Tag Archives: Meghan Cox Gurdon

A Spade By Any Other Name

(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.


Posted by on July 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Blinded By The Dark

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.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

Megan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible,” The Wall Street Journal

The link is there if you want to follow and read the whole article (please do), but that pulled quote represents the core of Gurdon’s article and the part with which I most agree. Young adult novels are including stories that are more descriptive of violence and sex, and are telling stories that make wide use of said descriptions. As a young adult librarian who goes through publishers’ trade magazines and scours ordering lists for my library, I acknowledge Gurdon’s excerpt as fact.

However, everything else in the article is based on conjecture and, to an irresponsible degree, fear. She relies on the same argument that politicos attempt to apply to videogames: the horrors we unleash on our children! Won’t somebody please think of the children?

I am a librarian, and educating/entertaining children is my job. That means some of the materials I order for the bookshelves includes material that is sexual or violent in nature. But, unlike a bookstore mentioned in Gurdon’s article that only appeals to graphic content, my library includes lighthearted stories. Inspiring stories. Stories about overcoming adversity and finding yourself have a place on the shelves alongside stories of macabre adventures and shocking trauma. Librarians can’t cover every reader’s taste, but darn it, we try.

“Hold on a minute Thomas,” those of you who read the WSJ article might protest, “Gurdon doesn’t say libraries fail YA audiences. Quit stuffing her article with your words!” True enough, Gurdon ignores the input of any library or librarian in her column except for acknowledging that, true enough, they are okay with profane language. (Should strong language come with a warning label? That’s a slope too slippery for standing.)

Gurdon points out, rather correctly, that the American Library Association paints objectors of certain books as censors who wish to ban books for others, when said “censors” are merely concerned parents. The Safe Libraries blog breaks the ALA issue down better than I or Gurdon do. I’m kind of a hypocrite on this issue: I believe that truly damaging material should be kept from minors, but my definition of “damaging materials” is at such a level that I have yet to encounter anything that I would keep from minors. If a book existed that was nothing but reasons to hate minorities (not the cheeky kind, either), I would do everything I could to pull the book. On the other hand, a story that includes racism and racist characters…is a depiction. I have no right to presume what meaning will be drawn from such a book, but in order to provide a rich and rewarding reading experience, I can presume to stock a variety of genres that use a variety of writing techniques to provide a variety of emotional and intellectual reactions.

Finally, I must commend the included list of “Books We Can Recommend for Young Adult Readers.” Meghan wants to put good books in the hands of readers, and will likely see her article giddily prodded by the blogosphere for not wanting everything teens read to be about “coarseness or misery.” I think a book discussion with her would prove fascinating.


Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


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