I’m a little late to the game on this, but I still wanted to chime in. Because why have a blog if not to post your opinions even if no one else cares about them?
It seems like every few months or so, some adult has written a big story discovering YA lit for the first time and being shocked at how well-written/violent/popular/whatever it is. Meanwhile, YA lit continues on being written and read like usual.
Most recently, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote this story for the Wall Street Journal, Darkness Too Visible, about how YA lit is just too graphic and dark for teens to handle, and whatever is a parent to purchase for their poor teens to read?
She quotes a concerned mother who:
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.
Right after this story went up, I read All This Darkness! What to Buy the Grownup Reader (A Parody) by Sarah Ockler, a pretty funny piece about how condescending Gordun’s article is. One of my favorite parts of Ockler’s piece was:
I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.
The mom in Gurdon’s story could have asked a damn librarian (or small bookstore employee) for some kind of appropriate book rather than standing at Barnes & Noble and wringing her hands. But whatever. We all know about librarians and their leftist, anti-censorship agendas.
Anyway, assuming libraries are out of the question, is it even true that YA lit has gotten “darker”? Darker than what, exactly? YA lit is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until maybe thirty, forty years ago, if you weren’t reading children’s books, you were reading adult books. Adult vampire-suicide-mutilation books.
Gurdon even briefly points this out in her article:
As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not.
I don’t really understand how this is supposed to be preferable to the existence of young adult literature.
Anyway, tons of people have already responded to this article. There was a pretty hilarious Twitter meme: #YAKills. (A few highlights: “I became convinced that my labrador retriever was my daemon, and we got kicked out of every restaurant for a year. #YAkills” @NaturallySteph. “Shared 1 pair of unwashed jeans w/3 friends for a summer – not only did I not get a boyfriend, but no one would sit next to me. #YAKills” @ChandraYB )
There was also the serious version, #YASaves. Sherman Alexie (author of the YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, as well as several books, short stories, and poems for adults) wrote a response to Gurdon’s article that’s probably the best explanation of how YA lit saves: Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.
He talks about his own childhood of poverty and abuse. He talks about the children and teens who have responded positively to his novel, which gets called out by Gurdon for being popular among teens, yet depraved. Do read Alexie’s piece if you are at all interested in YA lit or young adults or humans. A small highlight:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.
Word, Sherman Alexie. Word.
Or as Linda Holmes wrote for NPR:
While the WSJ piece refers to the YA fiction view of the world as a funhouse mirror, I fear that what’s distorted is the vision of being a teenager that suggests kids don’t know pathologies like suicide or abuse unless they read about them in books.
Obviously, I would prefer it if no children or teens had to suffer. But the fact is, millions of young adults are survivors of abuse and/or poverty and/or homelessness and/or discrimination and/or any number of things that are much worse than anything that happened in Breaking Dawn.
And even for privileged children, there is value in reading “dark” books. I myself grew up a happy, white, middle-class kid. I had my own little school dramas and angst, of course, but overall I was extremely lucky. But I devoured Lurlene McDaniel books–you know, the ones about teenagers dying of cancer? Why did I do that? I didn’t have cancer. A cousin of mine died of leukemia when I was four or five, but I didn’t know him very well and don’t consider myself to have been particularly scarred by the experience. (it’s sadder to me now, as an adult, to think back on what his death must have been like for my older cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my parents, than it was for me personally as a child.) And it wasn’t just me–Lurlene McDaniel’s books, and other copycat teen illness books, are extremely popular. According to Wikipedia, she’s written over sixty YA books.
In case you’re not familiar with McDaniel’s books, here’s a plot summary of one, chosen at random from Amazon.
She Died Too Young (published 1994–well before the alleged onset of Darkness in YA lit)
Chelsea James and Katie O’Roark met at Jenny House and spent a wonderful summer together. Now Chelsea and her mother are staying with Katie as Chelsea awaits news concerning a heart transplant. While waiting for a compatible donor, Chelsea meets Jillian, a girl who’s funny and kind. Jillian is also waiting. She needs a heart-lung transplant. The two girls become fast friends. When Chelsea meets Jillian’s brother, he awakens feelings in Chelsea she’s never known before. However, as her medical situation grows desperate, Chelsea finds herself in a contest for her life against her very best friend.
I’m pretty sure I read that one. Why would I read that? That is super sad. I mean, the title gives it away. I read it because kids and young adults are trying on the idea of mortality, of tragedy. Even if I didn’t need a heart-lung transplant, and neither did anyone else I knew, there was still the idea that someone out there did, and someday I might. Someday I would die! How sad! I read about dying teens, and teens with drug problems, and teens who were exposed to toxic waste and developed super powers. I read about teens who were abandoned alone in the woods with only a hatchet and their wits to keep them alive. I turned out fine (does that sound braggy?).
I also definitely slipped into my mom’s bookshelf and read some adult books I didn’t really understand. I mean, I could read the words, but I didn’t really understand them. I distinctly remember reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb at about age 12 and having no idea what was going on, but feeling really grown up that I had it. I also remember seeing the movie Cider House Rules as a young teen and thinking Tobey Maguire was like, so cute. Then as an adult I read the book and went, wait, this is about abortion? Was that part in the movie? (I checked and yes, it’s totally in the movie. It’s like, the central premise of the movie. But I didn’t get it because I didn’t really know what abortion was.) If kids aren’t old enough to be reading something, they won’t understand it.
If teens aren’t already doing meth, they’re not going to run out and start after they read Crank by Ellen Hopkins. But it might help them gain an understanding of why someone might start doing drugs. And if they have been affected by meth, they’ll be relieved to see someone on the page whose experiences might match their own.
I guess in summary all I have to say is: if you don’t like the Hunger Games, don’t read the Hunger Games, and don’t buy a copy for your kids. But please settle down about what a travesty it is that teens are reading books where bad things happen, or I will come to your house and shoot you with a crossbow. I’m unhinged! I read YA literature! Do not fuck with me!