Hello, everyone. This is my reply (read:rant) to Meghan Cox Gurdon's piece in the Wall Street Journal titled 'Darkness Too Visible' in which she attacks the Young Adult section of books, and how they are 'too dark' and too 'centered on violence and disturbing themes'. If you'd like to read the article, go here:
http:/online(dot)wsj(dot)com/ and look up 'Darkness Too Visible' or Meghan Cox Gurdon.
Just take out the (dot)'s.
Note: The paragraphs in italics are property of Meghan Cox Gurdon (as she wrote them) and of Wall Street Journal. The parts in bold/bold+italics are property of...well, actually, I guess they're public domain since they're off of Wikipedia, but the point still stands: They do not belong to me.
The rest of it, is however, mine. The views are mine, the words are mine, and any responsibility for offended people reading this is mine.
Mrs. Gurdon, you seem to have some pretty powerful delusions about the world of teen fiction. While I freely admit that it is not all sunshine and roses, is life?
Now, that said, I love that you only used one example about one mother in one bookstore (sarcasm rampant). I am a teen myself and have read hundreds of YA books, and probably will read hundreds more in the future. I disagree with your views on the world of YA books being 'too dark' for us wholeheartedly. There are many, many, many books out there contained within the Young Adult tag that are not 'dark and morbid' as you put it.
I don't know about you, but being a teenager is not an easy thing, especially not in this day and age, where everyone is quick to judge you based on...well, everything. Adults judge us as a group based on the clothes some of us wear, the language some of us use, and the books which some of us read. I would like to respectfully state that not all teens are like that.
I know many teens who read. I know many who read (like me) close to or more than two hundred books a year. I also know many that don't. I know many that the only books they have read in their entirety are the trashy romance Twilight novels.
In your review, you state that all teen fiction these days seems to be dark and focusing on killing, rape, violence, drugs, theft, etc. While this is partially true, and I will return to that in a second, don't think for a second that this comprises the entirety of the YA shelf.
Teen fiction also encompasses true masterpieces like Lois Lowry's 'The Giver' and subsequent stories. Fantasy novels such as the Percy Jackson series (by Rick Riordan), The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series (Michael Scott), and the Artemis Fowl series (Eoin Colfer) can not be considered as 'dark' and 'terrifying'. Stories like Shannon Hale's 'Princess Academy' and Tamora Pierce's many quartets and stories can hardly be deemed 'unfit for teenagers'. I hardly think that Stargirl (Jerry Spinelli), The Maximum Ride Series (James Patterson), and Garth Nix's 'Keys to the Kingdom' septology deserve to be lumped in with your wide-range dismissal of the YA books as 'too dark for the age group it is targeting'. Yes, some of them have some dark images and themes in them, but on the whole, they are not the darkest books I've ever read. And yes, all of these are considered to be 'Young Adult' books.
I do not know where this Amy Freeman, mother of three was looking on that bookshelf at that Barnes and Noble in Maryland, but it seems to me that she was not looking hard at all for a worthwhile book to read. I'm sure her daughter has read worse than what she saw on the shelf, anyway.
The political bureaucracy's standing on the issue that 'children are to be protected and kept away from anything we deem inappropriate' is, pardon my language, utter bullcrap. Why are we subjected to watered-down, stupefied language when the real world is so much worse?
If you try and protect us, the only thing that accomplishes is making a generation (and possibly more than one) that cannot truly function in the real world because they have no true knowledge of what goes on and how bad it really is.
If I had not read 'Speak', a story about a girl who has been raped and her struggle to speak up about it, then I would have never known how truly hard it is to speak up about a traumatic event. Before that, I assumed they kept silent either out of shame for what had happened or to protect the one who did the horrible thing to them. While this is true, it opened my eyes to the many things that really, truly happen. Just because I (and you, apparently) come from a safe, loving home does not mean that everyone does.
If we try and censor this stuff, people will just get misconceptions about how life is really like. A lot of adults I know are all like 'Oh, you're a teenager. You must smoke and wear revealing clothes and go around having sex with anyone who takes a second glance at you'. THIS IS NOT TRUE. But do they care? No, and they stereotype us because of a few and do not stop to listen and look at the ones who are not like that. Now, people like you want to take a snipe at our books, which (for all you know, apparently) could help us grow and learn from other, fictional character's mistakes instead of doing them on our own.
You said, and I directly quote from your article:
"How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it."
