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Doom and Gloom on Young Adults' Bookshelves?
June 13, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Is contemporary young adult fiction too dark for its intended audience? Meghan Cox Gurdon, writing in the Wall Street Journal thinks so. Publishers Weekly blogger Josie Leavitt disagrees, as does YA author Sherman Alexie. Other reactions here and here. Via The Reader's Advisor Online Blog.
posted by Daily Alice (150 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gosh. Must be some damn kids on Meghan Cox Gurdon's lawn.

And seriously. She's complaining about books for 13 year olds, and is actively screening/censoring what her daughter reads at that age? Good luck with that.

Although 13 is still a far cry from adulthood, it's not a completely immature age. Censorship is not going to be a remotely effective tactic for very much longer, and will almost certainly be more damaging than the alternative.

Teenagers have always been dark and brooding. That's sort of just how the horomone/puberty thing works. Drowning teens in literature that suggests that they should not be dark and brooding is outright abusive.

Oh, and the subtle nod that books will make your kids gay? Classy.

Go back to the 1950s, Ms Gurdon. You evidently do not like 2011, and we don't very much like you either.
posted by schmod at 8:00 AM on June 13, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'm just glad nobody told the parents of my 12-year-old self that all those nice looking Piers Anthony books were absolutely stuffed with sex.
posted by theodolite at 8:01 AM on June 13, 2011 [17 favorites]


"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."

I couldn't stomach this article after reading these lines. Its such an old argument (the world is going to hell and our children are losing their innocence oh my). Like the Slate article linked says there has always been trashy "young adult" books although I don't remember them being called that when I was a teen.

I truly just don't think my mom was ever aware of all the horrors in say V.C. Andrews books which were full of rape, incest etc. These kinds of books are hardly new although hopefully their better written and more nuanced now.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:03 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Amy Freeman must not have looked very hard if she could only find books about vampires and suicide.

I particularly liked the WSJ sidebar about books for girls (starring girls only!) and books for boys (written by AND starring boys only!).
posted by jeather at 8:03 AM on June 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


So I guess Flowers in the Attic wasn't to dark for me to read back when I was that age? And Interview with the Vampire? And Clan of the Cavebear? All books I read when I was 13-14.
posted by Windigo at 8:04 AM on June 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


I never really read YA novels until I was actually an adult - at 13 I had already read through the Earth's Children series 2 or 3 times - at one point my mom became concerned and asked if I was 'interested' in the sex bits or if I skipped them. I totally and brazenly lied - I don't think she could miss the fact that I had dog-eared the relevant pages.
posted by muddgirl at 8:06 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Come on -- Judy Blume's Forever and V.C. Andrews were both rites of passage for practically everyone I knew.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


My grandmother was the person to introduce me to VC Andrews (at 12 or 13), via Flowers in the Attic. I knew she had never liked my mother, but I don't think she meant it as a threat.
posted by jeather at 8:09 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon" - G.K. Chesterton

I don't think young adult books are much different. Being a teenager isn't (typically) exactly fun. Dark YA fiction doesn't tell the readers that life can be awful, it tells them that even when life's awful you can still win in the end.
posted by DRMacIver at 8:11 AM on June 13, 2011 [33 favorites]


"Tonight, on a very special Blossom..."

Anybody else remember Tipper Gore's campaign to get warning labels on rap albums?

*sigh*
posted by likeso at 8:13 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


From the time I was old enough to have a library card, I was allowed to read anything I wanted, unless it was poorly written (as judged by my mom) - that is, bad grammar, structure, etc. We had a house packed full of books when I was a kid, and I mostly didn't read YA fiction when I was a YA, because there was a lot of other stuff to keep me busy, book-wise. But a kid reading even not-awesome books (or comics or graphic novels) is better than a kid not reading at all.
posted by rtha at 8:17 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dude, sometimes I still think that Robert Cormier's novels were the bleakest, creepiest things I've ever read. And I read a lot.

There's a particular way things can be scary when you're young, which is: you sense the danger of the thing, but also you sense its size and complexity. You know both that it is bad and that you don't understand it, it is too big for you to understand it, but that the things you don't understand are bad, too.

As I say it, I wonder if this feeling is what people respond to in Lovecraft.
posted by penduluum at 8:17 AM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


I read A Clockwork Orange when I was 14. I don't think I ever read a "young adult" novel in my life.
posted by dortmunder at 8:21 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Things just keep getting worse and worse. I hear this year the ninth graders in our school district were required to read some kind of trash about these two teenagers who wanted to get married, but their parents wouldn't let them, and they ended up killing themselves! What kind of message is this sending to our children?
posted by Daily Alice at 8:23 AM on June 13, 2011 [59 favorites]


This really annoys me. I've been participating in a YA book club on Bitch Magazine's site with a few other authors and we've read some dark stuff...none of which I would censor from my daughter or a person of any age. If anything, reading dark/scandalous books as a child gave me tools and a vocabulary with which to deal with the darkness and scandal of my own life at the time.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:24 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Tools and vocabulary, exactly so.
posted by penduluum at 8:28 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm an avid reader of YA lit, and I haven't even heard of most of the books mentioned in the WSJ article. Perhaps she went looking for books to prove her point? It also really irritated me that the "Books We Can Recommend" sidebar was divided by gender. Gee, maybe we can just hand L.M. Montgomery to all the girls and Mark Twain to all the boys and call it a day! *grumble*
posted by epj at 8:29 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dear Meghan Cox Gurdon,

I was 14 when I first read Trainspotting. Despite your predictions I didn't turn into a heroin addict. Get over yourself.

- Mister Fabulous
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2011 [12 favorites]


Oh.. kids don't need fictional stories to conjure up terribly depressing and dark world views. Turn on the news, read about the latest mass poisoning of the earth and how many people where killed this week in Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria/Iran/Mexico/US/Russia by other people.
Young women don't need parents censoring their reading of dark stuff when they face a 50%-75% chance of experiencing some form of sexual abuse (most often by family or friends)... there is no fucking end to dark depressing stuff that has nothing to do with YA books. Those books do give kids something exciting to read that is pretty darn safe. You know how you can tell it's fiction? Everything turns out ok in the end(usually), unlike real life where we have to be content with the "bad guys" getting away with it sometimes, where things are in shades of confusing grey and sometimes the best thing that can be done is the least worst thing. YA books are probably not bleak enough to reflect reality.
posted by edgeways at 8:31 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Whenever I hear/read stuff like this I just have to remind myself that the author is projecting. This isn't about young adults losing their innocence. This is about Meghan Cox Gurdon trying to reclaim her own innocence.
posted by jnrussell at 8:32 AM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Parent of teen vastly overestimates their power and ability to affect development of said teen, obsesses over choices of reading material. Details not at 11, but apparently in the culture section.

One thing I have noticed is that some parents — and anecdotally, especially socially conservative parents — is that they have a hugely exaggerated view of their roles in their teenage children's lives. It has always been my view, from the time I was actually that age and only further validated since then, that by the time someone is 13 or 14, their parents, absent any really dramatic action (which typically can only do more harm than good), are no longer the dominant influence and driver of their lives. It's — for better or worse — much more about peers, and then eventually about self-actualization.

The whole premise of the article, which seems to be that restricting a teenager's access to reading material is an Important Parental Responsibility with grave consequences if it's not done right, is ludicrous.

That said, I can understand to a certain degree the difficulty to getting a gift out of the YA books section, particularly if you are shopping based on covers. But maybe that's because the books are meant to be bought by readers for themselves, and that, unless you are buying a book that you have read yourself, and has significance to you that you want to share with someone else, they're maybe not the smartest gift idea. They're meant to be personal.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:35 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well I read Once Is Not Enough at 13 and it made an impact on me. I vowed never to read crap like that again.
posted by pianomover at 8:36 AM on June 13, 2011


Too dark? Wow, could you be more racist?
posted by Eideteker at 8:37 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


young adult fiction

Young Adults are people aged 21 to 25. These books are for 10-14 year olds, who would be more accurately described as Elderly Children.
posted by jonmc at 8:38 AM on June 13, 2011 [13 favorites]


The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as "someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen." (from WP)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


"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."
When I was a teenager, there wasn't any literature aimed directly at children from the ages of 12 to 18, so I read adult stuff. And it was plenty dark. What's changed is not teens or their interests. It's that a market in true "young adult" fiction has emerged in recent years, whereas in the past what was called YA was aimed at 11-year-olds, not teenagers.
posted by craichead at 8:44 AM on June 13, 2011


I was 14 when I first read Trainspotting. Despite your predictions I didn't turn into a heroin addict.

I was younger than that when I first read It, and to this day, my first response to getting lost is always to involve myself in a magical gangbang of some sort. So I guess I turned out okay. Thanks, Stephen King!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:47 AM on June 13, 2011 [29 favorites]


...in a magical gangbang of some sort....

a magical pre-teen definitely-not-legal gang-bang at that... oh the things a library card let's you experience.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:53 AM on June 13, 2011


Young Adults are people aged 21 to 25. These books are for 10-14 year olds, who would be more accurately described as Elderly Children.

Most of the 21 to 25 year olds I know could be more accurately described as elderly children.
posted by rocket88 at 8:55 AM on June 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


Dude, sometimes I still think that Robert Cormier's novels were the bleakest, creepiest things I've ever read. And I read a lot.

Oh man, seriously. I loved Cormier's books. The Chocolate War and I Am The Cheese sound like they're fun kiddie romps. They're... not.
posted by kmz at 8:58 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I agree with the idea that young kids can read about creepy stuff and turn out alright.

However, the argument is often (in this thread, even) advanced in a way that suggests the things you read, the fantasies you engage in, have no effect on how you develop into an adult.

