Stuck between rage and compassion





Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article,* “Darkness Too Visible,” by Meghan Cox Gurdon. The subtitle is “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?”

(Pardon me while I take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths here. Need to keep the blood pressure down, don’t you know.)

Gurdon characterizes young adult fiction as “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.”

I’ll let you read the article for yourself and form your own opinions about the author’s intent and bias. (Please let me know what you think in my comments section. Or better yet, send your thoughts to the Wall Street Journal.)

I find myself shaking with anger. Why? First and foremost because this is opinion (badly) dressed-up as journalism. I expect better from the Wall Street Journal.

Second, because I know how ridiculous and harmful the statements are. Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.

Based on the thousands of interactions I’ve had with teen readers, they are drawn to YA books for at least one of these reasons:

1. They are dealing with the same issues that the characters in the book are.

2. Even if they don’t have the same life circumstances as the characters, they share the same feelings.

3. They read books in search of information; either about things they’ve experienced (Am I alone? How do I get help? Is this normal?) or about things that make them curious. I have gotten SO MANY letters and emails from readers who say things like “I never understood why my mom doesn’t want me to go to those parties, but after reading SPEAK, I do. Thanks.” Or “I’ve kind of been thinking that it would be awesome to develop anorexia, but after reading WINTERGIRLS, I know how awful it is.”

(Note to Meghan Cox Gurdon: you read that right. Teens read YA books and take away positive, moral guidance. In order to show kids why certain behaviors are dangerous, you actually have to discuss the behaviors. Scary, I know. It’s tough being a parent. But it’s tougher being a kid who has clueless parents.)

4. They read books for the same reasons that adults read books: for fun. To dip into another world and then to return to the real world.

5. Teens are drawn to YA books when they don’t have loving, trustworthy adults in their lives who will listen to them. Kids who have been raped, harassed, neglected, abused, ignored, misunderstood – the list seems endless sometimes – open these books in search of answers. I cannot count the number of letters and emails I’ve had from readers who say “Your book saved my life.” Because they read my book and found a character who was struggling like they were. By reading the character’s story, they found a way to reach out, speak up, get help. They tell me that books are the reason they chose not to commit suicide.

5a. And its not just my books. Every YA author I know has had the same experience, including Cheryl Rainfield, the author of SCARS.

I know what makes people like Meghan Cox Gurdon afraid of YA literature. I mentioned it during the BEA panel on censorship. As a preacher’s kid, and as someone who loves a lot of conservatives, and lives in a rural, conservative community, I understand the adults who are terrified of YA books. I feel compassion for them.

Because it’s not the books they’re afraid of.

They are afraid of their inability to talk to their kids about the scary, awful, real-world stuff that is out there. And they know, deep-down, that even if their own children are blessed with violence- and trauma-free childhoods and adolescences, their kids will daily come in contact with other kids who aren’t that lucky. So they know they should be talking about this stuff, but they don’t know where to start. And when their kid starts reading books about subjects that make Mom and Dad uncomfortable, the reaction is to get rid of the book, instead of summoning the courage and faith to have conversations that make them uneasy.

That is sad. Kids and teens need their parents to be brave and honest to prepare them for the real world.

In my experience, the parents who scream the loudest about YA books tend to have younger kids. They become aware of the genre when their oldest child enters middle school, just as they are realizing the enormity of the challenges of parenting teens. As their family survives the bumps along the road of middle and high school, they become more confident in their own parenting skills and they accept (sometimes embrace!) the opportunities presented by these books.

Great young adult literature connects us. It bridges the darkness. It saves lives. Thousands of people are testifying about the life-saving abilities of YA books on Twitter. I urge you to read their thoughts, and to share your own stories here, at the Wall Street Journal, or on your own blog or social media space.

I’m closing with the video of me reading my poem, “Listen.” It is mostly composed of snippets from the letters I’ve had from readers who connected with SPEAK and found the courage to speak up… and to continue growing up, despite their bruises and scars.



Speak loudly, friends.

* the piece in question certainly reads like an editorial or opinion piece as there is no effort to look at both sides of the subject. But I could not find (online) any designation of editorial or opinion. I conclude that the WSJ considers this an article, held to the journalistic standards they require of their other writers.
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76 Comments

  1. Posted June 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    So easy to blame books for society’s woes.

  2. E. Hill
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I read Speak as an adult and was impressed with its power. Considering how commonplace party rape is, there should probably be more books about the consequences.

