(Behold, both sides of the recent YA lit debate. Slightly different shapes? Yes, but practically the same!)
I am not going to push a cluster of links about this “has YA literature gotten too dark” hullabaloo on you because emotion and personality have inflated most discussions into some weird game where everyone grandstands to “win” the argument (that, to be fair, Gurdon instigated). There are several nuanced positions to be taken in the discussion, but for the sake of so-called brevity I will address the issue of dark YA lit as if there were only two sides. Here’s the stripped-down nutshells of both sides, as I see them:
Meghan Cox Gurdon: Notices trend of darker material in books aimed at teenagers. Feels that overexposure to such material could warp one’s perspective on the world. Suggests that book reviews take notice of edgy material and that a variety of books be recommended to teens.
Nearly every outspoken YA author and devotee: Also notices darker trend, but emphasizes potential for such material as therapy for teens going through similar events in real life and for unaffected teens to learn empathy for those in depicted scenarios.Suggests that teens be given freedom to read what they want without others policing their taste in books.
So far, just that much difference in outlook has been enough to set a bunch of blogs and tweets on fire. The topic has led to some great discussion at my library. Let’s examine something that doesn’t seem to make the rounds as much in this “debate,” though…
What both sides have in common: Desire for teens to read quality books, with best-case scenario of teens learning about new, challenging situations and to believe in themselves to overcome obstacles no matter how difficult. Wish to see families engage over and discuss books. Wish to see teens become able, confident people who can function in the world.
Of course, the devil’s in the details…
Gurdon wants book reviews to acknowledge particularly dark material, such as sex, drugs, violence, and language. I don’t think this is a particularly damning demand. She’s not asking for the mature books to be shelved separately or labeled so as to be taken out of the hands of minors. There is mention in her article of creating a “15 and up” shelf, but I read that as more of a begrudging guideline for fiction aimed at the 13-19 age range. She wants parents and educators to have a full picture of what they’re ordering and recommending. In my opinion, a good book reviewer should be able to embed these concerns into reviews without sounding like the thought police. But then…
YA defenders want books to be as available as possible to teens without the stigma of whether teens can handle subject matter. That’s how literature has treated teens for centuries, right? Pinocchio, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Shakespeare are all dark and bloody, but past generations survived. Now YA lit gets “real” and suddenly there’s a cause/effect scare? Gory horror movies are an annual trend every Halloween, but you don’t see teens leaning toward serial killing every October. I trust readers, young and old, to know what they like and burn out on a given subject when they feel like it. Only the reader knows a book’s effects on the reader in real-time. The teens at my library all prefer different genres, some of which can get dark, but never all edginess all the time.
Put the shoe on the other foot: if YA lit was nothing but flighty beach romances and sunny adventures, would Gurdon decry the lightweight state of teen fiction? (I think yes, if only to complete her column for the Wall Street Journal.) There would be demands for more mature, challenging stories. And the defense would remain the same! “Let them read what they want!”
These are trends, not epidemics. The shelves in bookstores and libraries expand and contract without swallowing each other whole. I would say to Gurdon, continue recommending great titles you recognize, but show some more trust. Explicit material has to hold up in context or else the story will suffer, and readers will notice. To YA lit’s ever-ardent defenders I would say, good job holding the line, but be careful not to write off every concern about YA lit as domineering censorship. Parents and educators deserve to be informed, even if they aren’t as gung-ho about certain topics as you are.
If that’s enough anecdotal evidence and strawman arguments for everyone, I think all sides can go to bed after this post. As always, feel free to agree/disagree in the comments.