Young adult books today aren’t too dark

Right now the talk of my Twitter feed is a Wall Street Journal “review” on the state of young adult literature. Reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon thinks young adult books of today are too violent, too sexual, too dark for the kiddiewinks of today to read. There’s so much wrong with this article I don’t know where to start. The story starts off with a quote from a parent looking for a gift for her daughter.

“Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, [Amy Freeman] 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.”

So vampires are dark now? They weren’t exactly happy fluffy creatures to start with, but just because a novel has a vampire in it doesn’t make it dark. Look at the Twilight series. It has vampires, and it’s full of lulz and gnashing of teeth from the terrible writing.

Then there’s the sidebar of recommendations. The books I have in the recommendations are excellent, but they’re divided into books for boys and books for girls. And surprise, surprise–I’ve read more books in the so-called boy section than the girl section. Am I the only person who’s amused that she recommended Fahrenheit 451 in an article that is calling for censorship?

But here’s the point the writer of the article doesn’t truly get. She acknowledges the point, sure. But kids gravitate to YA books of the nature she describes to know they’re not alone–in being the funny-looking outcast, in being the only one without a date, in feeling pain and wondering if you’ll ever feel normal again. It’s not just about the tough issues described in the books, even though the reader may be able to relate to those as well on a firsthand level. These dark novels helps kids get through hell and back when they thought they never would, and they come out better thanks to those books.

So never ever stop writing, and never ever stop reading. If that’s not enough, check out the #yasaves hashtag on Twitter, which was trending worldwide last time I checked a few minutes ago. If you’re on Twitter, make your own #yasaves tweet, and mention @wsj in there while you’re at it so they see it.

2 thoughts on “Young adult books today aren’t too dark

  1. I agree with all of the points you’ve made, and I’d add another:

    “Children” aren’t nearly so innocent as adults would like to believe. And, in my experience, the later they learn about the gritty pieces of life, the harder it is for them to deal with learning about them. (Obviously this is just from observations of my own social group, not based in actual research, but the model holds surprisingly well across the board for the people I know).

    The woman quoted at the beginning of the article is looking for a book for her 13-year-old daughter. She seems to believe that 13-year-olds are innocent and in need of protection. In some ways, they are. Fiction is not one of those ways.

    When I was 13, I was more isolated than I’ve ever been in my life. My mother had transferred me from the school that I loved (and had attended for years) to the mainstream middle school, with all the people I had spent my life avoiding. I have been obese and socially inept for virtually my whole life — these were the people who KNEW that, who had seen me at my worst, who had laughingly caused me pain. These were the people I was running from, and my mother very neatly placed me into their care. I was alone. I couldn’t speak to my mother because I couldn’t get over my sense of betrayal, that she would sweep me away from the only social group that had ever valued me and dump me into that morass of idiocy and poor judgment. My only “friends” at school were the two other social outcasts. We sat at the far end of the table, with a buffer of seats between us and the normal people. There was C, the girl whose mother had been on all sorts of drugs when she was pregnant with C and it was obvious, and D, who was in some way mentally…. “not there.” And there was me, reading at a college level but socially only able to hold my head above water with two developmentally-delayed misfits with whom I had nothing in common except that no one else wanted to be near me, either. When you’re 13, fat is contagious, y’know.

    When I was 13, I started writing erotica. Reading, too, but mostly writing.

    When I was 13, I slept in my bathtub, because I lived in a bad neighborhood. There were gunshots down the street some nights. Most nights, maybe. I didn’t want to be shot while I was sleeping, so I slept in the second-floor bathtub. I reasoned that no bullet could feasibly penetrate the two walls AND the floor AND the thick sides of the tub AND still have enough momentum to kill me.

    When I was 13, my acquaintances started to do drugs and have sex and drink alcohol. I didn’t, but I heard their stories, told in “lurid detail” that would make the author of that article weep.

    And the kicker is, I was SHELTERED. I was the kid whose mommy didn’t let her read anything too provocative, who didn’t know that “pot” and “marijuana” were the same thing until high school, who was completely clueless about most of the harsher realities of life. My classmates called me “innocent little Natalie.” I was the kid who Just Didn’t Get It. And that was MY experience. Imagine the experience of the kid who DID “get it.”

    You aren’t saving your children from jackshit. Sheltering them just makes it harder to integrate. You want your children to be paragons of virtue, morally upright, capable of judging a situation for themselves? Then for god’s sake, let them SEE what you’re warning them against. It’s like socializing a puppy — the sooner you get them accustomed to seeing everything that will startle them, the better their reactions will be. And your kid isn’t going to show you the scars on her wrist and say “But mom, I DO cut. This book isn’t exposing me to anything new, and it might help me, if I can see how the protagonist deals with it.”

    If you want to make a moral lesson out of literature, do so by showing them the novel, asking them what THEY think, and then calmly and rationally presenting your point. Hiding it away and pretending that it doesn’t happen is a ridiculous solution. It only teaches your children not to confront things. If you believe the content of a book is wrong, then by all means, use it as a moral teaching point. But don’t wail “it shouldn’t be written!” just because you disagree with the message. If your argument is strong enough to stand, it should be able to stand without hiding behind ignorance.

    And that’s my two cents’ two dollars’ worth on that.

    • That was definitely two dollars. I don’t have much else to add except that I completely agree about not hiding things. One day they’ll find out what they’ve been sheltered from, or they’ll wonder why no one else in the world feels what they feel, and they’ll look for a place to turn to and find that other people aren’t always inviting, and they’ll hide in a corner of fear. Hiding never solves anything. This is why we need books and storytellers. Books have long been a way of teaching us to stand up and speak out, even for the younger folks. Books need to keep that state.

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