Recently, Megan Cox Gurdon published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on whether today’s YA books dealt with issues that are too dark for public consumption
. She says they are, and the result was a resounding response in the twitterverse with a hashtag of #YAsaves, supporting the YA industry. There have been several other responses online as well. Here
, and I’m sure there’s more that I just haven’t seen yet.
Warning: this post is long. I tend to break up posts that get this long, but it kind of felt like dragging out the subject too long to do this. And there were too many things I wanted to address, so it's all in one hugely long post. Apologies in advance...
Gurdon's article was inspired by a mom book-shopping for her 13-year-old daughter. She picked up book after book about vampires, self-mutilation, and other dark stuff. In the article's comments section, she said this:
I want to add that a B&N employee noticed me leafing through 78 books, and offered to help. (Because she had not in fact read any of the books for sale, she kind of kept me company more than helped, but it was still something.) She told me I was far from the first to complain
To me, this isn’t a failing of the YA industry. It’s a failing of the bookstore. If an employee is helping a customer pick out a book from a section she knows nothing about, that’s kind of like the blind leading the blind. It’s also disheartening that the mom gave up so easily. If she’d gone to a children’s librarian, she’d have heard about so many appropriate books for a 13-year-old girl. Books by Ally Carter, Heather Dixon, Allen Zadoff, Lisa Bergren, Jennifer Donnelly, Sarah Dessen, Stephanie Perkins, Kiersten White, Catherine Murdock, Alex Flinn, Sarah MacLean, Saundra Mitchell, E. Lockhart, Maureen Johnson, Simone Elkeles, John Green, Kay Cassidy, Michelle Rowan, Heather Brewer. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. I hope this girl’s mom kept searching and eventually found something from the plethora of great books available for a 13-year-old girl.
Regarding the article itself? She made some serious accusations. If you’re going to go there
the way she did, that’s fine. I think it’s great when people step up and say the tough things that no one wants to say. However, they need to be solid
. Unfortunately, Gurdon contradicts herself multiple times, so, to me, her accusations don’t carry much weight.
First, she says this:
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.
In the very next sentence, she says this:
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.
A few paragraphs later, she says this:
Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.
(note: all emphasis is mine)
The last two statements contradict the first. YA books either show a gross distortion of real life or they don’t. It can’t be a gross distortion some of the time, and then be truth other times. It sounds like she’s saying that yes, some people have had it really bad, but we still shouldn't have books that reflect that kind of life because some kids might misunderstand. What does that mean? That we should only have books that reflect what most people experience? How is that fair to those living the horror? The ones who likely need these books the most?
Later on, she says this:
If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that's a failure of the adults around them.
Yes, that’s true. It’s also true that if a kid is reading a book that's completely inappropriate for him, that's the failing of the adults around him. It’s a symptom of the same problem, that the adults aren’t involved in this kid’s life. Whether the content comes from a book or the internet is irrelevant, because that’s not the problem. The problem is that no one is taking an active interest in this kid’s life. Therefore, it’s not exactly fair to use this as an argument to tone down the content of books, because the books aren't the real problem.
Finally, she says this:
No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives.
Making material available is not pushing it down kids' throats. If parents object to what their child is reading, the publisher isn't going to pound on their door and tell them to let the kid read it anyway. The publisher is just saying ‘Hey, we’ve got this book, and we like it a lot.’ How is that bulldozing? If parents or libraries object to a book and get it taken off the shelves, the publisher isn’t the one who lobbies to put it back on. It’s other readers. And, even then, the readers aren’t bulldozing these books into kids’ lives. They just want it available to others who want to read it.
Still, even though I disagree with most of what’s in the article, everything up to this point could easily be accepted as opinion. Which is fine, because everyone is entitled to an opinion. But Gurdon said something else that just ruined her credibility for me:
…[There are] 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!"
