Monday, June 13, 2011

Controversy in YA

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, here, 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'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.


Beth S. said...

I agree with you that it is the fault of the bookstore that they couldn't help her find an appropriate book. If I had been there with her, I could have found her plenty of books, many by authors that you mentioned. Perhaps her first stop should have been the library instead of the bookstore. You know, talk to people who actually have to go to school to be well-versed in children's literature in order to get a job.

Arguing that because a book store employee couldn't help you find an appropriate book does not mean there weren't appropriate books to be found. It just means that the employee doesn't know what books are on the shelf.

Excellent post!

Kelly Hashway said...

You make a great point. Where were the people who worked in the store? They should've been able to direct this woman to the kind of book she was looking for. As you mentioned, there are plenty available. It was a fail on the mother's part and the employees of that store.

I also found the article very contradictory. It turned into more of a rant than anything based on fact.

Tabitha said...

Beth - yep, I could have found plenty of books, too. Walking into a bookstore without doing any research is basically going to drive you crazy. The age range for YA is so wide (there is a huge difference between a 13 year old and a 16 year old) that it can be confusing and overwhelming to say the least. There are plenty of great books for younger teens, but you have to know what you're looking for. Otherwise you'll go crazy. :)

Kelly - yeah, it did seem like a rant toward the end, though Gurdon seems to think her article was calm and rational (she said this in the MPR interview). Maybe she intended it to be, but it didn't come across that way.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I wouldn't let my kid read Twilight because it's crap. Haha. But seriously, I am shocked that this is a discussion with reading and literacy declining, books can't take this hit right now. We need to support our kids AS THEY READ. Period. Lots of crap up on NPR lately. Also, the one about being well read, which I wrote an answer to a few weeks ago. Thanks!

Tabitha said...

Yes, we definitely need to support kids reading. If that means we need to read what they read, even if it's not our taste, and then talk about it with them, that's what we should do. That's the big point that Gurdon seems to be missing.

Author Dawn Brazil said...

The mother who went to the bookstore and had the person help her who did not read any of the books should have questioned the fact that the person assisting her did not read any of the books. You're right, the blind leading the blind. And the audacity of the journalist, Gurdon, to lump every YA book into the "grossly negligent" category when she has probably not read one of the books she mentions in her article. You cannot grasp the theme of a book by browsing a few pages. To truly benefit from it you must read it - cover to cover. I'm certain she did not do this. Such a shame.

Catherine Stine said...

For heaven's sake, there are sooo many light books if that's what you're looking for. I could write a huge list here, but the folks reading this blog most likely already know what I would list!
Okay, so the market panders to the going flavor of the year--the Twilight series for one. But there is plenty out there that is unfanged.
Personally, when I was a teen, the darker the better worked for me.
Besides, who would trust an essay about teen fiction in the Wall Street Journal!?

Pen said...

Gurdon's article is insulting to the older kids and legal adults reading YA, too. Here's the mother of a thirteen-year-old, suggesting that I, an eighteen-year-old, not read dark material, because she feels it's too dark for something labeled "Young Adult." People forget that there's almost a full decade implied in the young adult age bracket.

And then she goes on to say that my parents--or I, as an adult--should support what she's saying? If she's really concerned about the messages the books are sending her kid--which she's not, she's worried about the messages they're sending other kids--she should talk to her about it, not isolate her from darker books for the rest of her life.

Theresa Milstein said...

I just came over at Laura Pauling's recommendation. You make excellent points.

Personally, I shop at stores with knowledgable staffs. My local Borders has huge YA fans who can always steer me. Same with my local indies: Harvard Bookstore and Porter Square Books. And I agree with Beth S. that libraries are a wonderful resource. That said, I can still pick up and find books on a range of subjects in any bookstore. In fact, I often read books that aren't too dark.

I also wrote a post on this topic today, if you want to take a look:

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Yes, this whole issue irritated me on multiple levels. I've commented elsewhere and won't rehash those points, but here are just a couple of new ones:

"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."

Yes, and guess what? A person who doesn't read AT ALL will also find himself surrounded by images of damage, brutality and loss.

It's called living on Planet Earth.

And then there are these two quotes:

"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."
"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."

Because I find it mighty strange that a woman who was able to air her opinions in the Wall Street Journal, whose opinion piece was linked all over the blogosphere, who was quoted in SLJ, and who was interviewed on public radio, is lamenting her lack of voice on this issue. I would love to have a megaphone even half as big as hers. Especially since I hear that WSJ is going to print even more of her opinion, because she's decided she still has more to say.