    I seriously doubt that most teens want to spend their time reading about sunshine and fluffy bunnies. Or about the cushy lives of fellow teens who have delightful, untroubled lives.

    Kids growing up in high crime areas should read Pollyanna and (my fave) Anne of Green Gables?

  3. Alice
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    I’ll be honest: I don’t believe in censorship. There is, however, a world of difference between exposing a child/teenager to the realities of the world, and encouraging that child to stay immersed in a world of gore and violence.

    I am not discounting the therapeutic effects a book can have. Nor am I discounting that “oh, I’m not alone” feeling one gets when reading a book by an author who genuinely understands things. However, subjecting an entire generation of young people to extreme violence simply to highlight its existence is illogical, to say the least. They aren’t stupid, they KNOW the world is a cruel and often violent place. If a high percentage of young people are being abused (in any way), we should be asking why that is happening, and try to stop it, instead of writing books about it and tell them that it’s “normal”, or, at least “common” enough, and they shouldn’t feel alone. They shouldn’t, but they also shouldn’t feel like this is OKAY in any way. We are trivializing issues that should not be trivialized. We are making money by exploiting people’s problems, and that’s just abnormal, any which way you look at it.

    That being said, I don’t fully agree with the Wall Street article either, mind you, but I do believe that YA literature has started to look like a somewhat lighter version of “American Psycho” and I see no advantage (or value) in that. Books should try and affect change in society and those who read them, not perpetuate a culture of violence.

    • David Macinnis Gill
      Posted June 7, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      HI, Alice–

      I would be interested in which titles you had in mind when you wrote that “YA literature has started to look like a somewhat lighter version of ‘American Psycho’.” Could you share a few of them?

      Thanks

      DG

  4. Posted June 7, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Laurie,

    Thank you for the insightful reponse to that piece. My wife and I are adults that really enjoy YA fiction, and we hope our kids enjoy it when they get to reading age.

    Randy

  5. Amy
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, I am afraid of talking to my kids about the big, scary world out there. But this is just one more reason to support the darker side of YA! (and if this were the ONLY side of YA, I’d probably agree with the WSJ “article”, but it’s just not true) It is so much easier for wimpy parents (like myself) to talk to their child about the characters in a book – something that is not real. I can use the book as a springboard to explore my daughter’s real feelings about an issue. Sometimes starting the talk is the hardest thing, and books are a perfect aid.

    When I was a teen, I used to seek out A LOT of dark stuff, much darker than I can tolerate now. And I think the difference was that I felt safe. I didn’t know anyone that that stuff ever happened to, and I certainly didn’t think it could happen to me.

    Now I know better.

  6. Posted June 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    For writers in doubt about age appropriate material, I suggest:

    The Pen And Ink Blog: How To Write Books for Boys and Girls

  7. Posted June 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU!

    I was in a college course about young adult literature a few years ago. Most of my classmates were education majors (I was English creative writing and still am an avid YA reader) and I was horrified daily by the condescension these future teachers had for their future students. Most of them did not get the genre or what it could mean to readers of any age, especially those in the crucial pre-teen and teen years. And these were smart, good people and in many ways, I could see they would be good teachers.

    We read SPEAK in that class and while many of my classmates still wondered if it was appropriate for younger readers, I could see a shift in how they understood both their future jobs and the genre after we read your book.

    Thank you for writing it and thank you for writing this.

  8. Heather Hopkins
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    As a school counselor of elementary aged kids, you are dead ON! I love YA fiction and yes it should be age approriate but 2nd graders are not reading these books. Confused and scared teens are reading it and it is helpful and allows them to make sense of a what can be a very chaotic world even for a kid in a stable home! Thinking of banned books, “Tiger Eyes”, “Forever” and “Are you there God it’s me Margaret” rhey helped me make sense of many scary things in life and I am thankful for the writers who write about difficult topics! SPEAK was fabulous and my daughter and I will read it together when she starts middle school, because books open conversations.

  9. Posted June 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Because my reaction to this is far to long to be put in the comments of anything, it can be found here

  10. Posted June 8, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Very eloquently put. As a teen I turned to Stephen King because I was fascinated with dark themes and there really weren’t a lot in ‘kids’ books. I love what there is now. But I think the thing I love MOST is the door opening for a conversation with my kids BEFORE the subjects are personal. Those parents who are afraid to talk should see this as an opportunity.

