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.

108 Replies to “Stuck between rage and compassion”

  1. It’s the notion that these dark and spooky problems shouldn’t be addressed but ignored is what really bothers me. As if the kids that are actually going through things like this aren’t worth it because it’s far too dark and unpleasing for people’s minds’ eye so it’s best to just not acknowledge it at all. It’s a disgusting thought and cancerous if perpetuated. We should be reaching to these problems to help, not pulling away from them like Gurdon insinuates.

  2. I was so annoyed while reading I had to stop, walk around the room and start again.
    Books are such a huge part of why I made it through my teens, they were my source of information and understanding.
    Without them I would have felt so isolated, alone in the dark.

  3. Well said. I’m not a writer, but this article was outrageous to me. I’m a 24 year old medical student and for the past decade of my life, YA books have been a vital part of my reading collection.

    It would be even more harmful NOT to give teens something to relate to as it would only isolate them further. As I tweeted, and fully believe: YA lit doesn’t create the darkness, it responds to darkness that people face daily…and gives them hope.

    It encourages me how hard the authors I love are working to speak out against this review. It can’t be easy to see those things being said when your life has been dedicated to writing. Please don’t take it to heart and realize that no matter what the writers at the Wall Street Journal think, your novels have touched so many people and the world is a better place for them.

  4. Back in 2001, being shoved from a high school into a new one, where I actually didn’t grow up with these people; i had an overwhelming feeling of being an outcast. Its because I was. What saved me? Writing and reading YA which in turn helped me cope with the transition. What comforted me the most was the characters being pulled from one environment into a new one. The girls that were new in town, going to a new school and trying to survive it. Granted I didn’t think there were any hot guys at my new school but hell I could live through this girl who was feeling so left out and as lonely as I was. 10 years later I’ve finished a book hoping to have it published in hopes that a girl in my same shoes as a sophomore in high school torn away from her roots will be able to cope just as well as I did. I’m also glad to say I don’t abuse drugs like some old classmates I know, nor am I a mom of a young child. So its safe to say YA doesn’t harm the reader. Its the actions we take. To end this long rant, we all have choices to make in this life. A 300 plus book isn’t going to sway us to be murders.

  5. I was discussing this earlier on Twitter. When I was a teen we didn’t really have YA, so what did we read? Normal adult fiction. We were expected to read grown-up stuff at school so we did, with all the violence, abuse and strong language that may or may not be within the pages. I read Trainspotting for an English dissertation, it actually would have put me off drugs if I had ever been tempted.

    These people need to remember what they read at school. I bet they read a ‘classic’ where someone was abused, just dressed up in fancier words.

  6. 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.

    Perfect. Perfect! You are my hero.

  7. It was this story that made me post my personal story on my blog. Something I never thought I would do and something I never have said out loud. Your book SPEAK helped me as an adult. So thank you for that and for always speaking up and being a beacon for wronged books.

  8. Great post – I can understand the compassion and rage elements completely. I had to speak up on this one as well, in honor of the many amazing and courageous YA authors out there who are trying to help by exposing truth and giving young people the opportunity to learn and grow, safely.

  9. I agree with you 110%. Being within the age group that reads Young Adult fiction, I would much rather read a novel with a true to life issue, concept, whatever. I don’t want to read “fluff”, I don’t want to read a book which screams fake and where they don’t face a problem I *know* people around me are facing, if not my own self. I want the plain truth, no matter how ugly that may seem to my parents or other adults, not a pretty, pleasant cover up. When I read books, I want to finish them understanding what other people go through just a bit more, and I want to be confident in the fact that they’ve helped prepare me for the real world, which is pretty ugly and harsh at times.

    Coincidentally, one of the final english assignments I’ve got to do before final exams is a letter to an editor. I’ve most definitely chosen this to write about, and I just might send it to them, someone’s got to tell them! Figured I would add that in. Sorry for the awfully long comment!

