In the five days since Meghan Cox Gurdon published her WSJ piece on young adult literature, the Internet has fairly exploded with responses. Gurdon’s article (a thinly-disguised opinion piece) can basically be summed up as: YA fiction is coming to eat your children because
a) It’s a lot darker than it used to be, vastly dominated by lurid tales of violence, self-harm and sexual depravity
b) thus, by “normaliz[ing]” such behavior, your teens will start to emulate them
Plenty of people have picked out the article’s faults (see the growing list of responses at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy). Among the first to respond were authors like Laurie Halse Anderson blogging about how YA literally saves lives.
After awhile the mainstream media started chiming in. My favorite is Linda Holmes’ NPR blog, where she succinctly explains that the teens
who seek out dark themes are the ponderous ones, the ones who like the idea of things feeling Very Very Serious, who like the idea that they are doing something daring when they open a book. Yes, some of them are depressed. But some of them would be depressed anyway. You could give them books about uplift and clean living, and it wouldn’t cure them of depression, because depression is chemical. If depression were treatable with copies of Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse, they wouldn’t make medication for it.
There’s also a lovely piece by author Veronica Roth, who points out that books have nothing on the terrible events happening in our reality today:
when you say, these books are garbage and they’re damaging the minds of children? I say, the world is damaging the minds of children. Be more shocked by the world than by the books.
On a purely journalistic level, what’s really disturbing is Gurdon’s lack of basic research. Gurdon claims that YA fiction is much darker than it used to be, without citing a single study or expert.* She later suggests that teens are put off by the depressing themes, and as proof, she cites one bookshop employee who
notes that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.
One survey, from one bookstore, of eighteen students in one private school…how is this representative of the industry or the youth in this country?
And except for one throwaway line about the “exceptions” to depressing fare, Gurdon gives no mention of the lighter YA books, the romantic comedies and goofy sci-fi (she does include a sidebar of approved books, containing such cheerful suggestions as Fahrenheit 451 and the post-apocalyptic Ship Breaker). I’m by no means a YA expert, but I spent years volunteering in the YA section of the public library during high school, where the wonderful librarian (thank you Mrs. Parenti) was always ready with book recommendations. YA, like any genre, comes in an infinite variety of subgenres. I found Civil War historical dramas (Ann Rinaldi) and high fantasy (Tolkien), and on the next shelf there would be a collection of essays by kids who’d grown up in war-torn countries. I avoided the fluffy romance books (usually clad in pink) and picked through the sci-fi during my Ender series phase.
Nothing I read in the YA section during those years even came close to the darkness of The Bluest Eye, which was assigned reading in English class…and that brings me to my next point: the YA section may be new, but teens in the past found plenty to read. When they moved on from Newbery-age level books, they simply headed to the adult section, which, needless to say, features vampires and violence galore (Anne Rice and Stephen King, anyone?).
Some kids aren’t ready for vampire/werewolf books, you say? No problem. There are plenty of adults who wouldn’t touch Carrie with a stack of oven mitts. So they read Agatha Christie instead, or Charles Dickens, and the same choices exist in YA fiction. If you don’t like the paranormal romance book displays in Barnes and Noble, do your research and consult a librarian, a teacher, a friend—or read a YA blog for other book recommendations. Learn. Read. And breathe.