    My daughter was assigned Speak as a Freshman (though she’d already read it because I saw the theme and my child headed to high school and KNEW that was a conversation we had to have)–I was thrilled to have messages I’d been saying: ‘don’t leave your friends alone; bad things can happen when people drink or use drugs; don’t go off alone with someone you don’t know well and trust–reinforced so well.

  11. Posted June 8, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Beautifully said. I write edgy YA and I’ve had the same response as you have. I’ve had psychologists read and pass on my book to teens who were cutters or who had thoughts of suicide. When I talk to people about these kinds of books I tell them what you just wrote. Teens need to know they aren’t alone. They need to know things can get better.

    Maybe the WSJ did all of us who write about these issues a favor. And maybe parents and teachers will now be aware of these books, read them and come to understand what their children are experiencing.

    Thank you for your excellent post.

    • Diana
      Posted June 8, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I am shocked to go into Barnes and Nobles and see nearly the entire YA section devoted to VAMPIRES, witchcraft, etc. Where is the CHOICE?

      Where are the positive, spiritual books? As WSJ columnist Meghan Gordan says, a woman went in to B&N to buy a book for her daughter and walked out empty handed. Why should she shove her 13 yo daughter’s face in the toilet and even pay for it in the bargain?

      Vampires are paraded as the new gods; immortals with divine powers and fabulous good looks. All you have to do is suck some BLOOD. Our young people are being led down a slope slick with blood and depravity.

      Diana

      • Posted June 9, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        If you head for an independent bookstore instead of a chain store, you’ll find a wider selection of books for kids and teens, AND incredibly knowledgeable staff to help you find choices that you are more comfortable with.

      • Jannis
        Posted June 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Better yet, head to a library where we’re (the librarians) happy to recommend ANY type of book your looking for. Plus, we’ve had years of experience and training and we’ve read a variety of books, thus able to assist you in your search. Go to a chain, as Laurie says, and you get a clerk with very limited knowledge.

      • Alexandra H.
        Posted June 21, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry to be so late in this point but…really? Did these parents really walk into a Barnes & Noble & see NOTHING that wasn’t about violence, vampires, what have you? Did they really see absolutely nothing that was suitable for their child/teenager? I’m finding this extremely hard to believe. If this is truly the case, they weren’t looking. Take a CLOSER LOOK.

        If you do want to give your teenager a book about these “dark issues”, do your research. What about…

        Anna & The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins? The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott? How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Staniford? Delirium by Lauren Oliver? Almost every novel by Sarah Dessen? Susanne Colasanti? Maureen Johnson? Should I go on? Some of the best coming-of-age novels in literature as CLASSICS. (Need a recommendation, parents? “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee? Come on. Quit attacking what you do not understand simply because you are misinformed)

        I work in an independent bookstore & it’s true. The staff/librarians in independents and librarians can recommend a broader range of books but even in a big corporation such as Barnes & Noble, you can find most of these books displayed on the shelves. Open your eyes!

        -Alex

  12. Leora
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU!

    Laurie (Ms Halse Anderson?), you are just about the only adult I have met who understands this. I write as well and most of the time the adults who have read my stuff are constantly berating me or thinking I’m mentally disturbed because of the darker edgier and truer nature of some of my work. Last year when I was at home dealing with anorexia and depression, I felt the need to hide that I was reading Wintergirls or anything else on cutting (which I had dealt with) or eating disorders because my mother might have thought I was fueling my issues instead of looking for answers and desperately trying to be understood and understand how to get better or even want to. I have also gone through the same as Melinda from speak as well as other things and responsibilities beyond my age I’m dealing with and I can tell you, your books have definitely saved me as have other YA of the same nature. People who disagree don’t know what they’re talking about and are so scared of doing the wrong thing and not being good enough parents that they do the opposite. Keep writing these books, please, they’re the only things that listen.

    Thank you.

    Leora

  13. jenmitch
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this, but did you notice that on the left side of the article, they have a list of recommended books, divided into categories for “young men” and “young women” . maybe this isn’t a big deal to lots of people, but for me it was an indication before I even finished reading the article of how out of touch the author is.

  14. Posted June 9, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Another really frustrating thing about this article, which I read with raised eyebrows, is the suggestion that it is BAD parenting to give your child free literary reign. This implies that a) censorship of a teenager’s reading equals parental love and b) parents are actually CAPABLE of controlling this. They aren’t. When my parents banned books on Paganism and romance novels during my teenaged years, I immediately sought out every tome I could could find in either category. I just read them at school, or at friends’ houses, or in my bedroom at night with a flashlight. Banning a teen from something is the fastest way to get them interested in it. It’s much more valuable to allow the child to read what interests them, and then have a substantive discussion of the book afterwards. Censorship is a very dangerous thing to play with, and to call it “responsible parenting” is incredibly damaging to society as a whole.

