Interview With Meghan Cox Gurdon

Early last June, the YA publishing world was rocked by a column in the Wall Street Journal by Meg Cox Gurdon, who reviews children’s books for the paper.  Titled “Darkness Too Visible,” the short piece related the experience of Amy Freeman, mother of three, who visited the local Barnes & Noble to buy a book for her 13-year-old daughter.  After searching the YA shelves, Mrs. Freeman was distressed to find almost nothing that didn’t portray teens dealing with extreme situations, such as cutting or other forms of self-mutilation, incest, rape, alcoholism and drug abuse—not to mention the threat of mauling by vampires or werewolves.  Gurdon went on from there to wonder in print whether YA publishing might be going too far with borderline behavior: what kind of world are we setting before impressionable young minds?

The response was instant and furious.  Book bloggers linked to the column and book aficionados zealously copied to their ListServs and friends.  Librarians, teachers, and students reacted with outrage.  YA authors registered their thoughts on blogs, radio interviews, and answering columns, sometimes intemperately.  The controversy lapped out of book circles and spilled over onto political and cultural websites.  The good news is that Meghan also received quite a bit of support, including ours.  She deserves credit for bringing the general attention to a phenomenon that’s been developing for a long time with too little comment.

Now that the shouting has died down (mostly), we asked Meghan a few questions about the experience.  She admits to the discovery of not enjoying being pelted with e-tomatoes, but was kind enough to share some thoughts with us:

1.  What do you think was driving the overwhelmingly negative response to your first column?
Keep in mind that the overwhelmingly negative response was matched by a powerful (but considerably less strident) positive response! A very thoughtful young adult author with whom I’ve been communicating thinks that many in the YA business channel their inner angry teen to produce their work, and that the arguments I put forth confirmed for them not only how much they themselves “get” the teen experience but the degree to which other grownups (such as parents) do not. So part of the ire was defensive — both on the part of YA enthusiasts, who perceived the entire category as being under attack, and on behalf of teens, who are apparently filled with wrath and ennui that only YA authors really, truly understand. I was surprised by how quickly people leapt to wild conclusions — Banning! Censorship! All YA is bad! — but I suppose that can be attributed to the viral nature of modern communications.

2. What do you see as the chief purpose of literature for young people? Or, to put it another way, what do you think young people need most from literature?

You might as well ask, what is the purpose of a garden, or a mango, or Bach! Isn’t the purpose of literature to nourish the human person? To take us worlds away, to take us deep into ourselves, to entertain and delight and stir and frighten and educate and civilize, to let us live vicariously as someone else, to participate in conversations that in life would be closed to us, to learn the literary rhythms of our culture, to feed our imaginations — these are all purposes of storytelling and story-reading. There is also a mystery to reading that deserves our respect; some hint of the otherworldly in the way a child’s face slackens when a parent is reading aloud, as if her conscious self has traveled right out of the room and into the narrative. Where does a child go, when she is reading, anyway?

3. What kind of support did you get, and what point did they most likely agree with?

There was a torrent of support that came, especially after my follow-up op-ed two weeks after Darkness Too Visible. Many kind people urged me to persist, thanked me for expressing the disquiet that they were feeling, expressed relief that someone was taking on the right-on group-think of the YA industry, etc. I heard from people who had made the mistake of complaining about books their children were given at school, and who felt immediately branded as small-minded, censorious book-banners. I heard from people who are so disgusted with the teen culture that’s being sold to adolescents that they avoid all books published after 1950! It was good, also, to hear from many thoughtful people who mainly wanted to engage with the larger cultural questions. I don’t know what single point most united them but the most common response was: Thank you. These really are live questions for families; what teenagers read and who gets to say what’s appropriate is by no means settled. Every year, a new tranche of twelve-year-olds turns thirteen. It’s forever a fresh subject, and rightly so.

4. What 3-5 children’s books (and YA) have you reviewed recently that you could recommend?

My favorite recent novels/chapter books are: “The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman,” “When a Monster Calls,” “The Flint Heart,” “Dead End in Norvelt” and “Peter Nmble’s Fantastic Eyes.” “Wonderstruck” gets an obvious thumbs-up, too. For recent picture books, I’ve recommended “King Jack and the Dragon,”
“King Hugo’s Huge Ego,” “Blackout” and, because it makes me laugh, “Fun with Dude and Betty.”

Thanks!  And many thanks for speaking out about the all-too-visible darkness in YA literature.  We can’t wait to get our hands on some of these books you recommend—maybe they’ll show up here!

COMMENTS

 

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14 Responses to Interview With Meghan Cox Gurdon

  1. Liz Dianovich September 26, 2013 at 12:45 am #

    I received Imprimis(a publication with Hillsdale college) and was very impressed to read the excellent article of Meghan Cox Gurdon.I am so pleased to find out the truth about children books are fallowing the trend to be politically correct like everything else.We all know that good parents will give to their children to read books of good virtue and goodness. Thank God there are some good books around and were passed from generation to generation.