Have her books been yanked from public shelves? Has she been uninvited from any teaching gig or public speaking engagement? If not, she has not been censored in the way that the authors of the books she's complaining about have been censored.

(And if that has occurred, I would object to the censorship of her work, of course--despite the position she erroneously ascribes to those like me.)

Tabitha said...

Dawn - I'm certain she didn't do this, either. It's really easy to stop by one place, not find what you're looking for, and then assume that it doesn't exist. At least, until you hear about it from other people, but this woman doesn't seem to have an informed circle regarding books. Shame.

Catherine - many people have said the same thing to her, and she responded by saying she also read dark books as a teen, Stephen King included. He's written some pretty dark and twisted books... But it sounds like she thinks that's okay because it doesn't target young adults. *shrug* To me, that doesn't make sense.

Pen - Gurdon isn't really clear what age group she says shouldn't read darker YA. When she talks about specifics, she talks about younger teens. But then she moves back into generalizations, so it's very confusing. I can certainly understand your frustration over this whole issue. I'd be just as frustrated in your shoes. Actually, I kind of am, and I'm no longer a teen. :)

Tabitha said...

Theresa - thanks so much for stopping by! And thanks for sharing the link to your post. I'll definitely stop by. I think you've got the right attitude, and that is looking for people who know what you need to know. If you can't find informed people, then how are you going to find what you're looking for? I know it's unreasonable to expect a bookstore employee to have read all the books in the store, but it's certainly acceptable to expect someone to know something about one section.

Jenn - well said! I would also object her her being censored in the way some authors have been censored, especially when they're uninvited to speaking engagements. That's amazingly appalling. Gurdon has had multiple opportunities to voice her opinion in multiple ways, which is great. I just wish she would better educate herself on the material...

Anonymous said...

I am not a big YA reader,but even I know that there a whole host of excellent, not-so-dark-themed books for my daughter. Was the mother, herself, a reader?

The whole Twilight and parenting issues are OTHER issues that should't be linked with this hasty generalization of a whole genre.

It's stupidity at its worst. Or best.

Tabitha said...

Yep, the question is finding those books. It's not really that difficult, but it does involve maybe asking more than one person. Especially when the first person you ask *says* they don't know how to help you. *shrug* Seems like a no-brainer to me. :)

I think Gurdon has illustrated some legitimate failings, but they're not failings of the YA book industry. They're symptoms of other problems, which would just manifest in different ways if this darker content wasn't available.

Krispy said...

You make really excellent points. Like you said, she's entitled to her opinion and if she thinks there's too much darkness in YA, then that's what she thinks.

A number of things bother in the article bother me, but what really gets me is what she says at the end about how parents might be daunted by cries of censorship from the industry & other people. It's as you said, parents have the responsibility and right to monitor what their kid is reading/watching and so on. But Gurdon makes it sound like because these certain parents think YA is too dark that maybe it's too dark for ALL young adult readers, and THAT dips into the territory of censorship.

Also, while there is a lot of dark YA out there, I think you'd have to really NOT BE LOOKING to say you can barely find anything "light" enough for your kid to read in the YA section. They're not all "issue" books or paranormal romances. You can literally SEE that if you walk through the YA section. There's plenty of books that look like (from cover alone) fun and fluffy beach reads or classic adventure/fantasy tales or high school dramadies.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow parent, I'm stunned that someone would come out and almost petition for books to be banned. The more I read of intelligent comments and posts about "self-harm" and other dark materials produced for the young adult market, the more I think I've been wrong about the subject.

I personally felt that the later Harry Potter books were dark and disturbing because they dealt with death. My personal stance was that parents should monitor what their children read the same way that we decide whether or not to allow sugar in the house.

Now I see that there is a valid purpose to darker materials. I would rather my children come to me and ask me about such things than pretend that there isn't a real world out there and motivations for some of the things people do.

After all, isn't part of parenting about not letting your child go out in the world naive?

btw. I wouldn't expect a bookstore clerk to know what was in the latest Newsweek magazine let alone know every genre in the store.

Logan E. Turner said...

Brava Tabitha! I kept this post marked as unread for a long time because I knew I'd want to digest it at a time when I could really reflect on it.

Not that that means I have anything interesting to say now. :) I loved how well you put this entire article into perspective. It's not that anyone cares she voiced an opinion, we care that she voiced an uneducated opinion. Whenever someone does that it reflects poorly on discourse that otherwise could have gotten us somewhere meaningful.

This kind of judgmental rhetoric that she spouted here in inflammatory and unhelpful. She had a bad experience, wrote something up, and the WSJ jumped on it. Loads of publicity all around.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.