Earlier this month, Meghan Cox Gurdon made waves in the YA world with the controversial essay “Darkness Too Visible” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Gurdon suggested that contemporary YA fiction predominantly features dark themes, explicit violence and troubling subject matter, all of which may be damaging to adolescent readers—and that books exploring these topics may “normalize” self-destructive behavior. She takes issue with anti-censorship advocates, including the American Library Association, and she accuses publishers of “try[ing] to bulldoze coarseness or misery” into children’s lives.
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If you’re at all familiar with the YA community, you won’t be surprised to hear that there was an outcry. (Actually, you’d probably be more surprised if there hadn’t been.) Responses from YA authors—some of whom, like Cheryl Rainfield, Jackie Morse Kessler and Sherman Alexie*, were mentioned in the article, while others, like Maureen Johnson, Libba Bray and Laurie Halse Anderson were not—rapidly began to appear, and the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter has generated upward of 34,000 tweets and is, at the time of this writing, still going strong.
Like the majority of the YA community, I disagree with Gurdon:
1. Saying that most contemporary YA fiction is comprised of “hideously distorted portrayals of what life is” is patently false. First, it assumes that all readers are coming to the book with the same worldview and experience base. Second, it’s using a small sample of books to make a broad generalization, which is as silly as citing 2010’s 14 books about Abraham Lincoln as proof that most adult books are about Lincoln. Third, she ignores Meg Cabot and Maureen Johnson; John Green and David Levithan; E. Lockhart, Francisco X. Stork and the boatloads of other authors who write lighter contemporary YA fiction.
2. Rather than a source of potential trauma, dark themes are a safe way of exploring an often-scary world for teenagers lucky enough to live in a nurturing environment, while providing a reassuring lifeline to those whose real-life worlds include horrors that should only be found in fiction. Also, moments of compassion, honor, bravery, loyalty and hope shine that much brighter when contrasted with the darker aspects of our world
3. Speaking as someone who did lead a relatively sheltered childhood—as one of the young people that Gurdon is purportedly concerned with protecting—Flowers in the Attic didn’t make incest look like a viable (or attractive) option to my tween self; I didn’t want to break out booze or a roque mallet after reading Stephen King’s The Shining; and I didn’t use Judy Blume’s Blubber, Brock Cole’s The Goats or Stephen King’s Carrie as bully training manuals. (Though Carrie did provide some related catharsis. My tween years = not fun.)
4. A parent who wants some amount of control over the content of the books her child reads is completely within her rights. That is entirely between her and her child. When she tries to control what someone else’s child reads, though—when she tries to make someone else’s child conform to her own moral code—that is a problem. Situations exactly like that are what result in the Top Ten Challenged Books list that the ALA “delights” in releasing annually.
5. Publishers aren’t trying to “bulldoze coarseness and misery” anywhere. They’re in business to make money. If there’s a demand for a certain kind of book—whether it be vampires or realistic issues or dystopia or comedy—they’re going to try and fill that demand. Similarly, librarians aren’t trying to be bulldozers either. They’re just trying to serve the patron, to answer the question or find the book—without judgment or assumption—for the patron, whoever she (or he) may be.
*If you’re only planning on reading one of these essays, make it Sherman Alexie’s. It’s blistering.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.