By now you’ve probably read—or read about—this article in the Wall Street Journal about the “ever-more appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” It’s a nasty little piece—condescending, insulting, school-marmish, reactionary, and unfair.
Meghan Cox Gurdon has been the Journal’s children’s book critic for some time now. I’ve actually read and enjoyed many of her reviews, though I’ve always noticed a slightly conservative streak. For instance, I recently read a review where Mrs. Gurdon lamented the “foul language” in a book. I think I’ve written in the past about how I hate when critics cry foul about bad language in books. I mean, get real. Anyway, her newest piece is not a review but an essay of sorts, splashed on the front page of the Journal’s usually quite fine Saturday book review section. The Internet exploded with rebuttals almost immediately, with the hashtag #YAsaves respresenting all of those who disagreed with Gurdon’s attack. You can ses some of those excellent responses here.
In attacking a rash of YA novels that are “lurid” and “dark,” Gurdon goes on to produce an embarrassing and out-of-touch screed. She laments that many YA books today are filled with “kidnappings and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings,” not to mention profanity. She seems to think these “lurid” subjects are included in books only to shock and get attention. Well, this might be true in some books. But she doesn’t get it. Because overall, these books—including the ones she singles out, books by authors like Sherman Alexie and Lauren Myracle—show teenagers the world in all of its dark reality. Sure, life can be great, full of lollipops and unicorns and happy days (okay, maybe not unicorns). But it can also be shitty and awful. Bad things do happen to kids in the world. Turn on the news, open a newspaper, you’ll see. Besides (and this is true of all fiction really, not just YA), no one really wants to read a book where all the characters are happy and have perfect lives. That’s not why most people read fiction. Fiction requires conflict, drama, challenge. Not that Gurdon is arguing for such shiny-happy-only books. But in trashing a good number of books that handle dark subjects, she seems to imply that reality has no place in books for kids.
I imagine she’d find plenty to object to in my own novel—the profanity (of course), the sexual situations, drinking, and drugs. The depiction of how some teenagers treat other teenagers with cruelty and insensitivity. I can only imagine that the presence of a gay teen who actually has sexual experiences would send her into a tizzy. I didn’t include any of these things to “shock” readers. In fact, at times, I was tempted to leave things out. Things that were, perhaps, too real. But, more than anything, I wanted to paint a realistic picture of the lives of two teenage boys. Even growing up in the conservative south, it was a reality that my peers drank, had sex, did drugs, cussed, and perhaps worse. Maybe many parents think their children live a Pollyanna existence, but that’s not the reality for most kids.
Gurdon argues, fairly, that parents should be able to monitor what their children read—and protect them from certain subjects. That is parenting, after all. She then concludes by writing, “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try and bulldoze coarseness and misery into their children’s lives.” Okay, true, no family is obliged. But overprotecting children from some of life’s dark realities—well, good luck with that. I would hope most parents would resist such policing. Sure, a ten-year-old girl probably shouldn’t read a novel about a girl who’s abducted and used as a sex slave by a crazed pederast. But there are plenty of challenging, tough reads out there that would be worth such a child’s time. Presenting reality and some unpleasant truths is hardly bulldozing “coarseness and misery” into children’s lives. Chances are, kids know about this stuff anyway.
Growing up, I had a mostly happy childhood, great parents, stability. Reading about worlds where kids didn’t have the same things only made me appreciate my own life more. Reading books about kids who did drugs or who beat people up didn’t make me want to go out and so the same thing. That’s not how it works for most people. If everyone went out and copied the behavior of people in books, well, the world would be even more chaotic and nuts than it already is.
To add insult to injury, Gurdon appends her story with a list of worthy recommended books for teens. Many of these are great—especially the books by Mark Haddon and Robert C. O’Brien, two of my own favorites—but these titles barely just scratch the surface, and some aren’t even YA books at all. Of all the books being written today for teens, these are the only ones she can recommend?
In the end, I guess it’s good that Gurdon wrote her piece, because it’s getting people talking once again about the value of YA fiction. I’m not a big fan of the idea that books are worthwhile only for the lessons they impart. Books should be entertaining, they should provide a window to a new world. Or, if not showing a glimpse of an entirely new world, great books can show your own world in a new light. Despite what Gurdon believes, many of the books she dismisses do these things quite well. And they won’t scar or tarnish teenagers. They’ll show them the world as it is, even if that world is way too dark for Gurdon’s liking.