I guess that might be the case; I'm not familiar with whatever research is being done on the subject, and I don't even really know enough about it to Google it. (What's this field called? Literary psychology?) But I don't think the assumption should be made implicitly. It isn't obvious.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:58 AM on June 13, 2011


Flowers in the Attic, Clan of the Cave Bear, and A Clockwork Orange are three books I distinctly remember seeing people carrying around in the 8th and 9th grades when I was a kid. I remember the english teacher seeing the Cave Bear book on a student's desk, asking if that was in the library, and making some comment about 'pornography' when the student said she brought it from home. And, really, none of those were specifically "young adult" titles. It is almost like the content of Young Adult products changed over time to line up with what the customers actually want to read - crazy, I know! It's too bad that when capitalism actually succeeds in ways that need a censorship-free, knowledge-expanding society, everybody gets all cognitive-dissonancey.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:58 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the Sherman Alexie link: I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.
posted by BlooPen at 9:00 AM on June 13, 2011 [19 favorites]


It's so nice when the Wall Street Journal label is up front. Unless the article is purely factual, without a single drop of opinion, I can just ignore it.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:00 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mister Fabulous: "I was 14 when I first read Trainspotting. Despite your predictions I didn't turn into a heroin addict. Get over yourself."

Heh. Actually, that's a great example, and I always chuckle whenever I see Trainspotting brought out as an example of a book/film that could encourage drug use among those who read/watch it, thanks to its realistic portrayal of heroin addiction.

Of course, most of us who have actually watched the film now regard heroin as a sort of Lovecraftian horror beyond comprehension. I don't think I've ever seen a movie with a more effective anti-drug message.

And yet, it's consistently censored and boycotted. Sigh.
posted by schmod at 9:03 AM on June 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


The only saving grace I had in a nightmarish experience growing-up was that my screwed-up father was actually proud of the fact that I was reading "non-age-appropriate material".

I dare her to censor the kid - last I checked, public libraries still allow anyone to walk-in, pickup a book from any shelf and read it right there...

Hell - the fact that her kid is reading, is amazing - I cannot get mine to get off YouTube and video games long enough to read a book cover-to-cover.

What an idiot.
posted by jkaczor at 9:03 AM on June 13, 2011


You know how you can tell it's fiction? Everything turns out ok in the end(usually)

Erm, actually one of the issues that the WSJ article author has with YA books is that, in her opinion, too many of them lack happy endings. Which is to say, they're probably too realistic.

Actually I think that's one of the interesting contrasts between YA and children's lit; in true "children's" books — aimed at prepubescents, for lack of a well-defined age range — it's almost a requirement that the ending not be depressing. In YA this requirement is basically removed, and a lot of authors seem to have experimented with very dark endings as a result. (Not always with good results; I've never read Once Is Not Enough but nothing about it makes me want to or wish that I had.)

My understanding of recent books in the genre, though (which is mostly indirect, but "YA" books seem to be having a greater and greater cultural impact and getting a lot of older readership), is that the dark ending may be a bit cliché and played-out, along with really heavy drug use. Maybe it's not quite as edgy as it used to be, I'm not sure. Perhaps this is a sign of the genre maturing and becoming less of a reactionary response to lifting children's-lit taboos and more of a legitimate genre in its own right.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:03 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is contemporary young adult fiction too dark for its intended audience?

Impossible. There is none such darkness as in your standard "elderly child."

The Chocolate War

One of the scariest books I read as an elderly child, I think. And I had to read it for school.

Leon Uris also always seemed to throw in a good graphic rape or brutal murder into his stories.

I remember the english teacher seeing the Cave Bear book on a student's desk, asking if that was in the library, and making some comment about 'pornography' when the student said she brought it from home.

Clan of the Cave Bear was assigned reading for freshmen at my high school. Lucky me, I suppose.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2011


However, the argument is often (in this thread, even) advanced in a way that suggests the things you read, the fantasies you engage in, have no effect on how you develop into an adult.

I can't prove a negative. The onus is on the finger-waggers and pearl-clutchers to show that dark stories have a negative effect on maturity.
posted by muddgirl at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2011


... and my all-time favourite "YA" book? "The Butterfly Revolution"
posted by jkaczor at 9:07 AM on June 13, 2011


You know how you can tell it's fiction? Everything turns out ok in the end(usually)

Bridge to Tarabithia? A Separate Peace? Native Son?!?!

If you define "OK in the end" as "the universe doesn't implode," than yeah, I'm with you.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:07 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Go Ask Alice was practical forced on us when I was a young teen, and that book is nothing but bummed out hippies having kinky sex for money.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:11 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love dark young adult fiction, the moment where pretense is thrown aside. You can hear the author rubbing withered hands together, chuckling, "Hell-o, kiddies, the time of fun and games is over. Here come the real tears, the kind no-one comes to dry, the ones that just trickle down inside of you to become black brine. Leave those happy endings behind."

And then you get an earwig from Schusterman or Sleator and it does not come out from the other side.
posted by adipocere at 9:13 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, in Bridge to Tarabithia and A Separate Peace everything does turn out OK in the end. Just because someone dies, doesn't mean it's a bad ending. That's kind of the point of both novels.
posted by muddgirl at 9:14 AM on June 13, 2011


I don't know. Maybe Meghan Cox Gurdon is doing teens a favor. Reading Christopher Pike under the covers after my parents went to bed was my own kind of rebellion as an otherwise goody-two-shoes kid. I wouldn't want to deprive anyone else that pleasure by stripping away the taboo!
posted by katillathehun at 9:14 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The time to censor you kids is right before conception. After that is largely out of your control.
posted by srboisvert at 9:20 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read Catcher in the Rye in third grade, and I hardly ever murder anyone.
posted by Mister_A at 9:26 AM on June 13, 2011 [11 favorites]


Oh yeah. Chocolate War stands out in my mind as probably the bleakest view of human relationships and peer pressure, a theme also central to The Crucible and Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. In science fiction there was John Christopher's horrific The Tripods, Fisk's A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair, and in English class, A Canticle for Leibowitz. (While Star Wars was the Elephant in the bedroom, my childhood involved exposure to Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes, and the PBS Lathe of Heaven sticks out in my mind.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:35 AM on June 13, 2011


Sherman Alexie is a young adult author?

Oh. Oh, I see. He did the one YA book recently, it sold well, so he's going to do another. Still, that's hardly what I'd call his focus.
posted by furiousthought at 9:37 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


However, the argument is often (in this thread, even) advanced in a way that suggests the things you read, the fantasies you engage in, have no effect on how you develop into an adult.
Ok, but that's a bit of a false dichotomy. It's not like there are only two possible arguments: it doesn't matter what kids read, or children must read wholesome, joyful books or they will be turned from wholesome, joyful children into miserable self-mutilators. Teenagers are perfectly capable of discovering darkness without the help of YA literature. I think you could argue that YA literature helps them understand and deal with the darkness that we all must confront.

That isn't to deny that YA literature might spread certain particular self-destructive behaviors. I've always felt that a lot of literature about eating disorders might function that way, and I wish authors would be a little more careful about how they depict eating disorders in books aimed at young women and girls. But that's a case by case thing, as far as I'm concerned. It's not that "darkness" is necessarily bad or that Hunger Games is going to make anyone want to assassinate the president with a bow and arrow.
posted by craichead at 9:39 AM on June 13, 2011


I particularly liked the WSJ sidebar about books for girls (starring girls only!) and books for boys (written by AND starring boys only!).

That particularly got to me, too. Particularly since Z for Zachariah was one of my favorite books as an early-teen boy. It seems completely ridiculous that books with male protagonists are supposed to only (or chiefly) be for boys and books with female protagonists are supposed to be exclusively for girls. Not only does that seriously limit the breadth of available literature, it further suggests/reinforces that only members of your own gender can do cool things.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can I stop reading at the point where (in the first link) the author declares that there was no such thing as YA fiction (aka aimed at 12-18) before the 1960s?

Appearently, they have never heard of L.M. Montgomery, who wrote novels aimed at 12-18 year olds, starting in 1908. (Sure, some of us may have been younger than 12 when we first read them, but the reading level of her work is more like grade 7 or 8 than grade 3). Not to mention Treasure Island, Kidnapped...
posted by jb at 9:42 AM on June 13, 2011


In the last few months I'v become casual friends with a younger guy (he's 16, i'm 28) at my church. We both like sci-fi and fantasy, and he's really into photography. A few weeks ago I went through all of my books and put a big stack in the "give away" pile. I posted the titles on facebook, and he left me a comment saying he wanted some of them.

I decided that as much as I wanted to go with my first instinct (to shelter him), he deserved to be treated as an adult, so I put the books he wanted into a grocery bag. Before I handed them to him I said "Some of these books contain scenes of adult content! Here you go!"
posted by janepanic at 9:44 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her...
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago
This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new
The author makes free with language that can't be reprinted in a newspaper.

Oooh! Looks like the WSJ has written a short YA novel about parents growing up in the Victorian Age. I can't wait to see how it turns out for these sheltered kids. Exciting!

I particularly liked the WSJ sidebar about books for girls (starring girls only!) and books for boys (written by AND starring boys only!).

I have fallen in love with Scott Westerfeld's books, which include gender bending and complex social and identity issues we're going to face with new technologies. I wish I had these kinds of books growing up, and look forward to introducing my future kids to them.
posted by formless at 9:45 AM on June 13, 2011


Recently, my mother was saying how she monitored closely what I read when I was 11, and claimed to have read everything I had on my shelves or borrowed from the library. And I pointed out to her (22 years after the fact) that she didn't screen the books that I left on sitting her shelves when I wasn't reading them - like the whole Clan of the Cave Bear series (very good introduction to pre-historic herbology).

But that was when I was 11 - by the time I was 14, almost all novels I read came from the plain old adult shelves, like The Mists of Avalon or Tamlin (all about college, birth control and fairies), and I did a book report on The Plains of Passage - though the teacher asked me not to tell him the end, as he hadn't read it yet.
posted by jb at 9:50 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dunno, I found His Dark Materials to be a bit ....dark I guess. I'd let a 12 year old read them, but they were dark.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:51 AM on June 13, 2011


Oh, yes, because the /real/ future is so very, very bright.