First, let me ask you something. Young adult fiction, according to you, is the ages 12-18, correct. But, and I quote from Wikipedia this time, that "The first recognition of young adults as a distinct group was by Sarah Trimmer who in 1802 described "young adulthood" as lasting from ages 14 to 21." Oh dear, I think that statement has just been blown that out of the water. I suppose it could be bumped down to thirteen, now, since that's when teenager-hood starts, but the point still stands. Young adult fiction is meant to encompass a broad age range, from the lowly thirteen year old just diving into the real world at large to the lofty 'just graduating from college' 21 year old. And let's face it, college students do worse things than are in the books they read, probably. Not making a general statement, a lot of college students are hardworking and keep out of trouble, but I have seen some pretty strange and disturbing things from them.
I suppose, according to your views, that reading a 'dark' book such as "Speak" (a story about a girl who has been raped and her attempts to speak up about it), "The Lovely Bones" (about a girl who is raped and murdered watching down on her family from heaven), The Alex Rider series (about a fourteen-year-old British spy), The Mortal Instruments series (about demon-slayers, but happens to have profanity-which is rampant in the real world through teens anyway, so why does it matter in a book about teens?- and is heavy in the romance department in some parts), and other similar series/books will lead me to becoming a gang member? Or that I might become an underage prostitute and have sex with every man I can get my hands on? Or maybe I ought to turn out like the stereotypical school bully, slamming people against lockers and demanding them for their lunch money?
Maybe I even ought to turn out to be a pathological murderer, or a serial rapist, or maybe even...*shock* A normal teenager that knows about and is wary of the dangers of the world!
Again, I quote from your 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. As elsewhere in American life, the 1960s changed everything. In 1967, S.E. Hinton published "The Outsiders," a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry."
I suppose the Stratemeyer Syndicate, who produced many series for young children and teenagers beginning in the 1920's doesn't exist to you? The creators of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, The Dana Girls, and many other series that are (cue the sarcasm) clearly not for children existed well before 1967. It may have not dealt with the things you have stated above, but many of these series I mentioned include kidnapping, thievery, guns, etc. I suppose this means they're too dark for children as well, never mind that children as young as 5 or 6 enjoy them? I myself read all of the original 56 Nancy Drew Mysteries in the third grade, before graduating to other books. I find myself sighing over the many holes in your logic, and I am only a teenager. What flaws must a rational adult find in your argument?
Other examples of Young Adult Literature that existed before the 1960's include, (again quoting Wikipedia) Beginning in the 1920s, it was said that "this was the first time when it became clear that the young were a separate generation",but multiple novels that fit into the YA category had been published long before. In the nineteenth century, there are several early examples that appealed to young readers including The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Waverly (1814), Oliver Twist (1838), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the subsequent stories in the 'Wonderland' world, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Kidnapped (1886), The Jungle Book (1894) and Moonfleet (1898).
A few other novels that were published around the turn of the century include Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. In 1937, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, was published, and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) also is a beloved by adolescents today. Some claim that the first real young adult novel was The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and that it opened up a whole new eye to what types of texts adolescent readers read. Following this novel, other classic texts such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye all entered the genre of Young Adult Literature as well, along with many others.
Tell me, if these are not novels/stories that are geared towards younger readers (and published long before your date of 1967), then what are? These books all deal with many of the things you have cited in your article as the Young Adult section being 'filled with'. Kidnapping, murder, pirates, thievery, violence, racism, mouthing off to superiors...
All written and published well before 1967, your supposed date of the young adult genre being created. If you need any more examples, I invite you to look here, where the entire history of the Young Adult genre is laid out in detail, along with some of the earlier, as well as more contemporary, Young Adult books.
I quote from your article again, simply because this was honestly one of my 'favorite' parts:
But whether it's language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or story-lines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch's 2005 novel, "Inexcusable," which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. "I don't, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books," the editor grumbled, "I don't want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don't want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers."
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." It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"
Now, let's analyze, children! Mrs. Gurdon (you, but I'm going to talk about you in third person right now for my other readers) obviously has some problems with the well-meaning authors and editors who want to portray life as a teenager as it really is. She also neglects to remember that adult books have probably more profanity in them than most of the teen books put together (I honestly don't know if that's true,but I once read a book that seemed so. The most expletives in a teen book I've read...actually probably the Mortal Instruments series, although I could be wrong. And that's still not a lot, by the way.)
Yes, the industry shrieks "Censorship!" because that is what the so-called 'gatekeepers' are doing. If you look at the Official Banned Books list (which contains previously banned books, no longer banned and currently banned books), you'll see that some of our most loved classics are on that list, including A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Forever by Judy Blume, most of the Harry Potter books at one point or another, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Little Red Riding Hood (yes, that's right. It really was a banned book...), The Merchant of Venice (Yes, Shakespeare on the Banned Books list, what is this world coming to?),To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, and even Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary! I noticed one of the books you cited in your article (Forever, by Judy Blume) as being a banned book.
