Henry's books, Robert L. Stevenson, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Dolittle, lots of good stuff...it's just that I'm running out. Maybe we need to find more good non-fiction, but I don't really know how to find that.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Rebecca-- Have you checked out the Susan Cooper Books and the Lloyd Alexander books? Robin McKinley varies on a book by book basis, so you'll need to preview---

Also, Patricia Wrede is fun! And she might like Jessica Day George's "Dragon Slippers" trilogy. Good fantasy, not overly dark. (I'd let a 10 year old read them, even.... still, a bit too old for my 7 year old, who we've just started on Oz!)

The Sicilian said...

@Anon at 2:33pm: Finally, someone else who's read Cherry Ames! Any time I've asked anyone - even a friend who is the most voracious reader I know (I'm talking having read thousands of books) - no one has ever heard of the series.

As for YA titles when I was a YA, I definitely snuck in some Judy Blume, hated Flowers in the Attic, and today still remember a good book called, Don't Look and It Won't Hurt that dealt with teen pregnancy and other issues pretty well. That last one was out of print for a while but is now back in print. It might have been a little depressing but nothing compared to what today's YA books sound like.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Erin, if this was a test, nobody REALLY cared all that much about it anyway. They haven't bothered to post! Don't lose any sleep over hurt feelings.

Getting back to classics, there has of course been a dark side to life since the dawn of human history. I think there are differences in how the dark side is expressed in literature. I was fascinated with some decent English translations of the Illiad and the Odyssey as a child, but I didn't really understand the implications of a man sleeping with several women not his wife during a ten year trip home from Troy, while expecting her to be faithful to him, nor what it meant that dozens of men occupied the main hall in her home insisting she choose one of them as her new hubby. It didn't hurt for me to read the story, it provided some framework for things I learned later, and the words didn't need to be terribly explicit.

Some of that subtlety has been lost in more recent literature. On the other hand, my nephew loves the "Captain Underwear" series, which I think is gross, but I can't say it's turned him into a nightmare either. On the third hand, there certainly was pornography in the Roman Empire, and in ancient Egypt.