My sunglasses, they no longer work, the future is so bright.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:05 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


If she is addressing people her age (and mine) as parents and referring to the innocence of "our" childhood literature, she is clearly is talking out her ass. One of my favorite books as a preteen was Don't Hurt Laurie, about a girl being horribly abused by her stepmother. It doesn't get much darker then the scene where said stepmother nearly kills her with a fireplace poker. And it was hardly unusual in teen lit at the time.
posted by emjaybee at 10:08 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I didn't read much YA fiction specifically. I read everything and some YA stuff crept in there (oddly, I'm the only SF fan in my immediate circle who didn't read the Thomas Covenant books in my teens. Now that shit's dark). One book I recall was about a boy trying to make friends with a girl in his neighborhood who is completely shut off from everyone - because she watched her father (whole family?) killed by the Nazis or dragged off to a prison camp in WWII.

It did not have a happy ending.

I read this about 30 years ago, so I'm pretty sure that Gurdon is talking out of her ass if she thinks this is a new phenomenon.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:16 AM on June 13, 2011


janepanic: Before I handed them to him I said "Some of these books contain scenes of adult content! Here you go!"

His reply: "Wo-HOO!!"

--

I borrowed freely of my older brothers' sci-fi collection, and my parents' very broad book collection, when I was a wee lad. I don't think anyone filtered what I read. And you know, the end result is almost as bad as can be imagined: I was nearly unemployable -- and a blathering bore -- when I finished school. That's right, I went to college and got an English degree.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone who thinks YA fiction is "too dark" is woefully out of touch with today's teens.
posted by Anima Mundi at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2011


Grimm's Fairy Tales. Death, mutilation, cannibalism, ... the list goes on.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2011


The huge weakness of this article is that it lumps a whole mess of things under the heading of "dark" that often have very little in common.

"The Hunger Games" is dark; it's teenagers killing each other in a totalitarian regime, in a game where only one will survive. But the violence is presented in an action-adventure kind of context. It's the kind of violence that's in the big summer movies that most preteen kids go to see.

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" is dark. But it's presented with a really strong (and really funny, in spite of the awful stuff) narrative voice that serves to blunt the worst parts; and it's almost completely without melodrama or self-pity.

A lot of the really dark problem-novel-type books, the ones that really are lurid and sensationalistic, are being read by the kids who really love lurid and sensationalistic stuff. Sometimes these are kids with a lot of dark stuff going on in their lives; more frequently, perhaps, there's a vicarious thrill in seeing just how bad things can get -- paired (usually) with triumph over the terrible things. One of the most popular books among the teens I work with is A Child Called It, which is a horrible story of child abuse.

Teens are good at self-censoring (and books lend themselves better to self-censoring than TV or movies, I think; it's easy to walk away from them). I trust the teens I work with to be able to understand their own limits, and to read the books that give them what they need and put down the ones that are too cruel or too overwhelming. This is because I actually read YA literature and work with teens every day, rather than just passing through a Barnes and Noble and reading the book jackets to decide that all YA books are too dark -- as Meghan Cox Gurdon apparently did.
posted by Jeanne at 10:27 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


If we don't desensitize our children when they're young, how will we prepare them for the atrocities they will commit in our name as adults?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2011


Shortly after my first child was born, I was mentioning to a friend of mine that I hoped the child would share my love of books, and that as they got older, I was looking forward to sharing the books I loved with them. Offhandedly, I mentioned that I would probably have to be careful with what to share when, as some of the books on my bookshelf deal with "adult themes" - lots of violence, gore, incest (and that's just the George Martin), etc.

My friend, who is older with grown children, said that his policy was simple - once the child could read on their own, they were welcome to any book from his shelf, with one rule - put it back if you don't like it.

I think his rule is a good one.
posted by never used baby shoes at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


She seems to think 1967 is less than 40 years ago. Possibly indicative.
posted by howfar at 10:32 AM on June 13, 2011


This is because I actually read YA literature and work with teens every day, rather than just passing through a Barnes and Noble and reading the book jackets to decide that all YA books are too dark -- as Meghan Cox Gurdon apparently did.

Meghan Cox Gurdon did no such thing. Meghan Cox Gurdon spoke to a parent who went to a B&N and decided there were no non-dark YA books there for her daughter.
posted by jeather at 10:34 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Frankly, as a parent I've always been a much bigger hardass about their exposure to the Disney princess-to-sassymouthed teen juggernaut than anything involving abuse or a dystopian future. - Williams in Salon link.

If anything, the Disney/TVsitcom dream-world scenarios are desensitizing our children. Sure, they can learn empathy for the stylish pretty kid who doesn't get to be the top cheerleader, but they learn nothing about the kids sitting next to them in their classes -- let alone the masses of real people who inhabit this world. ... Oh, yeah, I guess they when they grow up they will just have to live in security-controlled walled communities -- to match their securely walled minds.
posted by Surfurrus at 10:38 AM on June 13, 2011


I remember Don't hurt Laurie - I only read it once or twice, but it has stuck with me for over 20 years, which is surely the measure of a very good book. It was also the first book I had ever read about child abuse; a few years after I had read it, I learned that my mother had been very similarly abused by her mother - I don't think I could have even understood what that meant without having read the novel first.

Sherman Alexie writes that teens need dark novels because they have dark lives. I would add to that that lots of kids and teens who don't have bad things actually happening to them need to learn about such things through the safe (and private) medium of literature - as well as good, but adult, things like sex and commitment and parenthood. I have never been abused or sexually assaulted, but I have a better understanding and greater sympathy for those who have because of literature. I have also never been Jewish in the Ukraine in 1903 or black in Mississipi in the 1930s, but at least I have an inkling of what it was like. I learned about racism and war and death - and crushes and sex - when I read Summer of My German Soldier and its sequel. I hope I never experience any of those things personally (or at least, that the death thing waits a long time), but I'm a better person for having read about them - and I needed to read about them when I was relatively young, because certainly sex would soon be a reality.

And like emjaybee points out - all of these novels I've cited are from the 1980s or earlier. Even the young adult fiction of the 1900-1920s - like Anne of Green Gables or Rilla of Ingleside depicted neglected (and abused) children, and the horror of WWI - or in Little Women, a starving family (whom they give their breakfast to). The Narnia series - ostensibly for children, written in the 1950s - has slavery, genocide (against the dryads and talking animals), death, madness - and ends with the destruction of the whole world. Not exactly all light and roses - and all the better for it. Good fiction has always had a layer of darkness - otherwise the light cannot be seen for lack of contrast.
posted by jb at 10:38 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


It just floors me that anyone thinks this stuff is new. Stephen King has long been adored by 12 year olds, as has VC Andrews. Horror flicks are often aimed squarely at teenagers, and have been, traditionally. It's fun being scared, seeing the dark parts of humanity. Not to mention the fact that kids are often sexual animals, no matter how passionately their parents would like to deny it.

This stuff comes up all the time on YA writing communities. Older writers, often moms, pop in and ask if it's too dark or edgy to include swearing in their books. Which is . . . weird.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:46 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


“Issue” books have always been popular with teens. They’re popular because they discuss things kids feel or talk about. While I didn’t have a drug problem and was not a runaway, I loved Go Ask Alice.

I really hope that she's picked up recently. That's some funny shit.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 10:49 AM on June 13, 2011


Sherman Alexie writes that teens need dark novels because they have dark lives. I would add to that that lots of kids and teens who don't have bad things actually happening to them need to learn about such things through the safe (and private) medium of literature - as well as good, but adult, things like sex and commitment and parenthood.

exactly! When I first learned what rape was, it was a sort of terrifying thing out there that I had no defenses against, except fear. Once I actually read the stories of actual victims, it was still awful and sad, but it was no longer nebulous. It was a specific evil thing that had to be fought, and could be fought, even with difficulty. Those girls lived; rape did not erase them or break them forever. Their stories gave me courage.

Likewise, death, sex, and all the giant difficult things you learn to deal with growing up. Stories give you a chance to confront them in a setting where they can't actually hurt you, and so let you grapple with them safely.

I think this makes adults like Gurdon uncomfortable because they don't like to admit that those things exist or that children must learn to deal with them, eventually. Perhaps seeing book after book on the YA shelves about ecologically ruined worlds where children struggle to survive leads to some uncomfortable questions as to why our children might be worried about a future like that. Perhaps books about teens who are under constant surveillance, or valued only for their bodies, or subject to exploitation by adults, raises similarly uncomfortable feelings.
posted by emjaybee at 10:53 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I first read Pet Sematary (and subsequently about ALL of King's other works, at the time) when I was, oh, 13 or 14. And I somehow managed to grow up (mostly) normal. Yeesh.
posted by antifuse at 10:53 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]




I always love when these self-appointed literature guardians pop up periodically to gnash their teeth about some new horrific trend in fiction of YA fiction. They always conveniently ignore the supposedly "safe" literature. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are full-bore nightmares, full of sadism and violence, implied and otherwise. I devoured those books when I was young and I read and re-read them, dozens if not hundreds of times, and then hunted down Martin Gardner's annotations and read and re-read those. If you are a kid who is let loose in the Bible without "parental supervision," as I was, you will quite likely come away from it with a very warped and dark view of interpersonal relations and human history, as well as an unremitting free-floating sense of hopelessness. Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child, my favorite children's book, has many characters that die suddenly and violently, has a relentless theme of abandonment, and is beset with an overall all-encompassing sense of impending doom. Yet these books and others like them are paraded in front of kids all the time as examples of non-lurid, non-threatening literature that will preserve the children's tenderheartedness, shield them from coarseness and misery, and most of all, save them from the librarians, who, according to Meghan Cox Gurdon, look forward to nothing more than to shove foul language and dirty smut down innocent kids' throats.
posted by blucevalo at 10:58 AM on June 13, 2011


Ok, but that's a bit of a false dichotomy. It's not like there are only two possible arguments: it doesn't matter what kids read, or children must read wholesome, joyful books or they will be turned from wholesome, joyful children into miserable self-mutilators.