(note: all emphasis is mine)
Actually, that’s the textbook definition of censorship. To censor means to remove content that an ‘official’ deems inappropriate for others. For parents to censor what their child reads is called being responsible, because they know what the child can handle. But they wouldn’t necessarily know what another child down the street would be able to handle, so, therefore, are not qualified to censor him/her. I’d bet that if one parent started telling the neighborhood kids what they can and can’t read, the other parents would take offense to that. So, really, stating that good parenting is a reason to support censorship for the general public seems a bit of a stretch.
This is why so many people are up in arms over this article. We don’t need someone telling us what kinds of books should or should not be in existence, especially when that person doesn’t know us on a personal level. I understand the need for using caution with certain material in YA books. There is a need for caution for many things in life, and some parents are better at handling that than others. But it's neither fair nor right to say that darker content isn't appropriate for young adults. For some, it's very appropriate.
Minnesota Public Radio did an interview with Gurdon last week
. In it, Gurdon says a few things I want to address here.
There is a real penalty to pay if you're a parent who objects out loud to these things...The book industry demands total conformity of opinion.
Some context: This was in response to a mother not allowing her ten year old daughter to read Twilight, and was given a hard time from other parents for this censorship. That is, until this mother told the other parents some of the content in the Twilight books, and then those parents were just as shocked as she had been. I don't see how this particular instance relates to the book industry demanding total conformity of opinion. This is simply another instance of the adults not being involved enough in their children's lives. Parents who haven't read Twilight, to me, don't represent the book industry.
Next, the interviewer stated that she thought Gurdon was concerned that parents are so eager for their kids to read that they won't censor or criticize what the kids are reading. Gurdon agreed with this. I'm concerned about this, too, for that matter. But
, that's still not the failing of YA books. We can't eliminate certain kinds of books because of the lack of parenting happening today.
Gurdon also said that self-harm is almost trendy because YA books kind of endorse that behavior. Wow
. It takes a whole lot more than a book to press a blade to your skin hard enough to draw blood. A teen might try this once to see what it feels like, but again and again? No way. Not without some additional, serious trauma, anyway, because the instinct for self-preservation is too strong. Those who do engage in repeated self-harm are, in fact, using it as self-preservation from other circumstances. Author Cheryl Rainfield
has responded to this better than I have, so if you want to hear from someone who survived self-harm, go here
Finally, Gurdon said this:
I am not saying that books oughtn't deal with difficult subjects...A lot of what young adult fiction does is it places it in the here and now, and holds up this image of what adolescence is, as this...tumultuous time for many children, though clearly not all...it's this emotional prison, everything is in flux, everything is upsetting, and these teens are presented in desperate, desperate straights.
(She sort of talked over herself, so I did my best to transcribe what she said. Any errors are mine.)
What she's described here is exactly what makes a great book. Adolescence is
a tumultuous time for many kids, some more extreme than others. When an author acknowledges that in his/her book, it's paying the ultimate respect to the kids reading because the author makes it real
. In essence, the author is saying 'Yes, I remember those days and sometimes they sucked. Saying they didn't, or simply ignoring how much they sucked, isn't doing anyone any favors.' Kids respond to that because it makes them feel understood, even the ones who aren't living in horror.
The act of reading a book is not
going to turn kids to self-harm, or develop an eating disorder, or rape/kidnap/harm someone else. Not without some other pretty hefty circumstances happening outside of these books. Cutting them off from this content isn't going to solve that particular problem.
In School Library Journal’s news story on Gurdon’s article
, Gurdon was asked her opinion on the response from the book world. This is what she said:
It's funny, though, how many people who I suspect would count themselves defenders of the right to freedom of expression seem to think I ought to shut up, or to be shut up.
Actually, we don’t want Gurdon to ‘shut up.’ She is perfectly entitled to express her opinion. What we want is for her to know the material, really
know it, before speaking out. Based on what she said in her MPR interview, she doesn't understand this side of YA literature at all.