  10. At 21, I’ve been through a number of dark periods in my life. During each period, I turned to books, to YA novels, to keep me afloat in the midst of the darkness that my life had turned into. In every instance, I found reading as a way of finding my own voice and making sense of the awfulness that was around me. Never did I read something and not find some truth, some small nugget of hope or light in the books I read, even in the darkest of stories.

    My parents, thankfully, never once censored what I was reading. I know that some of them were probably over my head, some dealt with issues that I was not at the time completely prepared for. Despite this, I learned from the books; they helped me grow in a POSITIVE way. Even the darkest novel has glimmers and highlights of goodness and positive lessons to be learned.

    What frustrated me about this article was that Ms. Gurdon did not seem to grasp the idea that these books are about things that actually happen to real people. Rape, murder, cutting, kidnapping, abuse of all kinds happen to children everyday. It’s the world we live in. The author seems to believe that young adults are not subject to the same evils and violence that adults are. YA novels are sometimes the only things that help teens who have been hurt by someone. They show teens that they are not alone. If someone has written a book on a similar experience that I went through, it shows me that I’m OK, there is help, people know what I’m going through.

    Teens are embarrassed to be different; teens crave to be accepted by their peers. YA novels show them that it’s OK to be different. That even if they think they are different, there is someone out there that has gone through what they are going through. YA novels offer help and understanding to teens who sometimes do not get that from the adults or peers in their lives.

    Ms. Gurdon must have had a really lovely childhood and young adulthood to have these opinions. I am very jealous of her. I wish the same could be said for all young adults. But it can’t be. And until it can, YA novels will be there to save teenagers lives. As they did mine.

  11. I dislike how she only talks about one genre of YA books. For every book that covers a dark, important issue, there is a light hearted book. Both sides have a place in YA lit.

  12. Laurie–I love how clear and focused and strong you are! Love your entire powerful, eloquent post, and the way you help people see things. Loved the “YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.”, and every one of your points. You say it so well!

    I also like how you bring compassion to the people who get afraid to share the books with their kids.

    And wow! Thank you so very much for mentioning that Scars has had the same reaction, teens writing me telling how it’s saved them, and for linking to me. That was so incredibly kind of you!

  13. “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.”

    I think that’s what kills me a little bit.

    Beautifully stated, Laurie.

    I blogged about it over at WORD, too – used Wintergirls as my example.

  14. The WSJ, despite its esteemed past, is now a Murdoch publication, and as such contains loads of frightening and wrong opinions, barely disguised as journalism. I am so glad to see YA writers such as Laurie Halse Anderson and Libba Bray (among others) fighting back against the book-burning/hypocritical/hyper-judgmental foolishness of this anti-YA rant in the WSJ. My guess is that all the negative publicity for the WSJ, as a result of this article and all the YA author tweets, will turn out to be a boost for the YA book market! So thanks for the idiocy, WSJ. I’ll look forward to (not) reading more.

  15. I agree that this type of literature should be available to students (young adults, etc). But we must realize that this type of literature isn’t good for all young adults. I basically skilled reading young adult literature because of the reasons you mentioned above as why they are. I couldn’t relate at all …. I had trusting adults in my life, I had goals and passions, I lived in a fantasy world though, I loved reading Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, any period piece, I did write my own as well. From reading YA literature as a young adult, I didn’t see myself in the books, they made me feel more different and more an outcast. But I think it’s great if students relate to them, just make sure when recommending such literature that it is is something that will help the student, not hinder them.

  16. This is so eloquent and expresses many truths about young adult fiction and why kids need and want it. I especially love your compassion and explanation of the fear that often drives such opinion. Thank you for writing this.

  17. Is it just me, or does anyone find it suspicious that the WSJ is not currently allowing new registrations (required for commenting)?

