I may be a little late to the party on this issue, but, as is my want, I’m going to add my two cents. (Possibly even three.) Are you ready? Good, because the next sentence you’ll read here is extremely important.
What does that mean? Well, it’s in response to this article by the Wall Street Journal, which, to be frank, makes me angry. Stop saying that! You’re not Frank, you’re Sarah Jane. (Gotta love the Dad humor.)
But I digress. The article in question raises objections about contemporary young adult literature, specifically those novels that deal with real-life issues such as bullying, rape, abuse, suicide, and self harm. The article postulates that such novels are harmful to teens and appears to defend censorship of such literature in libraries and book stores. Now, this is of particular interest to me as I am a) a writer of young adult fiction and b) an avid reader of the genre. I am, after all, only twenty. It was not so long ago that I was in the age bracket to which these books are marketed, and, last time I checked (two minutes ago), they were still relevant to my life.
Meghan Cox Gurdon, the writer of the article in question, claims that YA novels dealing with dark themes are harmful to those that read them. She claims that “…a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” Mrs. Gurdon, I think you’re missing the point of these novels.
Typically, I don’t like to generalize (see what I did there?), but since Gurdon has done so with relish in her article, I’ll have to adopt a similar tactic to counter her argument. So, here I go. Most YA novels of a “dark” thematic nature exist to give a voice to those who haven’t been able to speak out. A teen who has been through some sort of trauma may read a fictional account of struggles similar to hers and think, “I’m not alone.” But, more importantly, she will read of her fictional counterpart’s recovery and think, “I have hope.”
It may sound sappy, but I believe that is the greatest power YA fiction possesses: hope. The darkest bits of a YA novel can be very dark, but they have to be in order for us to recognize the light at the end of the tunnel, however dim it is. One can’t just ignore the things Gurdon objects to because they’re not pretty. That happens enough in the real world, which is why there is suffering to be written about. The aim is to bring that suffering to light–to force people to acknowledge it, ugly though it may be, so that we can do something to fix it.
And how can we do that if disgruntled individuals who prefer to stay ignorant call for censorship of these novels? To shut these stories in a dark room where no one can look upon them is to deprive teens of a vital lens through which to view the world. Young adults who might have been saved by a novel’s message would never hear it, and people who might have been encouraged to act–to report their tormentors to the police, to rally against the evils in our society, to help others who have been through hardship–would sit idle.
And then there’s that whole issue of how censorship is WRONG (I don’t use that world lightly). It is a parent’s responsibility to judge what is and is not appropriate for their own children. It is neither their responsibility nor their right to decide that for others’ children. Let’s put it this way: my parents let me read whatever novels I chose, regardless of how disturbing the content may have been. If Suzy’s mother had forbidden me from reading those novels, would I have listened? No. It’s not her choice. So, Suzy’s mom (you’re a metaphor, by the way, but I’ll understand if you’re not familiar with that concept), why don’t you focus a little less on me and a little more on Suzy? Because here’s the truth: if a teenager wants to read a book that chronicles a boy’s desire for suicide, she should do so. And then she should be able to talk to her parents about what she’s read, to synthesize ideas and think deeply about the issues brought to light by the novel.
Young adult fiction author Maureen Johnson said it best when she posted this graph on Twitter (via photobucket’s Half-Lighter):
Discussion is key. Gurdon posits that “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it” and she may be right. However, literature is not just entertainment. It is a mirror that reflects facets of ourselves with which we may not be familiar, and a lens that allows us to look upon the world through someone else’s eyes. And perhaps a young adult will become attracted to darker novels because of his experiences with certain YA fiction, but if he is taught to process what he has read and to learn from it, he can do nothing but benefit.
A few things to ponder:
Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, blogs beautifully on the issue here.
Twitter user Foz Meadows says “#YASaves because books can say things that other people won’t, whether peers, parents or teachers. We read silently, but it is not silence.”
Twitter user Robin Wasserman says “Without books, I would have been alone. Trapped. Without hope. If adolescence is a cage, books are the key. #yasaves“
The YA community’s response to the WSJ article as covered in novel novice.
If you’re still skeptical, do me a favour and read up on book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or, here’s a wacky idea, read Fahrenheit 451. (See, I did get something sci-fi related in here!)
Thanks for reading. And thanks for Reading.