Let me be frank: I don’t care for The Wall Street Journal on the best of days. I’m a young, liberal feminist who is pursuing a career in public service. Clearly, stock options and dividends are not my priority. But hey, it takes all sorts of people in this world, so that paper is for them and the New York Times and The Nation are for me.
HOWEVER, when WSJ starts dumping on Young Adult literature in a poorly written piece, then I take issue. Along with most of the internet. A brief run-down for those of you who haven’t been following along: In “Darkness Too Visible,” Ms. Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the deplorable state of fiction for teens. It is too DARK, a term she uses to describe the prevalence of themes such as “abuse, violence, and depravity.” The internet-at-large responded with many excellent rebuttals and a twitter hashtag #YAsaves. People shared thousands and thousands of stories about how that nasty, too-dark YA lit literally and figuratively saved their lives.
I am one of those people, and maybe it’s just the obscenity-filled novels talking, but I have a message for Gurdon: take your puritanical bullshit and shove it.
Can we start off by pointing out some of the logical flaws in Gurdon’s argument? She thinks that a “careless” teen will read these horrid books and not be able to see the “joy or beauty” in the world but only the “damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” HELLO, the world is not just sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Your argument falls apart very quickly if you say fiction should reflect the world, but then claim the world is only beauty and joy. IT’S THE WORLD – it has fucking everything in it. Of course there is joy and beauty, but there is also pain and loss. And a million other experiences on the spectrum of human existence. This article is also really hurtful to those who have experienced any of the “dark” things referred to. By saying these things are not the norm (she actually refers to them as “pathologies”), you’ve further alienated those who have experienced such traumas. Nice job, lady.
Also – what is a “careless” reader? That is pretty much meaningless. I feel that she really means impressionable, or teens who don’t think for themselves while reading. So a careless teen is one who would read about cutting and then try it. Or read about war and be scared about being attacked all the time. This careless thing is that which annoys me the most. If Gurdon’s job is to write about fiction for kids and teens, you’d think she has respect for them as a demographic. But her tone of voice is condescending and completely disregards teens as readers. It’s more about HER opinions of the material, not the reactions of teens. Instead of just talking to one mother and one bookstore, she could’ve tried ACTUALLY SPEAKING TO TEENS ABOUT WHAT THEY THINK. Then maybe this could have turned into a dialogue. But no, she blathers on about the book world trying to sully the minds of the youth.
She also goes on to claim her promotion of censorship is actually not about censorship but about “taste.” About wanting to preserve the “tenderness of heart” in a child, and that’s why parents need to be “gatekeepers” (read: not letting their kids read nasty, nasty books. Okay, Umbridge.) So her argument is that these books will turn kids into unhappy, hard-hearted monsters with a lack of morals. Because reading perspectives other than your own doesn’t broaden your mind, it in fact CORRUPTS IT.
Well, I am beyond hope then because I have read plenty of DARK, EVIL books during my time. But unlike Ms. Gurdon, I believe that they have turned me into the person I am today. That books in fact saved me from a future of meekness. Now, during middle school, I was an easy target. Pleasantly plump, long frizzy hair, a know-it-all with her nose stuck in a book. Kids bothered me in school a little bit, but the bus ride was pure hell. None of my friends were on my route, but a pack of delightful boys were. They would throw stuff at me and call me names like “beached whale” and “wide load,” or just plain old “freak” worked too. If I didn’t get on the bus relatively early, they wouldn’t let me sit down unless I gave them something. So I started carrying warheads or jolly ranchers with me, but this of course made them taunt me for carrying candy. I began missing the bus purposefully, but my mom caught on and made sure I didn’t dawdle. Once, I went so far as to concoct fake vomit so I wouldn’t have to go to school. At the time, I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. Adults just made things worse.
So I did what I did best – I read. I made sure I always had a book with me. When they were pelting me with rolled up paper or putting candy wrappers in my hair, I was a world away. In books, being weird just meant you were special. The bullied kids ended up on an adventure, while the douches ended up with boring lives. Now I won’t pretend books completely erased the trauma, but it made me realize that there was life beyond the bus rides. That being different didn’t mean you deserved to be picked on. Harry Potter was especially important to me, as I identified fully with him. Sure, I wasn’t a wizard, but I felt just as isolated as he. When I read about how being kind and intelligent and trying to do what was right was more important than wealth and power, I knew that I would no longer let others make me feel like I was less than. I had to choose what words mattered more to me, and I chose those in the books I loved.
Gurdon briefly calls out The Hunger Games for being “hyper-violent.” I’ve written about the violence in another post, and how it’s a way to talk to kids about war. (**PLEASE NOTE, I SPEAK OF SPOIL-ERY THINGS**). Besides appreciating the trilogy as insanely powerful and beautifully written, it deeply affected me on a personal level. My cousin Sean was severely wounded by an I.E.D. in Afghanistanin March of 2010. After fighting to live for two weeks, he succumbed to a fungal infection on April 9. I was devastated, and as is my way, I holed up in my room and beasted through all of the Dresden Files in about two months. Reading the snarky Harry Dresden who usually came out on top despite overwhelming odds was a way to get my mind off the painful present. I dealt with my grief alone by pushing it off into a corner. Months passed and Mockingjay was released. Reading that book was a catharsis I didn’t realize I needed. With people being killed in a war that didn’t seem necessary, with Boggs stepping on a land mine and losing both legs, I read my own life into a story. Recognizing myself in Katniss and seeing how her story played out was a connection I needed, because I had shut myself off since April. Instead of using a book to tune out the world, I allowed one to bring the world back in.
It also gave me a way to talk about my own story with others; a way to frame a conversation without having to expose too much of myself. Even if they’ve never been personally affected by a real war, they have if they read Katniss’ story. They have if they cried when Prim died, or felt hope when Peeta and Katniss make a book remembering the dead.
Because that is what books do. They expand our capacity for understanding and empathy. They challenge us and worry us out of complacency. They allow us to make connections and feel less isolated. They make us view the world through a perspective other than our own, even if that perspective makes us uncomfortable. Young adult fiction isn’t afraid to show us the different and difficult parts of life. To call this a bad thing is to miss the point of literature. Art shouldn’t reflect our lives back at us; it should show us something different. To go further and say “dark” subject matter can misguide and harm those who read it is wrong. To suggest we essentially ban books because they offend our delicate and exceedingly normal sensibilities is more than wrong, it’s stupid AND dangerous. And we have enough stupid and dangerous things to deal with in the world without adding “policing young adult literature” to the list.