Dear WSJ, Young Adult Lit Is Not ‘Ugly’

The Wall Street Journal published an article about young adult books yesterday, titled “Darkness Too Visible”. The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, tells the story of a mother who went to Barnes & Noble to find a gift for her 13-year-old daughter, but felt that there was nothing appropriate for her, only “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” I need to point out, as a bookseller who specializes in YA lit, that this mom clearly did not ask for help finding an appropriate book, or she would have left with one. I help parents all the time who are concerned that many of the books in the young adult section are too adult or too violent or too sexy for their child – and that’s your right as a parent, to decide what your kid can read. Lots of parents are scared by all the gothy-looking vampire romance covers and all the books with “death” in the title. (And it sounds like she was actually looking at the “paranormal romance” section instead of the regular “teen fiction” section, which usually has plenty of bright covers with prom dresses or carefree girls at the beach on the cover.) But booksellers are there to help you find a good book, and they are knowledgeable about their departments. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Gurdon also purports that young adult books nowadays are full of grotesque material that should not be marketed to teens. She writes:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but 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.

This makes me so angry, because the author is insinuating that the “depravity” in the YA books she’s so afraid of isn’t true to life. So, girls don’t experience rape, and then struggle with what to do because they know they’ll be shamed for it, as in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? Teens don’t struggle with depression, self-injury, or mental illness? The truth is that the reason the YA community is so up in arms about this article is because teens (and adults) identify with these books. As hideous and depraved as Ms. Gurdon may think it is, teens want to read books that are honest, that don’t shelter them and let them experience real emotions. Speak is the book that saved my life: I wasn’t raped, like Melinda was in the book, but I was 13 and suffering from a deep depression. I didn’t know it was depression at the time, but I felt so very alone and helpless and I wanted to hide from everyone in my life. And then I read Speak, and Melinda felt that way, too! I had found someone who understood, and I read that book over and over again throughout my teenage years. If I hadn’t read it, I might not have become such an avid reader, discovered other books that spoke to me, or gotten out of my depression. But Melinda gave me hope. If that’s not joy and beauty, I don’t know what is.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.

And then we have the old argument that books about scary things like suicide, cutting, and drugs will cause teens to want to do those things. I challenge Ms. Gurdon to find one teen who admits that they started doing one of these things because of a book they read. Find one girl who became anorexic because Laurie Halse Anderson made it seem so attractive and glamorous in Wintergirls. (She actually makes it very scary and details all the ways Lia’s body breaks down.) Find one teen who started doing meth after reading Ellen Hopkin’s Crank, or one who decided it would be cool to start cutting themselves after reading Julia Hoban’s Willow. This idea that an outside influence is going to convince your teen to do bad things is entirely bogus, just like the random stranger on the street who’s going to offer your kids drugs that was the scare tactic in my fifth grade D.A.R.E. classes. Teens know that drug-peddling stranger doesn’t exist. If they do drugs, it’s going to be because they want to do drugs, whether it’s because of some pain inside them that they’re trying to heal, or because they’re rebelling against their parents, or because they’re just curious. Similarly, teens don’t do things like drinking or cutting or attempting suicide because a book gave them the idea. That’s not only insulting to the book’s author, who is not a drug pusher or a depraved person who wants to teach teenagers about nasty things; it’s also insulting to your kids, who are not so easily influenced and who want to be given more credit. There’s a reason we call it young adult literature: your teens are not children anymore. They’re smart, they’re finding out about the world as well as themselves, and trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves from their parents and from their peers. Parents, don’t underestimate your teens.

If you want to read more about the subject, check out Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog post or the #YAsaves tag on Twitter, which authors, librarians, parents, and readers are using to share their stories of how “dark” young adult books are good for teens. Feel free to talk in the comments as well: how have YA books helped you?

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