  2. Emily September 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    I agree, Josephine! Your book looks enticing. Lovely illustrations. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  3. Josephine Bailey September 6, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    How refreshing and what hope it brings to read Ms. Gurdon’s brave and honest words in this month’s Imprimis. My book, Hotey, is the antithesis of ugliness and horror.
    http://readersfavorite.com/book-review/12765

  4. Sally Apokedak September 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Ha, ha. That review made me chuckle. I’ve never read a Chris Crutcher book. Yikes. Smart guy. Too bad he’s…so prejudiced.

  5. Janie September 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Sally,
    Thanks so much for posting. The issue you raised, especially about how Christians respond to homosexuality, is already very hot-button, and it’s only the beginning, I’m afraid. We can no longer take for granted that most of society will agree with us on basic moral questions, and in fact, a larger and larger segment of society will totally castigate and mischaracterize us. Unfortunately, when incidents happen like that at the last Republican candidates’ debate (when a small segment of the audience boo’d a soldier who identified himself as gay), the opposition jumps with glee and uses such incidents as exhibit A in their goal of painting all conservatives or Christians as ignorant evil homophobes. The rhetoric is already way out of hand, I’d say more so on the left than on the right, but both sides share in it. I take a particular interest in YA novels with “Christian” characters, and very rarely is the portrayal sympathetic. In fact, very rarely is it even realistic. I wonder if any of these authors have ever even attended an actual youth group meeting in an actual church. (To get an idea how one YA author handled it, go to http://jbcheaney.com/book_reviews.htm and scroll almost to the bottom, for my review of The Sledding Hill.)
    It’s becoming more difficult for Christians, but our greatest challenges are often our greatest opportunities. First we must get our own hearts right: it’s true that thieves, idolators, and fornicators will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but “Such were some of us.” (II Cor. 6:11). When we understand that our sins are no less heinous, and in different circumstances could actually have been worse, than any other person’s, we’ll be in a position to talk to them. In a sense, no one will go to hell for lying or swindling or deception or homosexuality or fornication or even murder. God will send people to hell for rejecting Christ. If we can start from Christ, and build on Christ, we will stand a much better chance of staying balanced between compassion and judgment when we confront the world.

  6. Janie September 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Sally,
    Thanks so much for posting. The issue you raised, especially about how Christians respond to homosexuality, is already very hot-button, and it’s only the beginning, I’m afraid. We can no longer take for granted that most of society will agree with us on basic moral questions, and in fact, a larger and larger segment of society will totally castigate and mischaracterize us. Unfortunately, when incidents happen like that at the last Republican candidates’ debate (when a small segment of the audience boo’d a soldier who identified himself as gay), the opposition jumps with glee and uses such incidents as exhibit A in their goal of painting all conservatives or Christians as ignorant evil homophobes. The rhetoric is already way out of hand, I’d say more so on the left than on the right, but both sides share in it. I take a particular interest in YA novels with “Christian” characters, and very rarely is the portrayal sympathetic. In fact, very rarely is it even realistic. I wonder if any of these authors have ever even attended an actual youth group meeting in an actual church. (To get an idea how one YA author handled it, go to http://jbcheaney.com/book_reviews.htm and scroll almost to the bottom, for my review of The Sledding Hill.)
    It’s becoming more difficult for Christians, but our greatest challenges are often our greatest opportunities. First we must get our own hearts right: it’s true that thieves, idolators, and fornicators will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but “Such were some of us.” (II Cor. 6:11). When we understand that our sins are no less heinous, and in different circumstances could actually have been worse, than any other person’s, we’ll be in a position to talk to them. In a sense, no one will go to hell for lying or swindling or deception or homosexuality or fornication or even murder. God will send people to hell for rejecting Christ. If we can start from Christ, and build on Christ, we will stand a much better chance of staying balanced between compassion and judgment when we confront the world.

  7. Sally Apokedak September 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Emily, thanks for the reply and the link. I have never read Alexie’s books so I can’t comment on your point that he’s trying to control and diminish children.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about his thinking he knows better than a boy’s father…as if after two-sentence conversation he could love the boy more than his father loved him and he could know what the boy is suited for career-wise. That’s a hugely arrogant position.

    I had the same problem with Laurie Halse Anderson and I blogged on that here: http://www.sally-apokedak.com/whispers_of_dawn/2011/06/afraid-of-ya/

    While I am on Gurdon’s side in the issue, I feel a need to call both sides to stop with inflammatory speech.

    What do you think of the #YesToGayYA thing? I am amazed when I read the articles to find that those who call me a sick homophobe, think that they are being censored. I’m looking at the books out and thinking, “If you’re censored then what’s happening to Christians?” I think there are way more homosexual characters in general market YA books than Christian characters.

    What they are saying, though, makes me think that in their minds Christians are like Westboro Baptist Church. I think we need to be very careful in our speech, then. There is a time to tell people that their hearts are wicked and to call them to repentance, but you have to preach Christ to do that. If we aren’t preaching Christ, I think we should leave evil hearts and motives out of things.

    I may be wrong about this and I’d love to hear what others think. My thinking is, I admit, in early stages. I’d love to have someone help me refine it.