"The real Judy Blume won millions of readers (and the disapprobation of many adults) with then-daring novels such as 1970's "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," which deals with female puberty, 1971's "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," which addresses puberty from a boy's perspective, and 1975's "Forever," in which teenagers lose their virginity in scenes of earnest practicality. Objectionable the material may be for some parents, but it's not grotesque."
I suppose "Forever" is okay, but books such as Tamora Pierce's 'Song of the Lioness' quartet (and other stories) would be too inappropriate I'm sure; because though they have never been on the banned books list (and hopefully never will be) the books have mentions of sex, a lot of violence (the first quartet's about a girl training to become a knight. Knights' jobs aren't exactly a bed of roses. It is a tough, gritty job that does include-and so the books do-killing people and battles). Though it is tastefully done, and did not offend me in any way when I first read them in the seventh grade, I suppose those would be counted as 'violence-filled' young adult books.
Anyway, I can see that you don't mind censorship one bit, but notice all those books that are currently classics and/or well-known, well publicized books. All of them. Now let's go back and take another look at the above quote (not the one about Judy Blume, the one about censorship).What you're saying (translating what you wrote into comprehensible English) is that it is neglecting their duty for parents to not control every aspect of their teenager's lives, including what they read and what they watch on TV. I don't know if you've ever been around any teenager at all (you certainly don't seem like you have), but it is my experience (with myself and with...well, hundreds of my friends) that we love to resist overbearing, controlling people. We rebel against that kind of regime simply because we wish to take control over our own lives. We are tired of hearing opinions force-fed to us and are ready to make our own decisions on what we think is appropriate and inappropriate and what we think we should read and do in our lives. This is not always okay, as seen by the many crazy stunts teenagers often do, but it is a good mindset to have, in my opinion. It shows that...*gasp!* we are growing up!
You say that censoring is called 'judgement' or 'taste' in the parenting trade.
I say this is a blatant attempt to brainwash the youth of this country into thinking that the world is a safe, nice place and that problems such as world hunger, poverty, starvation, mass murder, violence, rape, etc. don't occur in our safe little cocoons here in the United States of America. I'll say one last thing on the matter: My parents, trusting me at the age of...well, I think it was seven years old, it might be a year or two either way, trusted me enough to pick out my own books based on what interested me and trusted that I didn't grow up to be some hoodlum walking about attacking people because of what I read in the books.
And lo and behold, here I am, a semi-normal (normal is a relative term, after all!) teenager who can spot the holes in your argument from space! My parents let me read what I wished and even read some of the books I read, at my request. I understand, but greatly disdain the parents who strictly control what their children read because of what they have heard about books and their own near-sighted beliefs. Reading with an open mind, whether or not you agree with the personal beliefs of the author or the situations, language, choices, and morals presented in the book-of-choice is the pathway to a clear-sighted future where you can analyze things and actually think for yourself and make your own choices based on your own beliefs and thoughts that you have formed yourself through reading a variety of books instead of being a brainwashed clone of the government's/schools'/teachers'/parents'/others' own making.
Now, for the subject on why so many 'teen' books have so called 'inappropriate' themes in them, let's take a look at the world at large. We are surrounded by war and violence, both internationally and in our very own homes. We are subjected almost every day to movies, comics, and even commercials that have sex/overtly sexual tones in them. We hear about drugs/smoking every day. We can get these drugs on the streets, often from people we look up to and trust. Almost everything on the news today is about something bad, take your pick. Now ask yourself why teen books have so much violence in them. It's because they're *used* to it. It doesn't bother them, so seeing it in a book is nothing to them. Why censor something that teens see and deal with every day?
There are many teens subjected to the horrors of physical and sexual abuse, hooked on drugs from an early age, or in an emotionally fragile state in which they feel the need to cut themselves. Most teenagers that I know swear or are around people that swear on a daily basis. In fact, if you know a single teenager that has not been around a person that swears a lot (or at least once or twice a day); they are probably the most protected children in the world, probably cut off from civilization entirely.
Again, I quote from your article:
Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins's hyper-violent, best-selling "Hunger Games" trilogy and Sherman Alexie's prize-winning novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." "It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power," Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet."
Oh, well, that's all right then. Except that it isn't. It is no comment on Mr. Alexie's work to say that one depravity does not justify another. If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that's a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.
