At least twice a year, it seems, there’s a controversy blowing up in the Young-Adult book trade. The latest brouhaha began with an article in the Wall Street Journal by Meg Cox Gurdon, entitled “Darkness Too Visible.” Ms. Gurdon, who used to write on culture and parenting issues for National Review and now writes about children’s books for the WSJ, was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the amount of gloom and doom on YA fiction shelves these days. Rape, incest, torture, self-mutilation, and more are not rare in teen novels, and the language used to tell about it is in some cases as graphic and profane as anything you can find in the adult stacks. Is this, Ms. Gurdon writes, what we should be offering our kids to read?
Any time a writer sticks up a hand to protest children’s literature that may be unsuitable, knives come out–not against the literature, but against the protestor. Hundreds if not thousands of authors, librarians, and bloggers chimed in, including Sherman Alexie, the target of many a book ban, writing in the arts blog of the Wall Street Journal. His piece, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” tips his hand right at the beginning, I’d say.
The arguments don’t vary much. A few hundred commenters wonder if the benighted protester supposes that all children are raised on Sunnybrook Farm. Another few hundred ask how teens in desperate situations are going to feel that they have a voice or an advocate if they don’t have fictional protagonists to identify with. Dozens of YA authors attest to the mail they get from teens who thank them for giving them courage to go on.
The ten-letter word that most responders read into the offending article is CENSORSHIP! (okay, that’s eleven letters if you include the exclamation mark). But Ms. Gurdon said nothing about censoring such books. She was only raising some valid questions, such as: what view of the world could impressionable teens receive from an abundance of depressing stories? Might reading too many novels about perverse behavior have the effect of normalizing pathology?
These questions are worth asking. A few years ago I wrote a column for WORLD magazine addressing this very concern, using a recently-published novel that was based on a fairy tale, Snow White and Rose Red. A 14-year-old girl who likes retold fairy tales might just be a bit disturbed to wade into this one. The story begins with a teenage girl whose widowed father has already impregnated her at least twice, after which he purchases abortion herbs from the local witch. After his accidental death, she gives birth to a beautiful baby girl and is beginning to make a new life when she is attacked and raped by five local boys, leading to another pregnancy and a suicide attempt. And that’s just in the first fifty pages.
The novel has its strengths, including a striking and sometimes beautiful literary style and a message that might charitably be seen as pro-life. But how much is too much? (I haven’t even mentioned the act of retributive sodomy that rounds out the last fifty pages.) To the inevitable objections, the publisher said, “Terrible things are out there in the world. And in the real world they tumble into children’s lives in an unexplained way, [such as] on the news . . .” And if you object, you might just be a dour Calvinist with a tall black hat: “It was the Puritans who were worried about people’s private desires,” said former children’s laureate Michael Rosen. “Attempts to control reading are the last tendrils of Puritanism.”
See what I mean about little variation in argument?
Here’s how I ended the column: “Grownups can appreciate a ‘message’ of accepting life’s tragedies along with its joys [which was the stated theme of the novel]. But those who haven’t gained an adult perspective first need some idea of joy. The evil, the false, and the ugly are possible to bear only if one knows something of the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
To my mind, that’s the main objection to these grim fairy tales–a lack of balance. Young people are typically self-dramatizing and self-absorbed. That’s not a criticism of teens; it’s just the way most people develop. Nobody is denying that some young people actually face these kinds of problems and it may help some of them to deal through a fictional avatar. But that’s only a partial answer. A number of YA fans have started a Facebook page and Twitter feed called YA Saves–indicating, among other things, that self-dramatization is not necessarily limited to teens. But no: YA lit can help, but it doesn’t save. Salvation is the provenance of a much higher power.
For more doom and gloom, see my review of Divergent. For a few reasons why teens might get into this kind of literature, see the second post on the Dystopia series. For the positive side, check out Emily’s series, or Is Your Son ‘God’s Mighty Warrior’?