That's more or less what I was getting at. If we're going to discuss how books affect people, we need to talk about what power books have in what situations.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:59 AM on June 13, 2011


I don't remember if there just wasn't any YA books when I was a teenager or I just totally skipped that stuff. I remember jumping from Willard Price's "Adventure" series aged around 8 to reading everything on my dad's bookshelves (Niven, Pournelle, Tolkien, Lovecraft, Blackwood and other assorted stuff) around 9 or 10 and then graduating to my own tastes a few years later.

Can anyone else in their mid-thirties tell me if that experience is odd? Were there YA books in the late 80's/early 90's and I just missed them? If they did exist what were they like?
posted by longbaugh at 11:02 AM on June 13, 2011


I re-read the Little House on the Prairie books last year. I read them all a bunch of times when I was little, but hadn't picked them up in probably 20 years or more. The Long Winter gave me bad dreams for a couple of nights - as a kid, I guess I didn't pick up on how they were actually starving to death (or if I did, I don't remember). It was interesting to me to think about what stuck out for me as a child reading those books, and what leaps out now, as an adult reader - they're actually much darker to me now than they were to me as a kid reader.
posted by rtha at 11:06 AM on June 13, 2011


Can anyone else in their mid-thirties tell me if that experience is odd? Were there YA books in the late 80's/early 90's and I just missed them? If they did exist what were they like?

There was YA, but it was called "teen fiction" and it was often aimed at girls. Some of my favorite teen authors from that period were LJ Smith, who wrote books that can only be called proto-Twilight novels (but feminist! one girl doesn't become a vampire because she wants to go to college!) and is still writing today, and Cynthia Voigt, who wrote fairly dark realist fiction. Her most famous are the Tillerman cycle, which starts with a novel called Homecoming, about a 12-year-old girl whose mother abandons her and her three siblings in a mall parking lot. They travel across the country to find a place to live. Subsequent novels follow their growth through to adulthood.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:06 AM on June 13, 2011


It's Never Lurgi I read that book (it's called Alan and Naomi ) as well, many times. As soon as I read your description, an image of Naomi hissing "Enterrez les morts et fermez la porte." popped into my head. Book definitely made an impact.
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:08 AM on June 13, 2011


longbaugh: "Can anyone else in their mid-thirties tell me if that experience is odd? Were there YA books in the late 80's/early 90's and I just missed them? If they did exist what were they like?"

I don't know if the experience is odd, but I share it. I skipped right from young kids' books to adult-level material with no clear memory of anything in between. I'm sure that some of that is just confabulation blurring the transition, but also pretty sure that's only some of it. I mostly remember books being marked up as "young adult" at the time were mostly something my sister read; I was too busy mostly pillaging the library's sci-fi stacks from probably 10ish through the bulk of my teen years.
posted by Drastic at 11:10 AM on June 13, 2011


Can anyone else in their mid-thirties tell me if that experience is odd? Were there YA books in the late 80's/early 90's and I just missed them? If they did exist what were they like?
There was something called "YA," but it was really aimed at kids in junior high. There wasn't a whole lot of literature aimed at and read by teenagers. This was enough of a problem that when I worked at a bookstore in the mid-90s, we maintained a shelf of books for high school students, comprised mostly of adult books with young protagonists.
Cynthia Voigt, who wrote fairly dark realist fiction. Her most famous are the Tillerman cycle, which starts with a novel called Homecoming, about a 12-year-old girl whose mother abandons her and her three siblings in a mall parking lot.
That's interesting. I loved Homecoming and Dicey's Song passionately, but I think of them more as old-style YA, aimed at pre-teens. Maybe it's just that I was a pre-teen when I read them.
posted by craichead at 11:14 AM on June 13, 2011


Dear Meghan Cox Gurdon,

Due to an underpaid/incompetent librarian at my elementary school, our tiny library had the entire run of MAUS. Upon the discovery of a comic book, 8-year-old thsmchnekllsfascists devoured them.

As you can see, I am quite clearly not a nazi.

Thank you for your time, and I hope that you find a more satisfying hobby-horse in the future.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:15 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't remember if there just wasn't any YA books when I was a teenager or I just totally skipped that stuff. I remember jumping from Willard Price's "Adventure" series aged around 8 to reading everything on my dad's bookshelves (Niven, Pournelle, Tolkien, Lovecraft, Blackwood and other assorted stuff) around 9 or 10 and then graduating to my own tastes a few years later.

Isn't Tolkein considered YA? If not LOTR, than The Hobbit surely. It's a kid's tale.

Most of the stuff I associate as YA is sci-fi/fantasy: A Wrinkle in Time; Wizard of Earthsea, etc.

I don't remember if there just wasn't any YA books when I was a teenager or I just totally skipped that stuff.

Most of us here were likely advanced readers and went through the YA stuff early and got into the grown-up sex and violence by the time we were teenagers. I read the whole Hardy Boys and Danny Dunn series by the time I was 4. I read a fair mount of Stephen King and Agatha Christie as a pre-teen and teenager though. The "YA" genre is pretty amorphous. Just because it involves teenagers doesn't make it YA, and some of the stuff with adults with Stephen King and Agatha Christie seems more YA than actual YA.

YA.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:16 AM on June 13, 2011


That's interesting. I loved Homecoming and Dicey's Song passionately, but I think of them more as old-style YA, aimed at pre-teens. Maybe it's just that I was a pre-teen when I read them.

The characters age through to 18-or-so over the course of the books, and they're pretty sophisticated in terms of both lengths and stylistics. They'd be completely appropriate for mid-teen readers, whereas, say, a lot of Judy Blume's stuff would have been more appropriate for prepubescent readers.

You're right, though--a lot of books aimed at "teens" then are what we'd call middle grade now, appropriate for middle school aged kids.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:17 AM on June 13, 2011


Were there YA books in the late 80's/early 90's and I just missed them?

I think there just wasn't a shelf labeled "Young Adult" in the bookstore. The "Young Readers" shelf was little kids' stuff, and the "Teen Fiction" was maybe like "Sweet Valley High", and later, "Goosebumps". I don't really know; when I was in middle and high school, I never looked at much other than the Sci-Fi and Horror shelves.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2011


longbaugh - I'm 33 (going on 34), and I was mentioning over in the Tamora Pierce thread that her Alanna novels were shelved in the children's library in the 1980s, where some might put her novels in a YA category now (and the first was listed on the YA for young feminists list that came out a while ago). Meanwhile, McCaffrey's YA novels (Drangonsong, etc) were in the adult section with the rest of her books. I think this was because there was no YA section, despite the large size of the library, so librarians had to split the books - the Alanna books began at the young end of YA (middle school, rather than high school, though as the character aged so did the themes), so they went to kids.

When they finally had a YA section in the late 80s, early 90s, I actually paid it no mind; I wanted SF&F, and all the books they put into the YA were about teenagers in highschools having relationship problems, not teenagers/adults on alien planets riding dragons and having relationship problems (which were all shelved in the adult SF&F). So I dismissed them as girly and boring, and spent all my time reading the adult SF&F (and re-reading the YA/kids fantasy novels for nostalgia).

But I think that there were "YA" novels all along - like I pointed out upthread, most of L.M. Montgomery's novels were aimed at what (today) would be defined as a YA audience - about 10-16. So were Alcott's novels - they aren't for little kids, the language is too complicated and besides, kids wouldn't even understand half of the story (growing up, why Jo doesn't marry Teddy, etc). Like you, I graduated from the kids books straight into the adult section - but lots of novels that I read while 9-13 which were shelved among the children's novels would today be classified as (younger) YA. And there are lots of "adult" novels that appeal to that age range - like the McCaffrey novels, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover, and Mercedes Lackey - as well as Star Trek novels, Asimov, etc.
posted by jb at 11:25 AM on June 13, 2011


I also didn't read a lot of children's books until I was in my twenties, because while my older sister loved to talk about the books she was reading, she would throw a fit if I read them (like literally pull them from my hands and scream at me) because she didn't want me to talk about them.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:30 AM on June 13, 2011


This thread has to win an award for most straw man bashing ever. I mean, you guys just knocked the stuffing out of that thing.

Nowhere in that article does she even imply that reading about horrors is going to make people commit them.

She's saying she finds graphic depictions of torture, gore, sexual assault, and pervasive profanity unnecessarily unpleasant and thinks that reading about such things would be unnecessarily unpleasant for her kids.

I agree. I didn't like that when I was younger and I don't like it now. There's stuff I've read that I wish I hadn't. My kids don't like it either. They have no trouble finding stuff to read that's not like that, but it's seldom any of the new popular books being sold at the school book fairs.

Where the article is weakest is that she doesn't make a great case that the average YA book is more graphic and shocking than it used to be, and the way she talks about or Sherman Alexie--a fantastic author--in the same breath as The Hunger Games doesn't speak well of her discernment. I sure don't know, but the anecdotes I see make me think it probably is. Everything else in popular culture has this continuing need to ratchet up the shock factor, so it would be surprising if YA were any different. People responding with their own anecdotes aren't very convincing. Clan of the Cave Bear and Clockwork Orange weren't marketed as YA.