  18. I taught _Catcher in the Rye_ to 10th graders a few years ago in the “belt buckle” of the Bible belt. I was told by a parent that we shouldn’t read such a book BECAUSE it deals with mental health issues. (The parent’s other argument was that “the man who shot John Lennon had the book on him at the time of the crime… as though the book loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.) What bothered me then, and again after reading the WSJ article, is the idea that we shouldn’t discuss these issues with our teens. The whole first part of the WSJ article says that YA lit of yore didn’t discuss these issues (which, as is proved by _Catcher_, they did), and wouldn’t it be better if we went back to a time when YA lit didn’t deal with the ugly side of human nature?

    I want to ask Meghan Cox Gurdon exactly why she thinks life was better when we didn’t discuss real life worries, struggles, failures. Was the world truly a better place when we pretended that anything “Otherly” didn’t exist? Is it better to shove kids back in to the closet, sew their mouths closed, and tell them not to tell anyone lest they be seen as weak, different, bad? Just because we didn’t discuss these things doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

    Besides all of that… Has she only read the heavier YA? Hasn’t she seen _My Most Wonderful Year_, or _DramaRama_ or _Will Grayson, Will Grayson_ all meaningful, fun, lovely books that still mean something to all of us? To say that all YA lit is only dark, horrible and depressing is to stereotype in a very real way. Let’s broaden the horizon and not pigeon hole an entire genre of literature.

  19. There is such a wide variety within YA that the characterization by this WSJ writer seems completely unfair or woefully ignorant. There are authors who write real characters, but who specifically avoid explicit language or violence in order to be a safe place for teens who want to escape the cruety of their own world – Janette Rallison, Angela Morrison, Aprilynne Pike, and Jon S. Lewis come to mind. There are other authors that choose to engage these difficult issues for the teens who desperately need to know that they are not alone and there is hope for them – you, Laurie, Lisa McMann, Tom Leveen, and Robin Brande, just to name a few. And, of course, there are authors who write the sensational for the sake of being sensational, but this is true of any genre or medium. It is the variety in YA that should be celebrated as well as the teens who have been changed because of the books they read. How fantastic that there are options for teens and for parents to engage in and with! And how short-sighted for the author of that article to miss it.

  20. As I was discussing banned books week with some students, I used Speak as an example of a book that has been challenged. One student was outraged and later confided in me that “it happened to me.” It was in that moment (as I fought the tears threatening to slide down my face) that I truly understood why it is so important to keep books that matter in the hands of kids. Thank you for writing this book and “cracking shells.”

  21. Very well said–and I’m impressed that you are managing to work compassion in there. I just get enraged. As a middle school teacher I have seen kids lives improve just by reading one book–and then, often, another and another. As a graduate student, I studied YA books–and actually READ a great deal of them (and still do–currently reading Forever by Maggie Steifvater) and can confidently say that 98% are more redeeming, life-affirming, and comforting–particularly to those kids who don’t get those feelings from regular life–than horrific or depraved.

    I can also say that yours, Ms. Anderson, are some of the best. I had a kid who NEVER read a book in his life finish Twisted…and then ask for more.

    As a snarky side note, I’m a bit taken aback at the beginning of the WSJ article. This is a new thing, is it? The biggest ‘smash it’ with young adults during my aunt’s childhood was Flowers in the Attic. Beatings? Check. Incest? Check. Kidnapping? Check. 1979.

  22. Everything about what WSJ has done is so shady to me. I didn’t realize they weren’t allowing new comments. One of their tweets asked people to go over to facebook to continue the discussion. Anything for more ‘likes’. *sigh*. When I pointed that out, they tweeted that we didn’t HAVE to bring the discussion to facebook.

    Everything about this has left such a poor impression of the wall street journal in my mind.

  23. “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.”

    Exactly. Parents spend so much time today trying to protect and shelter their children from things that are happening in the real world because they are either unwilling or don’t know how to talk to their children about it. How many of us would know what to say to our eleven-year-old son who came up to us after school and asked about why people cut themselves and say it makes them feel better?