I think at least a little correction is in order here. You claim 'The Hunger Games' as being hyper-violent. Did you even read the series? Yes, there were battles. Yes, they were to the death. Yes, there was violence. But I hardly think that the series is "hyper-violent". You want hyper-violent, you need to go to books like Stephen King, R.L. Stine's Goosbumps, American Psycho,In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, etc. The creepy/horror books that gross and freak you out but still manage to capture your attention until the very end of the book, following which you are filled with a sense of imminent dread, thinking you are bound to have nightmares that night. The Hunger Games has not, nor will it ever, cause nightmares in the dreams of teens. It is simply a fun, dystopian series of novels. There are plenty of those to bash on, yet why do you pick the Hunger Games?
And now you bring me to the other point: The Internet. This glorious invention which allowed me to find you in the first place. I will not deny that there is some pretty disturbing stuff online, not the least of which is fanfiction. For those of you reading this who don't know what Fanfiction is, allow me to explain, briefly.Fan fiction (alternately referred to as fanfiction, fanfic, FF, or fic) is a broadly-defined term regarding stories about characters (or simply fictional characters) or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. AKA, people writing stories with other people's characters in them. Oh, don't tell me you didn't dream an imaginary plot for a Star Trek episode when you were younger, or came up with a thousand different ways that *that* book could have ended other than the way it did.
I love fanfiction, I really, really do, but some of the stuff that some of those writers come up with, no matter how well they write it, is just disturbing. Sorry, guys. But on the flip side, fanfiction has the potential to be absolutely fantastic. There are writers out there who can write the characters of a book, movie, TV Show, cartoon, play, or even a computer game as well or better than the creators of the characters themselves! I know, because I have seen some of the absolutely brilliant work that can be put out.
The Internet also connects everyone. People from all around the world can read that one little article you wrote, and my commentary on it. Actually, I'm pretty sure that people from all over the world are reading it now! But that's irrelevant. You talk of it being adults' fault that young people are encountering 'ghastly' things on the internet. Hate to break it to you, Mrs. Gurdon, teenagers account for most of the 'ghastly' stuff that gets posted on the Internet, in various places. Think on that for a moment. The parents/adults have no more control over what their child sees and encounters on the Internet than I have of stopping a drunk driver (in a different car than me) about to run into someone. AKA...none. The only thing I can think of for adults to do is to block Facebook and any other social networking sites, any and all newspapers, and heck! While we're at it, have them block Google and all the other Search Engines too! That is the only possible way I can think of for parents to stop teens from encountering things on the Internet they would rather their 'precious, innocent children' not see.
Books like 'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold do indeed contain dark and disturbing themes, but face it: Those things really do happen. Young teens do indeed get raped and killed. It happens a lot, so stop trying to censor and criticize it. It does nothing but make you look like a fool and land you in a load of trouble with outraged parents, teenagers, critics, and authors alike.
The world of Young Adult fiction is what it is, and while I do not agree with some of the books (for instance, I hate the Twilight series and all of the sudden influx of vampire/romance novels that have accompanied them) I can only sit here and defend the books that I read every day from your biased and unwarranted targeting. You may have forgotten what it is like to be a teenager, or maybe you were simply a teen that had a 'sunshine and daisies' adolescence, but rest assured, the world of teen fiction is not causing the teens to wallow in sadness and contemplate suicide.
Simply put, teenagers read these kinds of books because they want to. Not because they're emotionally disturbed, or because they are seeking comfort that someone else shares the same problems they do (although I will not deny that is not a pull factor). They're reading them because they are filled with believable, relatable characters who face real world problems just like they do. They read these so-called 'dark and disturbing' books because they want the comfort of knowing that their life cannot possibly be as bad as the character's. They want to journey to fantastic, mythical places and get caught up in battles. They want to read about teen super spies that go off and save the world, the demigods fighting a war against the Lord of Time, the girl going undercover to become a knight, a man who can make characters leap out of the pages of a book simply by reading the words. They want to know the pain of a family that has lost a child, the girl who is abused and yet keeps a tough attitude; they want to be able to relate to these hardened, scarred individuals who have seen too much of the world and what it means too soon. They want to read without experiencing, and yet they do experience it.
They learn the trials and tribulations of every one of these characters, by learning their problems and their motives and how they deal with these problems. No matter how noneducational these books might seem, they do indeed teach valuable life lessons for those who venture into the realm of books and dare to pick one up and take a peek.
The books that are written on these subjects (the suicide contemplators, the cutters, the sexually, emotionally, and physically abused, the teen drug addicts, etc), and the books full of violence and profanity are not just figments of their writer's imaginations. They are based in cold, hard truth. Stop pretending like it doesn't exist and deal with it.
I personally, do not really read many of those books, but even I cannot deny that they might do someone a world of good and push them out of their despair.
Thank you for reading my rant, if you have indeed actually read it and not just scrolled down to the end.
A Teenager in Today's World