I don't believe in censorship, but I'm dismayed at the huge gap between my taste for these kinds of graphic unpleasantness and that of popular authors and their readers.
posted by straight at 11:34 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Agree with jb. I'm a bit younger, but I can remember when the "teen" section of my public library was moved from the kid's floor to the adult's. It was packed full of stuff like this, and I always browsed it with some degree of embarrassment (though I eventually found stuff I liked there--the above-mentioned Cynthia Voigt and LJ Smith, Francesca Lia Block). I don't remember anything there that would have been obviously marketed to boys except for a few sports books. However, I think it's important to keep in mind that these are all really just marketing categories. YA is huge now (six and even seven-figure book deals are not exactly commonplace in YA, but also not unheard of) and if publishers can market something as YA, they will. I have absolutely no doubt that, were McCaffrey or Lackey first writing today, their books would be solidly seen as YA, and probably a good deal other SF/F writers as well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:35 AM on June 13, 2011


And while the article doesn't get into this argument, the idea that stuff you read doesn't shape who you are, how you think, what you care about, is completely at odds with my experience and seems to make trivial the role of art in our lives. I can't help thinking that people who read this stuff are becoming desensitized to stuff they shouldn't be desensitized to.
posted by straight at 11:37 AM on June 13, 2011


I agree. I didn't like that when I was younger and I don't like it now. There's stuff I've read that I wish I hadn't. My kids don't like it either. They have no trouble finding stuff to read that's not like that, but it's seldom any of the new popular books being sold at the school book fairs.

Really? What Ally Condie? She's pretty big. There are entire book blogs devoted to clean YA, and most of it seems pretty popular.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:41 AM on June 13, 2011


She's saying she finds graphic depictions of torture, gore, sexual assault, and pervasive profanity unnecessarily unpleasant and thinks that reading about such things would be unnecessarily unpleasant for her kids.

And my point is that she's entirely naive to think that her kids aren't being exposed to these "unpleasant" things through other media, or intentionally exposing themselves by borrowing books from friends (or heck, the big ol' unpleasant mess called The Internet).

The only thing that a blanket prohibition does is prevent her children from discussing those "unpleasant" things with the one person who is supposed to be guiding them through their young adulthood.
posted by muddgirl at 11:50 AM on June 13, 2011


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are full-bore nightmares, full of sadism and violence, implied and otherwise.

Could you quote some passages from those books that you think are comparable in their graphic violence to the books Meghan Cox Gurdon is complaining about?

If she is addressing people her age (and mine) as parents and referring to the innocence of "our" childhood literature, she is clearly is talking out her ass. One of my favorite books as a preteen was Don't Hurt Laurie, about a girl being horribly abused by her stepmother. It doesn't get much darker then the scene where said stepmother nearly kills her with a fireplace poker.

Or maybe you could quote something from this scene?
posted by straight at 11:51 AM on June 13, 2011


Good gravy, that was absurd. Of course, given that this is the WSJ, reactionary conservative nonsense is to be expected. And as usual, if folk like Cox Gurden really want to commit to their church lady crusade to keep violent and lurid literature out of childrens' hands, they oughta start with banning the Bible. Talk about a bloody book! And unlike, say, The Hunger Games, there is a clear a lengthy historical record of Bible fans doing horrible shit in the name of their favorite stories and characters.

Here's another evergreen fact about literature and culture: young folks love reading fucked-up stories - always have, always will. I'd warrant that any kids who come across this breathless screed will come away from it not with a sense of disgust about the publishing business, but a shopping list. Evil shit makes for fascinating reading - lurid stories will always, always, always sell. It's a mistake to be concerned that kids are consuming dark books - there's absolutely no preventing that, nor any point. Better to be concerned with whether or not the dark book in question is well-written. For my part, I'd much rather see a child reading Sherman Alexie than Stephanie Meyer - not because the content of Part Time Indian is less objectionable than the content of Twilight, but because Alexie is a goddamn linguimancer who can only enrich the minds his writing enters and Meyer knows even less about characterization than she does about Washington State.

For me, it wasn't Shakespeare or Chaucer or Byron or anyone in my English textbooks that first made me want to be a writer and storyteller - initially, it was pulp hack Dean Koontz. Once thirteen year old ETW got hold of a couple of his novels, it was over with: FUCK YEAH MONSTERS, SUCK YEAH PSYCHOS! I read book after book from Koontz until I realized that I was reading the same book over and over again. So then I went looking for other authors - better authors - that would scratch the same itch - Poe, Lovecraft, Straub, etc, etc, etc. I started writing my own (god awful high school angst loaded) stories. The Story Hunger blazed within me from those years forward and still blazes to this day.

I went from sneaking around lurid pulp to needing to read something, anything, always. I cannot picture another way of living and I'm not sure how else I could have arrived here if not for that initial literary bloodbath. Yeah, the stories I first loved were dark and horrifying. They were also a complete fucking blast to read. I think that part of why kids love bloody books is that the horror and brutality they find therein might help shock them out of a childhood full of cushy, boring kids books where nothing bad ever happens and everything has an easy solution - shocking reading as a young adult can awaken a reader to the fact that, in a book, anything can happen - it can give them a Hunger in an immediate, visceral way. If the creation of lifelong readers is the goal, allowing them to birth themselves in an independent fashion is a hundred times more effective than trying to flog English Canon into them in a classroom before they're ready to appreciate those works in their own way.

I'm grateful beyond measure that my parents understood would-be censors like Cox Gurden to be utterly full of shit. My mother and I didn't develop overlapping literary tastes until I reached adulthood, but she understood that, as a youth, the important thing was that I was reading constantly - for the moment, it didn't matter so much whether or not I was reading anything good or important or culturally significant or whatever - I would discover works like that on my own. Parents who want their children to grow up with strong reading and language skills, who want their children to grow up valuing literature, need only do two things:

1) Allow their child to discover on their own the kinds of things they love to read
2) Stay the fuck out of their way
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:51 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The only thing that a blanket prohibition does is prevent her children from discussing those "unpleasant" things with the one person who is supposed to be guiding them through their young adulthood.

Not seeing anyone arguing for any kind of "blanket prohibition" here or in the original article.
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on June 13, 2011


Thanks for picking out two words of my comment and ignoring the rest.
posted by muddgirl at 11:56 AM on June 13, 2011


Here's another evergreen fact about literature and culture: young folks love reading fucked-up stories

It's true, all kids are exactly the same that way.

How is that kind of blanket "all kids like this stuff" any less stupid than the original article?
posted by straight at 11:56 AM on June 13, 2011


And my point is that she's entirely naive to think that her kids aren't being exposed to these "unpleasant" things through other media, or intentionally exposing themselves by borrowing books from friends (or heck, the big ol' unpleasant mess called The Internet).

The only thing that a blanket prohibition does is prevent her children from discussing those "unpleasant" things with the one person who is supposed to be guiding them through their young adulthood.


She explicitly addresses your question of "other media" (and it's extremely naive of you to think that all kids are "intentionally exposing themselves" to unpleasant things) and she's not calling for any kind of blanket prohibition, nor does she mention any sort of rule forbidding her children from reading anything, any so your fears that she's building a wall between her and her kids are based on...nothing.
posted by straight at 12:01 PM on June 13, 2011


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.

That's her last sentence. Talk about strawmen.
posted by rtha at 12:03 PM on June 13, 2011


Not seeing anyone arguing for any kind of "blanket prohibition" here or in the original article.

Actually, she seems to be implicitly pro-book banning:
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!"
What does it mean for a "gatekeeper to object to a book"? In the case of parents, it means that kids don't get to read them. In the case of librarians or teachers, it means that kids aren't even exposed to them. She's coy about what the impact of these "objections" might mean, but in a very concrete sense it usually constitutes denying teens access to the books in question, or asking that they're not written (or published) in the first place.

I'm not saying that there shouldn't be "clean" books. But, hell, there already are. There's Meg Cabot and there's Ally Condie and even Twilight (despite the presence of vampires and dark covers) feature no cursing, drinking, very little violence, and no sex until marriage.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:03 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Long Winter gave me bad dreams for a couple of nights - that stuff was scary! Not just the starving/freezing to death, but scarlet fever, leeches, etc. One of the books has a brush fire in it that I found totally terrifying. (Probably because I could actually connect that with my otherwise entirely different 1980s suburban LA childhood.) Same with Little Women, same with Anne of Green Gables: abandonment, poverty, war.

I also read (my mother's copy of) Gone With the Wind at 13, so more war and lots of other sorts of death, plus "adult relationships." (Curiously enough, the politics of GWTW, which I now find hair-raising, didn't really strike me until I was much older: not entirely until I saw the movie in my late 20s.)

The 19th & early 20th century contains plenty of horrors, even in otherwise light-hearted fare, and things that I suppose were still fairly commonplace in their day.

Where the article is weakest is that she doesn't make a great case that the average YA book is more graphic and shocking than it used to be

I've read quite a few YA books in the last few years, mostly because I have youth librarian friends who review them on Goodreads, and while there's occasionally a bit more explicitness of one sort or another, I'm not finding anything that would feel totally out of place in my younger years. And actually, it can be interesting listening to those librarian friends talk about what the kids are into these days ("fucked-up stories" is not a totally inappropriate description FWIW), how to steer a kid who's all into Twilight into something that's at least better written, which books they end up staying up all hours to finish themselves, that sort of thing.

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Flowers for Algernon. That book completely terrified me. There's also a (70s?) YA book that I can never remember the name of, with a group of teens trapped in a behavioral psychology experiment (? BF Skinner meets The Breakfast Club), that also freaked me out probably more than anything else I read at that age.
posted by epersonae at 12:04 PM on June 13, 2011


If it means children are actually reading, I will bite my tongue and try hard to ignore the fact that my local B&N actually has a section called "Teen Paranormal Romance" and it is the largest section in YA comprising most of an aisle. Reading is important and if that is the gateway drug so be it. Children are smart, smarter then these sky-is-falling intellectuals, and these kids will sort it all out in time. A love of things dark is normal during adolescence and is generally outgrown. But a love of reading lasts a lifetime and has profound effects. What scares me are children who don't read anything at all.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:11 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


She's coy about what the impact of these "objections" might mean, but in a very concrete sense it usually constitutes denying teens access to the books in question, or asking that they're not written (or published) in the first place.

