A little explosion happened on the Internet this weekend when Meghan Cox Gurdon, writing for The Wall Street Journal, took aim at contemporary young adult literature for what she saw as too much gruesomeness, violence, and “darkness,” which defies specificity so much as to be next to meaningless. I’d like to unpack some of what was offered by Ms. Gurdon and respond. And because I was gearing up to write about mentors in gay YA before her article came out, I’ll try to include a bit of that here, too.
- The world is significantly different in 2011 than it was in 1971—Forgive the understatement, but pointing to books like Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret as standard bearers for what YA literature should be today is the ultimate in naivete. Isn’t part of the point of YA as a genre to connect to where young adult readers are now? I’d love for this generation to read old Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Lois Duncan books, but honestly, I’d rather they just read voraciously, and I wish Ms. Gurdon prioritized this too.
- Young adult audiences have been reading dark, morbid, haunting, violent narratives for decades—Insisting that any one genre could be responsible for teenage behavior is to misread the autonomy that young readers have and underestimate their capacity to absorb material without internalizing it. I for one read a lot of Stephen King, who is almost never described as an author of “light” material, and I had a lot of peers who, back in the day, devoured his work, as well as Peter Straub’s, Dean Koontz’s, and countless other horror writers’ work. Pointing a spotlight on the YA genre is only possible because there is a YA genre. So everything else is off the hook for the messages that may be contained therein?
- Speaking of which, young readers are capable of reading anything, whether it’s called YA or not—To suggest that it’s only YA writers and books who are beholden to a narrow frame on topics, violence, gore, and mood, well, that’s a strange line to draw in the sand. Sure, movies, music, and video games have their age-designated hierarchies, but is that a good idea and does it really work to protect young consumers? I’m ready to walk away from the concept that kids are only ready to expand their content horizons when they’ve reached certain ages. Every individual is different, n’est-ce pas?
- Focusing on some elements of a book as negative erases the parts that are positive, and ignores the overall messages that are present—The Hunger Games, which Ms. Gurdon dismisses as “hyper-violent,” is a meditation on war and the trauma it causes children. How would an author pick apart war, death, and loss without violence? In trying to envision a non-grotesque way to handle such heavy topics as incest, abuse, and international conflict, I’m drawing a blank. Either we make a space for controversial and taboo subjects in all of literature—including YA—or we burrow our heads in the proverbial blinding sand. Katniss has her mentors and supporters and learns she can find strength in a morose, chaotic world. Even Harry Potter himself learns (again and again) to trust his elders (tip of the hat to Dumbledore!) and friends, as each book in J.K. Rowling’s series gets darker and darker.
- There are plenty of YA books that are humorous, fun, or “light” on the market—Pretty Little Liars, anyone?Any of Percy Jackson’s adventures? YA novels cover the gamut of topics, tone, characters, settings, eras, and so on. Readers who don’t want to read about gaybashing—not everyone does, certainly—need only choose another book. I’m sure I’m in good company in resisting what looks like a call for censorship at the book procurement level.
- Reading should be about pushing boundaries, learning about faraway lands and new concepts, and enjoying a good story—It is entirely too huge an assumption to state that reading about specific behaviors or choices “normalizes them.” Ms. Gurdon uses the example of cutting, self-injury some partake in to get a rush or release tension. If we could point our magic wands at every book with cutting in it, would that decrease the incidence among today’s youth? I presume they could also learn about it on the Internet, in texts from their classmates, on Facebook chats, etc. Wouldn’t reading about it in a context of character and that character’s decisions be less problematic, not more? With such free-flowing information swirling around all of us today, there is little to nothing that young adults won’t hear about.
I’m glad WSJ ran this article, honestly, because to see the outpouring of support for YA authors and readers was heartening. Those of us dedicated to producing the best written stories for young readers are a tough lot.
Must be all those scary novels I read as a kid.