    It is not just the fear of protecting them and not allowing them to see this darker side of human nature that has found a home in the literature being consumed by adolescents and adults alike, where it is sure to help someone coping with the same issues feel as though they are not alone, that someone must understand them to write so intricately about their lives. The fear is in not knowing what to say to kids about it. In seeming like we don’t know. Parents are supposed to be all knowing, so what happens when they don’t know the answer? Get rid of the problem – in this case the book.

    If parents are so concerned with the material their children are exposed to and their inability to respond when asked with questions, it would probably serve them well to educate themselves about the issues their children are reading about. Perhaps they could begin by simply reading the book with their child, then engaging them in discussion about the material. All it takes is an ear to listen and a willingness and ability to say, “I don’t know the answer to that” when presented with a difficult question.

    If we expect our children to overcome their fears of the darker sides of humanity, we as parents need to first overcome our own fear of admitting we don’t know the answer to our children’s questions or problems and start digging in and finding out more information right alongside with them.

  24. This is one of the best responses we’ve read all day. (And that’s really all we’ve been doing today. There’s a running list of responses on our FB page.)

    You’re absolutely right that the “article” is motivated by fear. And that’s sad. Sad that she is trying to spread her fear with scare tactics and (many would argue) lies. Sad that she has to vilify those who are trying to help simply b/c she has no one else to vilify. Sad that so many people will read her words and believe her.

    But the #YAsaves movement has been strong, and we hope it can do some damage control. We’ve certainly been doing our best to spread the word.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and that poem. It’s heartbreaking, but real. It shouldn’t be ignored, no matter how intimidating.

  25. Thank you as always, Laurie, for a well stated response. Your choice of “compassion” was THE word I had grasped in the wind for all morning along with my own outrage. Having counseled junior high students many years ago I would often find myself seething inside with a parent but also feeling something that wasn’t really “feeling sorry” for them but something else, and today you have given me the word I know describes that feeling…”compassion” even though I have fought using that word in my anger and rage.

    A few years ago today’s discussed WSJ columnist wrote a piece for WSJ titled “Scary Green Monsters” which I learned of through Liz Burks’ blog as the columnist (I guess that is a kind title that is correct?) incorrectly discussed a book as an honor book when it was not. However, the parts of the column that really got to me then were the first two and the last two paragraphs:

    If you have somehow missed the fact that April 22 is Earth Day, it’s probably because you are grown up. Were you a child, there’s not a chance you’d be allowed to miss the urgent chthonic nature of the day — nor the need to recycle, to use water sparingly, to protect endangered creatures and generally to be agitated about a planet in peril.

    Contemporary children are so drenched with eco-propaganda that it’s almost a waste of resources. Like acid rain, but more persistent and corrosive, it dribbles down on them all day long. They get it at school, where recycling now competes with tolerance as man’s highest virtue. They get it in peppy “go green” messages online, on television and in magazines.

    And the closing:
    As any parent can tell you, children like routine. They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.

    Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?

    Interestingly I am here with the two year old grandson in his house. He knows there are things we put in the recycling bin and very matter of factly when it is “clean up time” he puts things in the right bin, no big fuss, no disordering of his universe. He’s next back to playing with his little train, “come on GiGi, all aboard!”

    And now we come to today…I have carried your books and other YA with me as I read them on airplanes, on trains and the metro, into lobbies of office buildings where I await meetings and any place I am going where there is even a hint I may be waiting…and with great predictability I always see a knowing glance, a mouthed “I liked that book a lot” or even a conversation started if an adult is present with the young person and disappears. It happens every time, it happens without fail, whether a book on a disorder or a book that creates great laughter.

    And that is exactly what we want to see happen with children and young adults and us older adults as we encounter a book: it gets into our head, there is a personal connection of some kind that speaks to us where we are with what we need at that moment…and that is success.

  26. Sorry, I failed to close the italics starting with third from last paragraph where I open that paragraph with “Interestingly I am here with the two year old grandson…..”


  27. Laurie, thank you for posting this. I hadn’t heard about the WSJ article until this morning, and as soon as I did, I went to Twitter and started checking the #YAsaves posts. And posting a few of my own.

