Thursday, July 7, 2011

More About That WSJ Article

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” - Audre Lorde

About a month ago I wrote a post concerning Meghan Cox Gurdon's article in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of increasing darkness in YA literature. This article instigated a massive Twitter campaign lead by Maureen Johnson against some of her points, and today I listened to the two women debate the matter on NPR.

Maureen did such an excellent job that I was literally applauding at one point, and several librarians and other authors (one of which was mentioned in the WSJ article in question) called in to share their thoughts. The third special guest of the segment was Madeline Kemper, a 13 year old recruited from Figment.  Let it be noted that I am very, very, very, very envious of Madeline Kemper.

One of the callers said that while some YA books are very dark and not for everyone, some teens need them- either so they don't feel so alone or to understand what their friends are going through- and that Gurdon has no right to call for those books to be taken away from them. Gurdon replied that she was doing no such thing. Because saying that such books are too dark to be on the market isn't calling for books to be taken away at all.

As I said in my first post on this subject, it is one thing to acknowledge that certain YA books contain things that not everyone would want to read, but it's quite another to say that those books shouldn't even be available in the first place. And that's something Maureen hinted at but never actually said.

What about the teens who don't cut themselves and have never been the victims of sexual abuse and don't know anyone who does/has, Gurdon asks? Aren't these books just glamorizing terrible things or jading us to the seriousness? I am one of these teens, and while I have been laughed at for apparently giving a summary of one such book with apparent casualness, I do not for one second devalue their existence nor the importance of the issues discussed. I can just talk about them more easily. How can that be considered a bad thing?

When a book is labeled YA, that yellow and red sticker does not say "This book is appropriate for 12 year olds." YA is a wide genre with protagonists ages 12-18. This does not mean that every YA book is intended for all of the ages within that range. Magic Tree House and Harry Potter are at entirely different reading levels, but they're still (at least the first few HPs) both shelved under Juvenile Fiction.

Then there's the whole argument of "parents don't want their kids reading x y and z." Gurdon mentioned something about wanting to "prolong childhood." I have no idea what that means, but keeping kids ignorant just to keep them sweet and innocent and pure is ridiculous. I'm not saying we should hand 12 year olds books full of violence, sex, or other potentially-disturbing content. I'm saying parents shouldn't limit their kids' reading just because they want them to remain their little babies forever.

However, if the reason behind the parental veto is that said parent knows their child (actually knows) well enough to know that he or she isn't ready for a given book, then that's fine. It's not a matter of "he/she has never heard of cutting before so he/she shouldn't read a book about cutting." It's a matter of "my child isn't emotionally mature enough to be able to handle this new information well." There are books I'd never recommend to my 12 year old sister that I read when I was her age because she's bothered by things I took in stride- and that's fine.

I've said it before that I read a few books in middle school that would have horrified many parents if they knew I was reading such things, and kind of disturbed me, too. But I read them and that can't be changed and after I had time to process said books, I was fine. There are things that will be shocking regardless of how old you are when you first discover them, and as much as we as a society prefer to protect our kids from anything that might make them less than happy, it's a part of life. And I'd rather have my kid read about those things in a book and then talk with him or her about it through the medium of literature than have them find out in a less "safe" or more embarrassing ("Olivia's Offspring doesn't know what ____ is hahahahahaha") way.

As for the caller who said "kids are moving straight from Spongebob to Twilight," perhaps I'm not the best counterexample to this claim considering that I started watching Spongebob after I read Twilight...but Daphne Unfeasible (Maureen Johnson's agent's alter ego) already wrote a great post about it. That caller really was just trying to promote his own book on air, which rather annoys me.

And then there's Scott Westerfeld's post about how not only do parents have a responsibility to talk to their kids about books rather than freaking out about articles such as this one, but teens have a responsibility to share their reading with their parents. To talk about books and what they mean to us.


  1. Still working out how to fit blog reading back into my life, so I didn't quite read this when you posted it, oops. Some thoughts, in the order in which they occurred:

    You mention that YA books have protagonists from 12-18, which coincidentally coincides with the audience that I thought YA targeted. So my question is are YA books classified because they are written for young adults or because their protagonists are young adults? And, if it is the former, why do their protagonists tend to be young adults? This hearkens back to my criticism in the original post about this article that books for girls/boys were simply distinguished by the sex of the protagonist. It seems like books written from the perspective of non-adolescents could be of value for adolescents to read, so why can't there be YA about middle aged teachers, or funky grandmas?

    Regarding a parent actually knowing their child isn't ready for some material, how well can anyone really know anyone else? I'm sure that most any parent who would curtail their child's reading list believes that they know their child isn't ready for it. I guess this goes back to epistemology and knowing/believing stuff, which reminds me to go comment on that post...

    On the other hand, I'm not saying that parents ought to just let their kids read whatever catches their fancy (although that seems to have worked ok in my case, I guess...), and your comment about parents and children benefiting from serious conversations about what they are reading seems like a wonderful ideal to strive for in general (although I personally would have HATED that). I'll try read the two posts you link when I have a bit more time, I'm travelling tomorrow, so that may afford the opportunity!

  2. Your first question: Both. Good second question. I think most YA readers are versatile enough to read outside of "their" genre, which would be why only the romance is called "adult" fiction and everything else is "general."

    About knowing people...yeah, but it's kind of "arrogant teenagery" to assume that just because I've always chosen my own reading...I'm in favor of kids choosing their own books, but if parents ARE going to be involved in choosing/censoring...

  3. Saw this webcomic and thought of the article in question. Third panel is the relevant one.


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