We've never forbidden our children from reading anything (unless you count asking them to save the last Harry Potter book as a reward for getting some stuff done), but we talk to them about what they like and don't like, what books we think they might like, why they might not like to read some of the stuff in a particular book (and we're as likely to pan a book for Disney-style sexism as for explicit sex and violence).

And telling an author you don't like something she's written isn't censorship, it's criticism. I see no difference between saying, "I don't like this, write a less-sexist book next time" and "I don't like this, write a less gory book next time."
posted by straight at 12:14 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whenever I read "YA", my mind automatically appends "OI".

It makes this a very different thread.
posted by Eideteker at 12:19 PM on June 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was younger than that when I first read It, and to this day, my first response to getting lost is always to involve myself in a magical gangbang of some sort. So I guess I turned out okay. Thanks, Stephen King!
posted by Greg Nog at 6:47 PM


Oh yes, I read It when i was 12 or 13 (after growing up with Karl May) and I still remember those scenes vividly. Stephen King was what I tried to make the other boys read when they said reading was boring or uncool, to prove them wrong.

I don't know if I should be glad that there never was an "young adult" section in the library or bookstores I went to when I was young. I still don't know if this section actually exists in germany, it's either childrens books, "Literatur" or some sort of "Genre". For me in my youth it was always the "Fantasy/SciFi/Horror" corner, and I am still stuck there.
posted by ts;dr at 12:19 PM on June 13, 2011


I wonder if there is something about early teens that makes kids want to read some seriously dark stuff. I mean, I didn't have any abuse or violence in my life, I was reading Star Trek novels, Anne McCaffrey and L.M. Montgomery - but I also remember reading (only in the library, because I was too embarressed to borrow it) a book which purported to be a true story about a girl who was raped at age five or something in a Satanist ritual, and who was systematically abused for years and went on to have multiple personality disorder - and it was all presented very luridly and (I think now) not sensitively. Why did I want to read this? I have no idea now; I don't want to read anything like that now - but then it was almost compulsive. Perhaps it's because at that age, you're beginning to be aware of the darker side of the world and it's both horrifying and fascinating.

But I wish I'd had Sherman Alexie's novel to read instead; it sounds so much more thoughtful. Or Entries from a Hot Pink Notebook (which profoundly affected me when I was 19 - I wish I had had it when I was 14) - it does have a graphically violent scene and some very serious issues, but the novel is never sensatuonalistic but powerfully life (and love) -affirming.
posted by jb at 12:20 PM on June 13, 2011


That might be the case for you, straight, but that's not actually what the author here is saying. She's saying that authors and publishers who are frustrated by the interference of gatekeepers in the access that children are allowed to books (what the industry calls "banning"--and what they call banning is, in actuality, in many cases literally banning) are making a lot of noise over something she sees as good parenting. But she's assuming that what's good parenting for one kid is good parenting for all kids. And again, she--and you, in all honesty, and no offense meant--seem fairly naive about the diversity of teen fiction that's actually available. There are loads of clean books for teens who like clean books--and also loads of books for teens who like to read about fucking and punching (so to speak).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:21 PM on June 13, 2011


Epersonae: House of Stairs.

I just love the desensitization argument. As if there aren't children in every classroom in the country who haven't suffered, who don't deserve to see themselves reflected in books, too.
posted by sugarfish at 12:21 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thinking of King, there always were some gay sex scenes in the books. I remember one from The Stand, it was exciting and disturbing... and I turned out gay! Oh god, maybe Meghan Cox Gurdon is right!
posted by ts;dr at 12:22 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


How is that kind of blanket "all kids like this stuff" any less stupid than the original article?

Sigh. Alright: "Based on my own personal experience and a broad swath of anecdotal evidence coupled with overwhelmingly strong trends in publishing, sales, consumption and discussion of literature among the youth of the last several generations, I shall make bold to state that young readers, far more often than not, tend to have have a very strong preference for the lurid sorts of stories that reactionaries like Cox Gurden disapprove of. Furthermore, based upon widely acknowledged behavioral traits of teenagers, deep in the grip of the Puberty Haze, this well-documented preference for shocking reading may indeed be in part linked to the stern disapproval of the Cox Gurdens of the world."

Happy?
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:24 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Upthread, someone mentioned the bible. All I know is that I read the stories of Sodom & Gomorrah and Lot & his daughters more times than any other bible story. And I think I was a pretty normal kid - and pretty vanilla to this day. (With strawberries and chocolate syrup).
posted by jb at 12:24 PM on June 13, 2011


Happy?

That was magnificent.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2011


Thank you.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:37 PM on June 13, 2011


I've been following this thread because one of the things I do in my free time is mentor teens (although, at the moment, it seems I'm mentoring the mentors more than anything else), and I'm pretty out of touch with YA fiction. Reading the comments has also made me realize that a lot of the books y'all have read that made an impact when you were a pre-teen/teen, I've never read (some I've never even heard of).

So there were a few moments of existential self-doubt: "Did I have a proper teen experience if I didn't read these books? Is my lit street-cred destroyed because I have to keep hopping to Wikipedia or Amazon to learn about books that are decades old?"

But then I read jeanne's comment and read in her words the piece I was missing:

Teens are good at self-censoring (and books lend themselves better to self-censoring than TV or movies, I think; it's easy to walk away from them). I trust the teens I work with to be able to understand their own limits, and to read the books that give them what they need and put down the ones that are too cruel or too overwhelming.

I was one of those sensitive children who would have nightmares about things she read. My mother had to make paperbag bookcovers for certain books that I desperately wanted to read but was too freaked out to literally touch because of the cover art (A Wind in the Door, I'm [not] looking at you.) I was a ridiculous empath, especially with books (since I was that nerdy only-child whose closest friends were books) -- so sadness and suffuring would leave me pretty depressed for awhile. (For example, I didn't finish reading The Incredible Journey until I was in college because even though I knew in the end the animals reached their destination and everything was happy, the actual story made me freak out about lost pets.)

My parents knew this, so they did, in a way, "censor" things for me. As in -- "Hey, ten-year-old paisley sheep, just because all your buddies love those Goosebumps series, we aren't going to let you read them because you're only going to have nightmares." But mostly they left me to my own devices. I remember trawling the racks at the library, flipping through books that would interest me and not appear too depressing -- the self-censorship that Jeanne mentioned in the quote above.

Mostly, I'd end up with the classic authors that have mostly already been mentioned (L.M. Montgomery, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, C.S Lewis, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, the Brontes, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder) -- and others that I'm sure I'm forgetting at the moment.

I seem to recall my father attempting to get me into science fiction at that age -- but it didn't really work. But he did get me addicted to mysteries (Sayers! Stout! Christie! Oh man, so much time and effort in the library stacks, looking for classic mysteries I hadn't read yet. And I literally read my father's omnibus of Sherlock Holmes so much that I broke it. Yep. Split right in two.)

So I can see that it is important for parents to have some sort of idea -- and possibly even some say -- in what their children are reading (and there were enough times I was stubborn enough to get the book that my friends assured me wasn't at all scary, only to realize that perhaps my parents were right, after I flung the book across the room -- to be retrieved later by my parents because you can bet I wasn't going to touch it again -- and hid under the covers. I was, obviously, a weird child).

But I also am totally for the child/teen to make his or her own decision about what he or she wants to read. I liked the freedom of checking out whatever I wanted from the library and my parents trusting that. But not every teen is a wimpy nerd like I am.

Then again, my first reaction to reading the original article was: "Are you seriously judging a book by it's cover?! ... Why not get your thirteen-year-old something not in the YA section? ... Couldn't one of the people who work there help her find something? ... Wow, I've never heard of these titles. Hmm." *dives into comments section* "Oh man, I clearly have no idea what is out there in the world of YA. ... Oh no, I've never read these -- was I ever really a kid?!"

But it turns out I just knew myself and my tastes, and was happy to find things that fit that. (Which still makes me wonder why the mother couldn't find anything for her daughter...)

(I am no longer experiencing an existential crisis, although I've added to my list of "must read to help understand the culture of your peers."
posted by paisley sheep at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Protective mom tends toward overprotective, news at 11. So she wants to be the gatekeeper of her adolescent children's reading material, fine and good luck with that (and keeping them readers), but she has no business doing the gatekeeping for anyone else's kids.

When I was 13, I'd already read a healthy chunk of my parents' novels (cue flashback to asking my dad about golden showers after reading Heinlein at 10 or so), and had started to incorporate more "age-appropriate" reading, like Go Ask Alice (not exactly a happy ending), The Diary of Anne Frank (ditto), The Jungle (the closest I've ever come to going vegetarian), Dean Koontz, Stephen King, etc. My dad was recommending post-apocalyptic novels and Ian Fleming, and mom didn't care what I read, as long as I shared the ones I thought she'd like.

The only times I ever objected to my kids reading anything were when they were reading instead of cleaning their room/showering/doing homework/etc. Beyond that, if they could make their way through it, they were free to read it. And if they wanted to watch an R-rated movie, they had to make it through the book first.
posted by notashroom at 12:55 PM on June 13, 2011


I shall make bold to state that young readers, far more often than not, tend to have have a very strong preference for the lurid sorts of stories

So you're saying 60% of kids feel this way? 90%? And popular is good?

A lot of people liked Avatar, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop saying it sucked.

what they call banning is, in actuality, in many cases literally banning

Who is banning these books? In what context?

And again, she--and you, in all honesty, and no offense meant--seem fairly naive about the diversity of teen fiction that's actually available.


It's true, I'm ignorant of about recently-published YA stuff. I acknowledge a huge availability bias here, which is why I said I was curious if there are actual trends anyone could point to.
posted by straight at 12:56 PM on June 13, 2011


Protective mom tends toward overprotective, news at 11.

I'm willing to bet one standard gentlemen's bet* that she will be a helicopter parent that stays in her child's dorm room for the first three weeks of college.

* - One U.S. Dollar
posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:58 PM on June 13, 2011


In the book trade, this is known as "banning." In the parenting trade, however, we call this "judgment" or "taste."