    One of them ended up going under the wrong account (my romance pen name), so I’ll say it again here. Two and a half years ago, my then 13-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by a boy she had a crush on. She was afraid to report it at first, and when she finally reported it, she gave the police the wrong date of when it occurred. The boy had an alibi for the date she gave, so nothing was done. Fortunately, she was already in counseling.

    She had to read Speak in school not long afterward. One day she came to me in tears and told me that reading that book helped her realize that she wasn’t the only one that had happened to, and that she could get better. Before that, she’d been afraid to leave the house. After reading Speak, she was a little less scared. And she stopped talking about hurting herself.

    So yeah, YA saves.

  28. Laurie, I sure hope you’ve sent your rant to the WSJ. They’re obviously in need of well-written, well-organized, well-founded opinion. If all she read was Lauren Myracle’s work, then she didn’t do her homework. Myracle is just one YA author who, like you, tackles the tough subjects, then ones people want to pretend don’t exist or happen to young adults. I would LOVE to know what research she actually did, what OTHER books she read, because it doesn’t appear she did much. I could go on, but I need to keep my blood pressure down, too. ;o) Keep up the writing and good works you do, Laurie! They keep the rest of us going…and writing!

  29. I agree with you wholeheartedly! I am a mom to four children, two are teenagers. I have always loved reading, and even if I have been lucky and never suffered abuse, rape or touched drugs, I think it is important to know that it is something that can happen to anyone.
    I read a lot of different kinds of books, also YA, and I am so happy each time I can tell my 16 year old daughter about a new book I’ve read, and then she will read it too, and we’ll talk about it. It brings us closer, and sometimes, it helps us start discussing a subject that can be difficult to bring up ‘without reason’.
    As I read all kinds of both fiction and non-fiction books, I think it is normal that my children will do the same. Often, a good book is far better than a good movie, and the reason for wanting either is either entertainment, learn something new, or read / see something thought-provoking.
    So I, for one, am very happy YA authors and readers have come together to fight against ignorance and people who think that it should be their way or the highway.

  30. I was never as proud as being part of the YA community as I have been since last night. Yes, it hurts when people are so ignorant as to want to censor books that help and enlighten those teens whose parents wish to gloss over their children’s problems. What followed the comments of Meghan Cox Gurdon was the best reply to her biased review. Thank you, Laurie, for being part of the most amazing community of writers and readers ever.

  31. Please don’t demonize conservative parents. I’m conservative in my view towards individual rights and freedoms. It just makes common sense to me. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m stingy, judgmental or selfish — and I cringe when I’m stereotyped as such. I love the Lord, I love my family and I love my fellow man. I hope I am viewed that I live accordingly.

    I’m a children’s literature fanatic and you (LHA) are without a doubt, my favorite. As a school librarian, I often steer students to your works, and suggest them to parents — especially ones who would benefit from the subject manner. I have given your books to my own three daughters, hoping that it would spark good conversations about the difficult world they are facing which often treats women as commodities. Isn’t that sad that I feel the need to do so.

    I have good friends whose own children are suffering from eating disorders, and other serious issues, but they refuse to lean into the problem and understand the mind of their child. They just don’t want to deal with it. I don’t know if facing reality is too painful or that they don’t “have the time” — either way, the child is being further ignored and it’s just so tragic. Politics has nothing to do with how they face this.

    I have never met a fellow conservative with the mindset you convey in banning books. In my media center, it has been the opposite. I’ve been asked to ban all books with guns and that mention the name, “Hitler.” I don’t believe in banning. It’s against my core values of freedom. Please think before you paint a population segment with a broadbrush stereotype. Just because I’m conservative doesn’t mean I’m evil or ignorant. I want all to have the rights I enjoy. Thanks!

