[Trigger Warning: This post discusses self-harm, abuse, rape, suicide, and similar topics that may be upsetting for some readers.]
Mrs. Meghan Cox Gurdon and I have dramatically different ideas of what constitutes “literature.” Also “children’s books,” “banning,” and “parenting.”
Case in point: yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried a column of Mrs. Gurdon’s titled “Darkness Too Visible,” discussing the “dark” themes that many young-adult books currently deal in – and, in the process, using a lot of words – and sentences – that mean something very different to me than they do to her.
For example, Mrs. Gurdon claims that “As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing.”
In YA parlance: O RLY? Because, depending on how you slice it, young-adult literature – in Mrs. Gurdon’s words, literature aimed broadly at people between ages 12 and 18 – has been around anywhere from 100 to 600 years. The Ohio Library Council starts the clock in 1919, when Mabel Williams was appointed as the first young-adult librarian at the New York Public Library, and mentions that the term “young adult” to describe literature has been around at least since 1937. Maryland’s Salisbury University offers a class in the history of YA literature that goes all the way back to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and names such enduring YA classics as The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Little Women. Author David Lubar starts counting from J.D. Salinger, whose 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye is literally required reading for thousands of American teens.
In any case, even assuming Mrs. Gurdon’s math is correct, her argument – that YA novels with “dark” themes like abuse, self-harm, and suicide are not only dangerous but pearl-clutching-ly scandalous – makes no sense. Gurdon points out that “the argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless.” This is a fair point; a great many teenagers suffer abuse, depression, and self-loathing of the worst kinds, and feeling that someone understands, even if that someone is fictional, is preferable to feeling like such a freak one doesn’t deserve to live, let alone be loved.
Yet in the very next paragraph (and this is a newspaper; paragraphs are short), Gurdon tosses this point in the trash in favor of her own premise: “it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”
Dear Mrs. Gurdon: your privilege is showing. By which I mean that this argument overlooks entirely the fact that, even if teenagers would never think to cut themselves if they didn’t read about it in a book first, not all teens who do read about it in a book are going to try it. Kids whose worlds are full of sunshine and non-vampirous daisies aren’t going to feel a sudden urge to bust out the razor blades to manage their inner pain, because whatever’s going on in their lives at the moment, they can handle it.
Teens who are suffering that much and who can’t handle it at the moment, however, are going to go on suffering whether or not a book gives them the idea that self-mutilation is somehow helpful. And – gasp – some of those teens might even realize, upon seeing the self-harming protagonist getting help, that they can also seek help for themselves. Which, not-incidentally, may have something to do with why the author wrote the book in the first place.
Gurdon then gives an example of a book in Kentucky’s Boone County Library that concerned “a patron,” not due to its contents, but due to a cover that featured a scarred forearm. Gurdon makes it clear that her problem with this is that the concern was over the picture on the cover, not on the book’s contents. Yet Gurdon inexplicably casts the fact that the patron only worried about the cover and not the story as the librarians’ fault: “That the protagonist’s father has been raping her since she was a toddler and is trying to engineer her suicide was not the issue for the team of librarians re-evaluating the book.” …It wasn’t the issue for the library patron who complained, either, but that’s okay? In teen Internets parlance, “Logik: Ur doin it rong.”
I’m simply bemused by this bit: “Foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers and booksellers as perfectly OK, provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation…. But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question.”
Well, yes – what “librarians, reviewers and booksellers” will or won’t tolerate in a book differs from what particular parents may want for their kids. That’s normal. Librarians, reviewers, and booksellers usually look for different things in a book than the parent of a child would. As a reviewer, I’m looking for a plausible story that’s engagingly told and offers some useful or novel perspective on this walking mess we call “being human.” As a bookseller, I’m looking for things that will sell. It’s so rare for literary popularity and literary merit to go together that I’m always delighted when I find a book that is both excellent and sells well.
This statement is baffling precisely because it’s so obvious – yet Gurdon presents it as a fault, as if librarians, reviewers, and booksellers are somehow failing at their respective jobs because they don’t attempt to parent every kid who may be exposed to the books they stock and/or review.
And heaven forbid that we should disdain to bowlderize texts for any reason:
By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.”
In even more teen Internets parlance: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.
“It’s appropriate to guide what young people read” is not the definition of “banning,” “judgment,” or “taste.” It is, perhaps, the definition of “parenting” – that is, something that ought to be done by the parents. Gurdon remains somehow convinced that it’s a librarian’s or bookseller’s job to parent people’s kids for them, at least in terms of “guid[ing] what young people read.”
Yet, even if it were my job as a bookseller to “guide what young people read,” I’d get it wrong. “Young people” aren’t a monolith, so I can’t offer the same book to every one without getting a few who are completely turned off (or worse, are triggered to re-live past traumas in their own lives) by the tale. Certain books may or may not be appropriate for certain kids. My job (and I dare say a librarian’s as well) is to offer a sufficient selection of titles so that parents and young adults can choose something that is appropriate for them. Asking me to decide ahead of time that books about suicide, or rape, or cutting are totally inappropriate is asking me to parent your kid for you. I can’t do that. I don’t know your kid. You know who does know your kid – or, at least, who should? The parent(s).
Gurdon’s final sentence is the kicker: “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.”
Mrs. Gurdon, you are absolutely correct. No family is obliged to read anything a reviewer recommends or a librarian or bookseller puts on the shelves. So why on Earth are you complaining, when nobody is making you do anything except maybe parent your own kids?
I know one thing: my hypothetical children are no longer allowed to read Mrs. Gurdon’s columns. I don’t want them exposed to such shoddy blame-game arguments, lest they think establishing a sensible position on a subject is as easy as merely whining a lot in a major newspaper.
Resources for Teen Readers and Their Parents
Like bibliophiles everywhere, readers of YA fiction like diversity, yes? Here are a few links for reading ideas that won’t make your parents wish the librarians did their job for them.
I. Books You May Enjoy
This is just a sample. Feel free to leave lists of books you already enjoy in the comments! Even if they are about blood and vampires!
Canterbury Tales — 1387
A Book of Courtesy — 1477 (the first book for young people published in English)
The Fables of Aesop — 1484
Le Morte d’Arthur — 1484
Alices’ Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol — 1865
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — 1868
The Story of Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich — 1870
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne — 1872
Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain — 1876
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell — 1877
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson –1883
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle –1883
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain — 1885
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle –1892
Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling — 1894
The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope –1904
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin — 1904
Peter Pan in Kensington Garden by J. M. Barrie — 1906
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham — 1908
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder — 1932
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien — 1937
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes –1944
The Story of the Negro by Arna Bontemps — 1948
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger — 1951
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbery –1959
Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry –1964
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee –1968
The Pigman by Paul Zindel –1968
Sounder by William Armstrong –1969
Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume — 1970
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George — 1972
A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress — 1973
Dragonwings by Laurence Yep — 1975
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor — 1976
Beauty by Robin McKinley — 1978
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson — 1980
II. Online Resources for Young Adult Readers
Canada’s Calgary University offers links to online texts of several YA classics.
Kay E. Vandergrift at Rutgers University has an entire page devoted to the history and analysis of YA literature. Good stuff for book reports, or just for learning to love books a little more.
The ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association has tons of info on YA books.
It’s linked above, but it’s worth adding again here: David Lubar’s essay on the history of YA literature is entertaining AND informative.
Have additional resources? Add ’em in comments!