Nice catch, PhoB. I'd like to additionally call out this quote because she's wrong wrong wrong. Librarians and publishers don't think of parents who prefer their own kids not read this or that book as "banning" books. Librarians and the like think of parents who don't want any kids to read this book or that book, and want it pulled from the school library or banished altogether from the classroom curriculum, as banning books

Who is banning these books? In what context?

I worked a while back for a nonprofit that offered assistance to schools and school districts who were dealing with parents who didn't want any kid to have access to (for example, and I am not making these up) The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye. They didn't just want their own kid to not read them. They wanted no kids to read them.
posted by rtha at 1:08 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Who is banning these books? In what context?

She cites specifically the censorship necessary of Chris Lynch's 2005 novel, "Inexcusable" (of cursing) in order to get it on school shelves and of Sherman Alexie and Suzanne Collins's frequent appearances on challenged book lists. Book challenges seem to always go down the same way: parents or librarians (who almost always haven't read the book in question) request that it be removed from school curriculum or from the library shelves so that young, impressionable readers can no longer access them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:14 PM on June 13, 2011


So you're saying 60% of kids feel this way? 90%? And popular is good?

A lot of people liked Avatar, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop saying it sucked.


Do you stop reading comments when you reach a sentence you don't agree with? That seems to be the trend emerging in a lot of your responses here.

The point I'm trying to make here isn't that popular is good or bad, it's that popular is popular and trying to render the popular unpopular is a fool's errand which often has the opposite effect - the important thing isn't that kids start out reading stuff that's good or bad, it's that they're reading at all - in time, a youth that becomes a voracious reader of anything will grow into a reader of quality works of their own accord - moral tut-tutting is not at all useful in this process. If adult disapproval is at all on a young reader's radar, it generally only serves to drive a reader deeper into the lurid.

With the kids I have known, the kid that I was, in discussions with peers about the kids that they were and with the kids I have tutored, I saw this process in action over and over, at various stages of ripening. Young readers, in my experience and observations, begin by sailing through an ocean of text which, perhaps to a more seasoned reader, is not of the highest subjective literary quality. At this early stage, subjective quality to anyone but the young reader in question is not relevant - the point is that they want to read a story and are doing so enthusiastically. It is a rewarding experience without any adult interference. Hopefully, they will seek this experience out again and again, developing along the way their own understandings of the elements of quality fiction.

Shocking content has a way of quickening and supporting this process. Young adult readers are at a place in their development as a language user and story consumer where they appreciate deeply being taken serious, being treated as if they have the maturity and strength of character to deal with more difficult content. And the fact of the matter is that, they generally do. I've had young tutoring subjects absolutely floor me with their sophisticated responses to the pieces they select for themselves - I've been challenged a couple of times in these sessions to not simply leave my jaw on the floor and tell them, "Session over - you don't really need any further adult help here."

If you'd like to read more about this process, I strongly suggest Virginia Monseau's excellent Responding to Young Adult Literature - Generally speaking, a YA readers is in the process of distancing themselves from the sheltering of childhood, is emerging from a run of fluffy books and stories that can no longer hold their interest, stories that treat them like they can't handle the challenge of dark material - but the opportunity to read something with some real gristle to chew is often all it takes to evolve and sustain their literary appetites into adulthood. I've seen this happen over and over and over and over. It's a beautiful thing.
posted by EatTheWeak at 1:31 PM on June 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


Tangentially, and in retrospect of my own formative years, I must say it's highly possible that the local public library (not the school library), and my parents' allowing me to have my own library card and walk to the library on my own, had a huge impact on the development of my worldview. I got into all kinds of literary trouble by virtue of that wonderful tax-funded institution.

And I'm sure, in retrospect, that if my very conservative parents had known that they handed me the key to the door that turned me into a crass liberal of the worst order, they would have locked me in the basement with only back-issues of Reader's Digest and wouldn't have let me out till I was 18.

And when my kids are old enough so I can take them to get their first library cards, It'll probably be cool/scary/bittersweet all at the same time. I can't wait...
posted by jnrussell at 1:45 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I am the most sensitive flower when it comes to reading scary stuff - even "cozy" mysteries have sometimes kept me awake at night. I had to put down The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo not very far in, because I knew that if I read the rest it would live in my head for the next 20 years (and it kind of creeps me out to be in an airport and see hundreds of harmless-looking people reading what struck me as torture porn.) But my parents never restricted anything I wanted to read - heck, my mother gave me Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle (which contains a particularly memorable sex scene) when I was looking for a book for a sixth grade book report. A difference between me and Meghan Cox Gurdon is that I recognize my preferences are for me, not for everybody.

(As an aside, this thread turned out just as I hoped it would, with people chiming in about the books they read as kids. When I saw this today, I thought to myself, "I wish this were on Metafilter, I bet it would be a great discussion - oh. Oh.")
posted by Daily Alice at 2:14 PM on June 13, 2011


Teenagers have always been dark and brooding.

Fiddle-faddle.
posted by Twang at 2:23 PM on June 13, 2011


When I was ten, my family moved to a small town with a correspondingly small public library. By the time I was eleven, I'd read all the books in the children's and YA sections. The librarians would not allow me into the adult section. So my mother accompanied me on my next library run, marched up to the front desk and announced proudly and loudly "this is my daughter, and I hereby give permission for her to read and take out any books she pleases, from whatever section she chooses".

Yes, yay! And also, oh dear god!

Because that was the extent of my mother's involvement. Reading historical fiction about Cleopatra replete with fantasized religious rituals involving being whipped by acolytes from the temple of Annubis and graphic sex scenes involving Caesar and/or Mark Anthony was... Um. Reading Cosmopolitan ditto. And then there were the bleak things like Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausee. I ran roughshod through that library, and while it made me, I really do think a little context might have saved me some major mistakes and heartaches and confusions.

In no way, shape or form do I advocate censorship or banning. And this story is not about YA. But I do wish every library had a librarian who could keep an eye on what a kid is reading and be willing to offer some context. I realize that many probably do. I realize that my mother may well have antagonized any who might have done so in that particular library. But the four years of this experiment in laissez faire exposed me to stuff I just couldn't process.
posted by likeso at 3:37 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really wish there was a children's or teens' librarian in this thread though PhoBWanKenobi, among others, is doing an excellent job of teasing out the issues here.

In any case, for straight and others: parents and other 'interested parties' seek to ban books not just for their children (which, however misguided, is their right) but also for any child with access to that library of classroom. In the United States, we celebrate Banned Books Week every year to remind people that there's a diversity of viewpoints in this country and books representing those viewpoints should not be banned.

What kind of books are banned? Typically, books which involve homosexuality (And Tango Makes Three was on top of the list for a few years), witchcraft (so, Harry Potter), sexuality and sexual actions that someone disapproves of (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Forever, etc), and violence of some undetermined sort (Scary Stories, Killing Mr Griffin, etc).

Where are these books usually banned? It's probably a toss-up between public schools and public libraries. Bannings in private schools tend not to get the same publicity and banning in academic or other libraries, while equally problematic, is somewhat rarer.

Is this even what Cox Gurdon is talking about in her article? No, probably not. Though I have no doubt her article will serve as fodder in the next banning battle at some school somewhere. It's thoroughly aggravating, though, to see someone advocating for a position which bears no resemblance to reality.

Issue books, bildungsroman, teen novels, whatever they're called (and those terms are not always interchangeable with 'YA'), these are books which have been around in about the same form for at least 30 years. So Cox Gurdun sounds really out of touch with YA literature in general and when she starts castigating Sherman freakin' Alexie, she sounds really out of it in the specific as well.

Finally, I'm not sure I can locate a study of children's/teens' interest in 'lurid' stories this minute as I rush off to swim laps. In my short experience working at a public library though, yes, children and teens are absolutely interested in the lurid, the gross, the forbidden, the whatever just as much as adults are. What in elementary schoolers is expressed as an interest in Captain Underpants or whatever is expressed as The Uglies or The Hunger Games or whatever in teens.
posted by librarylis at 4:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


take away my books and all i'll have left is my internet bondage porn
posted by prefpara at 4:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Internet bondage porn (and I've seen my share) can't hold a candle to what's between the covers of some of those old moldering books gathering dust in the stacks of your local library. If kids only knew that the most radically subversive, mind-blowing stuff was hidden in plain sight and that they're being fed pablum in their classes, in movies, on TV, etc. Would they start reading then?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:29 PM on June 13, 2011


Frank Portman, of the YA novel King Dork fame (and playing in a band with me, in full disclosure), weighed in on this last week. It's worth checking out.
posted by makabampow at 4:35 PM on June 13, 2011


If she is addressing people her age (and mine) as parents and referring to the innocence of "our" childhood literature, she is clearly is talking out her ass. One of my favorite books as a preteen was Don't Hurt Laurie, about a girl being horribly abused by her stepmother. It doesn't get much darker then the scene where said stepmother nearly kills her with a fireplace poker.

Or maybe you could quote something from this scene?


straight, I haven't owned that book in probably 15 years, so I can't quote it for you. I can tell you from memory that her mom beat her, all the time, for minor infractions (it was the mom not the stepmom, correction), and Laurie frequently had bruises and injuries but had been told to not tell anyone about them. Every time a school or doctor got suspicious, she and her mother would have to move.

One of the last scenes (spoilers, I guess) is Laurie's mom beating her with I think a spatula or something first, then reaching for a fireplace poker and starting to swing. Author Willo Davis Roberts (who wrote dark books in general) made it clear that if not for the intervention of a terrified younger step brother, Laurie would have been killed. The book ends with Mom packed off to jail and "therapy" while Laurie and her stepbrother and her stepfather go about putting their lives together, etc. etc.

Maybe that's a happy ending, though knowing what I do as an adult about the kind of trauma parental abuse leaves behind, I wouldn't say so.