  32. I completely agree with you, 100%. Being a teen who has been reading these books even before I was in the “suggested age group,” I know what it’s like to read them, to understand them, to need them in my life. My parents are a little, let’s say, lacking in that department of explaining things to me, sitting me down, telling me what’s good and what’s bad. Luckily, I grew up knowing those things and figuring them out myself along the way. I know what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not. What taught me most of that? Books. YA books, even adult books. I once went through a tough time in my life when I started to cut. My parents still don’t know about it, and they won’t, because they never ask, and I never tell. But I found a book called Cut by Patricia McCormick, and after I finished that book, I stopped cutting. I found others, too, like Go ask Alice and things just cleared up for me. I knew I wasn’t the only one.
    YA truly does save. It serves as an escape, a safe-haven, when teens don’t have one at home, or even when they’re just confused. Even for the “good kids” who have no idea about this, it’s good to raise awareness about these things.
    It bothers me that WSJ tried to mask an opinion as an article. It really does. I wonder if they ever considered actually talking to teens about those kind of things? Hmm.

  33. Thanks for writing this, Laurie. It’s so focused and really gets to the heart of what made me so upset about this article.
    I’m 24 and still read YA books. Growing up, I was one of those teens that led a relatively normal, stress-free, happy life. I didn’t necessarily identify with all of the characters in YA fiction, but these books gave me a window into situations and characters who were dealing with tough issues. These books helped me learn compassion and empathy.
    You’re absolutely right that teens (and adult) read YA for a variety of reasons. For me, I read mostly for fun, for that chance to escape into another world that wasn’t my own.

  34. As a librarian in the rural midwest, I have faced these same concerns from parents. And as a parent, I get it. I have a young son, who will go to public school. Even if he remains exceedingly lucky and doesn’t face serious and scary “issues,” he’ll still have to go through being a teenager. Where even the best, brightest, and safest deal with feelings of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty. And he will still have friends who will face those scarier things in their lives. My hope is that YA books will show him the world as he experiences it so that he can find himself there, and that it will show him the world as he does not experience it, so that he can gain empathy, kindness, and understanding of the broader world. Thank you for showing many sides of the world to teens, and for standing strong in the face of fear.

  35. Brava, Laurie. Absolutely true, in my opinion. Perhaps we should all forward Ms. Gurdon the emails we’ve gotten from readers who have felt saved by reading YA… I have hundreds, myself. Humbling and real.

  36. I’m in the middle, but not neutral–there is an opinion inside of me.

    And, yes, the article was more commentary than reporting.

    I’ve been reading YA since I was about twelve and haven’t stopped. To this day, 80% or more of my book reading consists of middle readers-YA.

    I was raised in a moderately strict, conservative, religious home (and run my own household as such) but my mom set me loose in the bookstore and let me pick what I wanted. I’m in no way a horror buff–never seen a Halloween, Scream, Friday the 13th, etc movie–but Chirstopher Pike books were my favorite. Dark, scary, creepy–yes!

    Books feel safer than visual mediums–I have more control over my own experience while reading than I do watching a movie. (Which is one of the reasons why I like reading a book before seeing a movie, because I want to create the world in my mind, rather than see it exactly as someone does.)
    Learning about life situations through literature is safe. I didn’t need to go to a wild party full of drinking and fooling around to see what happens at places like that–I read about it and knew it wasn’t for me. I learned that a glamorous life on the outside is rarely that on the inside. Etc.

    As I’ve grown, and especially when I became a parent, I’ve narrowed what books I want to keep in my home (as well as my movie collection.) There are several eye-opening books out there that, if my kids want to read them when they are old enough, I will let them, but they are not books I hold dear/collect on my own bookshleves. The biggest thing for me is foul language (especially the F-word) as well as graphic sexual situations than actual subject matter.

    I’ll go ahead a drop a title: FEED, by that other YA Anderson. 😉
    BRILLIANT book–scary-because-I-can-see-things-moving-in-that-direction-creepy–and excellently written. I understand why the language used was so–to me anyway–extreme, because that’s the way trends are going. But it’s not a book I kept. I donated it.
    But, when one of my kids reaches a good maturity level–maybe 15-16ish–and they are interested in reading it I won’t stop them. I’ll use it as a conversation starter for discussing the silliness of fads/commerial marketing and why it is–to me–important to use clean language.

