Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Too much "Darkness" in YA

For background on what I'm about to discuss please see the first article by Meghan Cox Gurdon and the second followup article.

Maureen Johnson, author of ten YA books participated in a discussion with Meghan Cox Gurdon on NPR this morning. If you missed the live show, check out this link. (click the listen to the mp3 button at the bottom.) For more information about MJ check out her twitter account.

*All quotes are in bold. I have also used abbreviations for names for ease. Maureen Johnson = MJ and Meghan Cox Gurdon = MCG*

I try not to read these type of articles because usually they just make me angry, but after MJ discussed the articles on her twitter for a while, I decided that they were something worth looking into. Also, if you want to see the huge discussion that MJ opened look at the comments on either of the articles or search for the hashtag #yasaves on twitter. You’ll find some great stories of how YA has influenced people’s lives.

Now, let me say right now, I am not attacking Megan Cox Gurdon personally. I’m sure she is a perfectly nice woman and I do not presume to know her personally. I am simply discussing the articles she wrote on the Wall Street Journal website. Since she has put these articles out in the world I take that to mean that they are fair game to be commented on and discussed.

I do not want to promote hatred, I like to imagine I spend my life combating hatred; I simply want to discuss this debate about YA literature. If you want to flame the author of these articles or anyone else for that matter, go somewhere else.

I’ll start out with a quote from MJ that I believe is very important to this entire argument about “darkness” in YA. She said, Whatever this darkness is, because it’s a squishy undefined concept…” What she said is true. What is darkness? There can be no definite definition in my opinion, although to MCG it appears to be subjects like rape, murder, violence, self harming and eating disorders. But what is dark to one person could be a fact of life for another. Which brings up my argument of how are we to say what is right for kids and teens to read? I do not think that MCG was suggesting that we ban all books that contain these elements, although many people have alleged this. (I hope I’m correct in this assumption.)

From the end of MCG’s second article. “It is that question—the condoning of the language and content of a strong current in young-adult literature—that creates the parental dilemma at the core of my essay. It should hardly be an outrage to discuss the subject.” I do not believe that it is an outrage to discuss this subject; in fact I think it is awesome that so many people hold such strong views on this topic. The main thing I want is for people to have a view on this subject, for them to read the articles and believe something!

“The essay, titled "Darkness Too Visible," discussed the way in which young-adult literature invites teenagers to wallow in ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty.” I take issue with this statement. I do not believe that any literature invites its readers to do this. What is the point of a book? Ask 10 people and you would probably get 10 different answers. Books are many things, an escape from our everyday life, a view of another person’s world, a source of knowledge on some subjects, etc.

An example of how "dark" books can affect teens is that I read every single one of the books in the Gossip Girl series. Considering these books came out in 2002 and I began reading them shortly after, I was roughly 13 or 14 when I began reading this series. Is this the intended age of readers? According to the amazon entry for Gossip Girl it is intended for grade 9 and up. So I wasn’t that far from being the “right” age. However I have always been mature for my age and I feel that I suffered no ill effects of reading these books. Did it make me want to go out and buy couture clothing, smoke pot or have sex? No on all accounts. It was simply an escape for me, a doorway into a different world from my own.

“The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn't be daunted by cries of censorship. 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.” I am not trying to say that parents should step back and allow their children to read whatever they want. A parent has the right to decide what their child reads. I am just saying that these parents should not go further and try to get books taken off of the shelves at libraries and bookstores.

That being said, my parents rarely, if ever controlled what books I had access to and I turned out a normal well adjusted adult. I was always more mature than many other kids my age and so when I was 12 reading books that were meant for 15 year olds, it didn’t bother me at all. I can definitely say that I wasn’t harmed irreparably by anything I read as a teen or pre-teen.

In my opinion a child not having access to a variety of books could harm them more than reading "dark" books, because they would grow up and never be exposed a lifestyle other than their own. They could grow up believing that their way of experiencing the world is the only correct one, and this can breed both hatred and ignorance.

“I began my piece by relating the experience of a Maryland woman who went to a bookstore looking for a novel to give her 13-year-old daughter and who left empty-handed, discouraged by the apparently unremitting darkness of books in the young-adult section.” Okay, so I have an issue with this. I read a lot of YA fiction and in spite of my discussion on the “dark” aspects of YA I am honestly not very attracted to these type of dark books. I have read some of them but they definitely do not monopolize my YA reading. If I can manage to find books that I don’t consider “dark” than how could this woman not find one book that she considered appropriate for her 13 year old?

“The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and "cutting" (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.” I abhor this argument. I hope there is never a time when rape and incest are NORMALIZED. I would like to think that our society would never normalize such violent crimes as these. Why would any teenager read a book containing one of these subjects and say, “Oh, I think I’d like to go out and get raped?”. MJ pointed out a similar argument on the NPR broadcast. So, I do not believe that this is a question at all. In fact we as members of society should work as hard as we possibly can to see that this doesn’t happen!

“Adolescence can be a turbulent time, but it doesn't last forever and often—leaving aside the saddest cases—it feels more dramatic at the time than it will in retrospect. It is surely worth our taking into account whether we do young people a disservice by seeming to endorse the worst that life has to offer.” Yes, it feels more dramatic at the time, but does that make it any less real to a teenager living in the throes of dramatic life? By acknowledging how teens experience life aren’t we validating their opinions and views? So what if they look back on their thoughts 5 years later and think… “Wow, I was so overdramatic?”. If there is anything good to be gained by allowing teens the ability to express themselves and have validation for their views shouldn’t we be trying as hard as possible?

MJ also commented on the NPR broadcast that her fear was that adults would read these WSJ articles and not want their children to read YA anymore. In my opinion this would be the worst outcome of all. To me, reading is so important in a teen’s life. Whether it’s to help them figure out what they think about life, how they view others or just to know that they’re not alone, it is important.

YA saves.

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