It didn't make me more afraid of my parents; it did make me aware that if I saw a kid with bruises on her face who seemed withdrawn, she might be getting beaten and I should tell someone.
posted by emjaybee at 4:45 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


[...] I really do think a little context might have saved me some major mistakes and heartaches and confusions.

It really is too bad that adults who could provide the right sort of context are so thin on the ground. But really, what adult could you have possibly trusted enough to ask why, when you read the whipping scenes, you got that tingling feeling in that one special place? Any adult who takes it upon themselves to speak candidly with a minor not their own child is taking a huge risk. But I can see where you're coming from. Having someone around who could have given me some perspective on Nietzsche when I was a "young adult" would have helped me avoid an embarrassing episode (long forgotten by almost everyone, thankfully).
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:56 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Heh, Crabby, represent.

True enough re tingling feelings, but I think just a "You know this is fiction, don't you? Many different people read many different things, and you don't have to feel any particular way about any of it. You don't have to do any of these things to be considered an adult, and you may or may not want to when you are. It's okay. Now, how about rereading The Lord of the Rings this time? Next visit, you try something else."
posted by likeso at 5:12 PM on June 13, 2011


OK, likeso. Good thing you didn't ask me :-)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:15 PM on June 13, 2011


None of my business. :)
posted by likeso at 5:18 PM on June 13, 2011


Alas.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:26 PM on June 13, 2011


I wouldn't have a problem with The Hunger Games being violent, if the book had something to say about the nature of violence, or a violent society, if the book was about violence. For me, it failed on those counts. I don't like The Hunger Games because it seems--to me--to simply use violence for shock effect, to raise the pulse of the readers in a negative way. It's gratuitous and cynical, and I can imagine the movie will be that times a thousand.
posted by zardoz at 5:49 PM on June 13, 2011


Do you stop reading comments when you reach a sentence you don't agree with?

I'm sorry if I came across that way, Eat the Weak. I have been reading the comments, and it seemed to me like you were making some unnecessarily sweeping and overgeneralizing claims about how important and how universal are the desires of teenagers to read stuff that's shocking. You've qualified your point somewhat and I agree that the process you describe is important and powerful for some teens, but I don't really know how widespread that is, and I'm not sure you do either. It bears no resemblance at all to how I came to love reading.

In any case, it's understandable that people are reacting to this as if it were a covert call for censorship, and maybe it is. But I sympathize with how she feels and it raises for me the question of how to help kids (and ourselves) navigate a library that has shocking stuff that some people find energizing and engaging and others find painful and disturbing.

And is the impression true some of us have that writers at the more shocking end of things find themselves needing to constantly ratchet up the shock value, does this drag the rest of the bell curve in that direction, and ought I to feel as disturbed about that prospect as I do?

straight, I haven't owned that book in probably 15 years, so I can't quote it for you. I can tell you from memory...

It would be presumptuous of me to try to judge from your summary, but it sorta sounds to me like that might be a lot less graphic than the kinds of stuff Meghan Cox Gurdon was complaining about. Do you think so?
posted by straight at 5:55 PM on June 13, 2011


Straight: I haven't read Don't Hurt Laurie, but I'm a YA librarian, I read a ton of YA books, I write YA books, and it's very seldom that I see anything as intense as a mother trying to kill her own daughter with a hot poker. (Oddly enough, Ship Breaker is on their recommended-for-boys list, and does feature some fairly intense father-son violence...it's a book I love, but it makes zero sense to say "YA books are too dark! Read Ship Breaker!)

Yeah, Guron is able to cherry-pick some lurid passages -- and I haven't read Rage or Shine or The Marbury Lens, so I can't put that in context -- but I really don't feel that's reflective of the field as a whole.
posted by Jeanne at 6:21 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Guron is able to cherry-pick some lurid passages -- and I haven't read Rage or Shine or The Marbury Lens, so I can't put that in context -- but I really don't feel that's reflective of the field as a whole.

FWIW, I haven't read Rage, but I've read Hunger, the prequel. It was harsh (a graphic depiction of anorexia) but also uplifting--it's all about a teenage girl coming to terms with anorexia and overcoming it.

That's one of the things I really struggle with when people talk about books being too dark. Because then you're dismissing books about overcoming the darkness, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:27 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


A book can reach out to a young person and let them know that they aren't alone in going though rough times. I appreciated being able to read Judy Blume, Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier as a kid for this very reason.

The only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you. - Richard Peck (I read him too.)
posted by droplet at 6:32 PM on June 13, 2011


Hmm, straight. I didn't read Are You In the House Alone, but from my friends' description, I would say it was probably as bad. I don't know if the rape is graphically described, but the whole point of the thing is that the protagonist is totally powerless to prosecute her rapist, and he gets away with it. I think that was originally published in the mid-'70s.

So here's the thing. The reason I didn't read it was because my mom asked me not to. She told me that I could read whatever I wanted, but she thought the book might scare me and make me afraid of boys, and she hoped I wouldn't read it until I was older. I basically trusted my mom, and I knew she was generally pretty chill about what I read and wouldn't have said that without a good reason, so I didn't read it. I think I must have been about 11.

I'm not saying that every parent must encourage their kids read every book that was ever written. I'm not saying that every YA book is right for every kid. But there's a difference between saying "my kid won't respond well to violent books" and saying "violent books are bad for kids." And I think that involved parents can probably help kids make good decisions about what they do and don't want to read.

(And count me in as another person who read a ton of Stephen King as an early teenager. I bet these days he'd be billed as YA, but I think he was de facto YA in the '80s, because that's what kids were actually reading.)
posted by craichead at 6:57 PM on June 13, 2011


I grew up reading the Robotech novels, which were YA science fiction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. . Those were pretty dark-- protagonists died all the time, politicians were terrible liars, and people played out messed up, manipulative personal relationships. I can't say that any of the YA stuff now is particularly darker.
posted by wuwei at 7:58 PM on June 13, 2011


But I sympathize with how she feels and it raises for me the question of how to help kids (and ourselves) navigate a library that has shocking stuff that some people find energizing and engaging and others find painful and disturbing.

....It strikes me, straight, that there is already a very good means in place for helping people "navigate" a library to find what you like.

That means is called "asking the librarians."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well, in Bridge to Tarabithia and A Separate Peace everything does turn out OK in the end. Just because someone dies, doesn't mean it's a bad ending. That's kind of the point of both novels.

Care to spin the ending of Native Son? ^_^

Whether that's a YA title is more than debatable, but it is a story about a young man, told in language that young people can understand ...

I'm also not so sure that's the "point" of either book. Anyway, both (all 3) are serious downers.

"In Finny's death, Gene could finally come to terms with himself.but at the end u eat the dick."

?? (Clean up in aisle 336,459? I would do it myself, but I am too lazy).


A book can reach out to a young person and let them know that they aren't alone in going though rough times.

Amen. Before Ye Olde Worlde Wide Web, it was often the only way.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:15 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


That means is called "asking the librarians."

My wife repeats this to her students endlessly:

"The #1 most important research skill is Ask A Librarian."

Having slept on it, I think maybe I'm just getting old and want the kids off my lawn. Absent any actual data about how the content of YA books has changed over the past 30 years, it does seem more likely that I'm unconsciously cherry-picking scary bits that give me the impression that YA books overall are getting more explicitly violent, since that's apparently what everyone does as they get older.
posted by straight at 9:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The #1 most important research skill is Ask A Librarian."

Also probably the most important dating skill, though that's probably not something she would be sharing with her students. Unless it's a really weird class.
posted by Eideteker at 9:56 AM on June 14, 2011


The #1 most important research skill is to be interested in learning.

Everybody's different, but I think that's a bigger hurdle than getting the interested kids to ask for help ...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:37 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree that curiosity is even more important, and I think it is a skill that talented teachers can help cultivate, but it doesn't lend itself to this kind of rhetoric. You can say, "C'mon, people! All you have to do is just go up and ask the librarian a question!" in a way you can't say, "C'mon people! All you have to do is just be curious!"
posted by straight at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2011


Block's novels generally have sort-of happy endings, albeit ones with massive blended families including four parents (two gay), a sage on the mountain, and multicultural cousins down the street. (Although to her credit, she nicely kicks the legs out from under her Native-American Spiritual Healer stereotype in Necklace of Kisses.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:49 AM on June 14, 2011


I'm always thankful that my fairly conservative, Christian, homeschooling parents never censored what I read as a pre-teen - from YA fiction to the newspaper to Mein Kampf to Dostoevsky - they knew that exposure to the "darker" side of life was a sure thing at some point and they used to talk about world events (even the horrific ones) in a very matter of fact, compassionate way. I used to read books on books when I was 12-14 about world histories and genocides that I think some of my current peers, in my twenties, may not even know about now. If anything, it just made me more empathetic to mankind. Made me think a little deeper about life and my impact on the people around me than some of the people my age. Now that I have a kid, I'm pretty sure I'd like to do the same thing for her that my parents did for me. Better to read about life in books and see the consequences of darkness vs. light and how it affects the world around us.

I think the whole point of literature, especially fiction, is to expose and expound upon the nature of humans in general, with all their character flaws out in the open for discussion. While I don't agree with Gurdon that the themes in today's YA lit are something new and shocking that didn't exist "back in the day," I do think some of the YA stuff today is especially hyperbolic about certain themes because kids in general are more exposed to those themes in real life. Back in WWII it wasn't common knowledge to everyone in the US that atrocities were happening all over Europe under the Reich, but that was because there was no internet, no immediate satellite news feeds like we have today. We use books and stories with characters and their darkness, especially as "young adults" (hate that term), to make sense of the true sadnesses, atrocities, hurt, and other unthinkable things that occur in our world that we can't normally wrap our brains around. I think teens and pre-teens today (at least in America) definitely are exposed to maybe a little broader scope of that real life stuff than they maybe were 60 years ago.
posted by takoukla at 1:55 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


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