    Do parents have a right to decide what their kids read? Yes.
    Do parents always make the right choice? No.
    Can YA save young readers from heartache and ruin? Yes.
    Will YA destroy people by leading away the young mids reading them into lives of darkness? Not as likely as hours spent watching graphic movies and playing explicit video games.

    Thank you for writing books that open minds, save lives, and start conversations!

  37. An incredible response to the article. I agree. The Wall Street Journal only presented one opinion on Young Adult books. Of course they can be violent, but they can also be wonderful pieces of literature that can help open minds and save lives.

  38. Laurie, I agree with you on many points. At the same time, I agree with Meghan Cox Gurdon on many points. There is a happy medium somewhere.

    As Dan Gerstein said in another Wall Street Journal article, “The … elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny. …. [T]he reality is that it is those who cry ‘Censorship!’ the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others.”

  39. My mom rented Speak and sat down to watch it in the living room. Not knowing what the movie was about, my father and I joined her on the couch. I didn’t last half way through the movie before I had to get up and leave. The television had turned into a mirror and it frightened me.
    After two years of silence and closed doors, my mother finally figured out that my behavior was not normal for a child my age. After two years of insecurity and loneliness, it took a movie for my dark secret to come out.
    I got the help I needed and learned that my parents loved me despite the secret I kept. They taught me how to put myself back together. If it wasn’t for your book, that movie would’ve never been made and I’m not sure where I would be today.
    Young adult literature does not just teach one how to understand their own problems or to put words to emotions they cannot always express. It does more than that. It promotes understanding between parent and child, victim and friend.
    We are not all authors. We are not all brave enough to speak the truth we carry in our hearts or to write it down. Sometimes we need another to do it for us, to give the silent words to speak and the ones that love them the knowledge to recognize their voice, quiet as it may be.
    Thanks for giving me a voice when I couldn’t find mine.

  40. YA Literature is so important to me, it has changed my life, and it changed my career path when I realized it was where I found my strength and healing. I knew I wanted to share the potentially great and amazing with anyone and everyone who asked. Every chance I get I talk about books, I talk about books I couldn’t stop reading, and books I couldn’t read, books that stick with me and make me think and the books that I read just because I can and I wanted a little fun. It is so greatly disappointing when people write such one sided poorly formed judgments, especially when they have a large noticeable soapbox to stand on, and should choose their words more wisely.

    Whatever they want to say, I will never forget the strength I gained in reading Speak, the feelings of wanting to fade into the background and disappear are real and I wasn’t alone anymore.

    I read through my darkness in order to live.

  41. Amen.

    This is what I do: read the books my children read, so that we can discuss any questions they might have, or whether something bothered them. It’s called parenting.

  42. Your last line says it so well. YA lit helps teens “to continue growing up, despite their bruises and scars.” Thank you for this eloquent response.

  43. I couldn’t even finish the WSJ article.

    I’ve read better-written articles in my community college’s weekly news letter.

  44. “I have given your books to my own three daughters, hoping that it would spark good conversations about the difficult world they are facing which often treats women as commodities. Isn’t that sad that I feel the need to do so.”

    This is beautiful. I wish there was more of this in the world. <3

  45. That article made me so mad.

    Then I realized that, after making what is essentially an argument for censorship, the author goes on to recommend FAHRENHEIT 451 as a suitable alternative.

    This was the point where I started to laugh. Hard.

    While these people make me frothing, raving, pull-out-my-hair mad, I am comforted by these Wile E. Coyote moments.

    Meep meep.

  46. Reading Twilight was the only time I understood why people want to ban books. Loved Speak though!

  47. 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?

  48. 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.

  49. 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?



  50. 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.


  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.


  57. 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.


  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. 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.


  61. 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.

  62. 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

  63. 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.

  64. 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.


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  66. 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.

  67. 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!


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