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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