  15. Carrie
    Posted June 9, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Laurie,

    I’m a sixteen-year-old aspiring writer, and I’m having difficulties choosing a side.

    I’ve read now both the WSJ article, your response, and the response of other YA writers, most of whom responded in a way similar to yours: defensive, even angered – which is understandable, seeing as how many of these type of articles have appeared. The WSJ article sounded, to me, like the quintessential offended book-banning mob mother writing for the Wall Street Journal. The amount of stereotyping and hasty generalization (“all YA fiction is depraved, explicit, gorey, and dark”) when in fact the books they demand – the ones full of images of beauty or joy – are there. I’ve read them. I seek them out.

    It seems to me that the books that include such content as abuse, violence, and a lack of morals are there like the adults are saying to the teens, We understand, we remember. We know what’s going on, all the bad stuff – it’s not a nightmare or a ghost story, but it’s real life and we’re here to help you through it. I think WSJ overlooked that.

    I’m in conflict over Gurdon’s comments about Cheryl Rainfield’s book Scars. I completely agree with the Kentucky Library protesters that said the cover might trigger a relapse in teens with self-mulilation issues. I understand this, because I have experienced it. I cut myself to releave a growing pressure inside me that threatened to consume me, and while I was spiraling I remembered, strangely, all the stories I’d heard about cutting oneself – not just from the books I’d read, but from health class and articles by people with an over-developed sense of self-righteousness – and I firmly believe that if those stories hadn’t been brought to life in such a rude, crass way that I might never have had the thought to cut my wrist with hair scissors. Then again, maybe I would have, but I don’t think publicising it is the answer. I mean, what are they trying to achieve? Raising awareness? Awareness so that more teenage girls can put to good use the info they learn in a YA novel?

    I’m glad for your calm response, but I stil believe that both you and Ms. Gurdon are right – that YA fiction is a way for teens to find help and healing, but also something needs to change, the world itself is a darkness too visible, and teens don’t need that in the novels they choose to read.

    C

  16. Posted June 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Laurie, thank you for posting this! I was so enraged by that article; your response is brilliant and so true. I’m 18 years old and both an avid reader and writer of YA fiction. I’ve learned so much from all the books I read. I also write a lot of dark stuff––not for the sake of attention as the WSJ article suggests, but to address issues about which I feel passionate and to show how strength and relationships can prevail even in dark times/situations.

    Your writing is beautiful and I know you inspire so many teens every day. Never stop doing what you’re doing! Rock on!

    - Brigid

  17. Sarah
    Posted June 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Laurie,

    As a middle school English teacher for 12 years, I can’t thank you enough for this response. YA allows an imaginative rehearsal – or retrospective processing – of real life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve recommended Speak , Wintergirls , Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland , all of the poetry-prose books by Ellen Hopkins, the realistic fiction of Gary Schmidt, or dozens of other books about drugs, abusive relationships, and other “edgy” topics.

    I will quote you regularly and often: YA literature saves lives. And you, with your essays and novels, give children and their adults such redemption.

    Sarah

  18. Posted June 12, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    such a stupid article. i’ve emailed my response to WSJ and it’s posted on my blog.
    http://cherrybananasplit.blogspot.com/2011/06/dear-wall-street-journal.html

  19. Karissa
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Laurie, I can always count on you for your flawless responses to attacks on YA lit. As an addicted YA reader and English/Secondary Education major, these types of articles infuriate me. You always type exactly what I am thinking. A couple months ago, my Adolescent Reading class had a debate concerning the book. “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” by Chris Crutcher, and afterward, I posted your video “Listen” on Facebook because censorship was on my mind. There was an explosion of comments on this link from a few of my conservative family members, and this reaffirmed the ignorance of people concerning YA literature. I truly, completely thank you for your words, your books, your opinions, your spirit- at twenty years old, I know that reading about these issues saves lives, thanks to you.

    P.S. In my Adolescent Reading class last semester at Elms College, I did my midterm project on you and your book “Wintergirls.” Thanks for inspiring me. That book also inspires me to write about my own battle with Crohn’s disease, and you have given me the courage to do so. I will always “listen” to your words.

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