    In my criticisms of Gurdon, I didn’t want to add to her troubles and make her feel like she was getting shot by the enemy and by friendly fire as well. I am happy that she was willing to speak and I think the issue is an important one. But I also want our side to conduct itself in a manner that is so clearly on higher moral ground than the other side.

  8. Sally Apokedak September 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Emily, thanks for the reply and the link. I have never read Alexie’s books so I can’t comment on your point that he’s trying to control and diminish children.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about his thinking he knows better than a boy’s father…as if after two-sentence conversation he could love the boy more than his father loved him and he could know what the boy is suited for career-wise. That’s a hugely arrogant position.

    I had the same problem with Laurie Halse Anderson and I blogged on that here: http://www.sally-apokedak.com/whispers_of_dawn/2011/06/afraid-of-ya/

    While I am on Gurdon’s side in the issue, I feel a need to call both sides to stop with inflammatory speech.

    What do you think of the #YesToGayYA thing? I am amazed when I read the articles to find that those who call me a sick homophobe, think that they are being censored. I’m looking at the books out and thinking, “If you’re censored then what’s happening to Christians?” I think there are way more homosexual characters in general market YA books than Christian characters.

    What they are saying, though, makes me think that in their minds Christians are like Westboro Baptist Church. I think we need to be very careful in our speech, then. There is a time to tell people that their hearts are wicked and to call them to repentance, but you have to preach Christ to do that. If we aren’t preaching Christ, I think we should leave evil hearts and motives out of things.

    I may be wrong about this and I’d love to hear what others think. My thinking is, I admit, in early stages. I’d love to have someone help me refine it.

    In my criticisms of Gurdon, I didn’t want to add to her troubles and make her feel like she was getting shot by the enemy and by friendly fire as well. I am happy that she was willing to speak and I think the issue is an important one. But I also want our side to conduct itself in a manner that is so clearly on higher moral ground than the other side.

  9. emily September 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Sally,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to think through these issues! You seem very careful and thoughtful in your comments, and I really appreciate that. I’m sure Janie will want to respond herself eventually, but personally I think you’re right in that we need not assume authors and publishers have evil intentions. An important point!

    On the other hand, “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and I do agree with Gurdon that driving some of the darkness is the fact that YA authors like Sherman Alexie often believe they understand kids better than their parents. And while that may be true in some cases, but if our culture accepts it as a general rule–spelled out, authors are better at raising kids than parents–it’s also an extremely condescending and destructive point of view.

    Here’s another post I wrote that touches on this. It criticizes Mr. Alexie on this very issue, but ends with words of praise for his obvious love of the kids he writes for: http://www.redeemedreader.com/2011/06/is-your-son-gods-mighty-warrior/.

  10. emily September 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Sally,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to think through these issues! You seem very careful and thoughtful in your comments, and I really appreciate that. I’m sure Janie will want to respond herself eventually, but personally I think you’re right in that we need not assume authors and publishers have evil intentions. An important point!

    On the other hand, “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and I do agree with Gurdon that driving some of the darkness is the fact that YA authors like Sherman Alexie often believe they understand kids better than their parents. And while that may be true in some cases, but if our culture accepts it as a general rule–spelled out, authors are better at raising kids than parents–it’s also an extremely condescending and destructive point of view.

    Here’s another post I wrote that touches on this. It criticizes Mr. Alexie on this very issue, but ends with words of praise for his obvious love of the kids he writes for: http://www.redeemedreader.com/2011/06/is-your-son-gods-mighty-warrior/.

  11. Sally Apokedak September 23, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for the link to the follow-up op-ed. I think it was very good. I think it strayed over the line in the same way your first one did, though.

    In saying that they are selling cutting, you imply that they want children to cut. I don’t believe that’s true. Do you?

    I don’t believe they are bulldozing garbage into kids, either. To spread their salvation, which is not salvation at all, they have to speak to children as if all this garbage is a normal reaction–a normal way for children to express their rage against the evil world (made up mostly of homophobes and book banners and girls who get married and have children and obey their husbands). But they are sincerely trying to help teens, I think. They believe in their cause. They really think that YA saves–that their YA books save.

    I disagree with them. But I don’t think they are writing with the evil intent of encouraging children to cut.

  12. Sally Apokedak September 23, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for the link to the follow-up op-ed. I think it was very good. I think it strayed over the line in the same way your first one did, though.

    In saying that they are selling cutting, you imply that they want children to cut. I don’t believe that’s true. Do you?

    I don’t believe they are bulldozing garbage into kids, either. To spread their salvation, which is not salvation at all, they have to speak to children as if all this garbage is a normal reaction–a normal way for children to express their rage against the evil world (made up mostly of homophobes and book banners and girls who get married and have children and obey their husbands). But they are sincerely trying to help teens, I think. They believe in their cause. They really think that YA saves–that their YA books save.

    I disagree with them. But I don’t think they are writing with the evil intent of encouraging children to cut.

  13. Melinda September 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    We usually tear Megan Cox Gurdon’s column out of the paper to put in our library file, so I especially enjoyed reading this. It is also very satisfying to hear her reflections on “Darkness too Visible” after a bit of time and, in particular, her response to the purpose of literature for young people.

  14. Melinda September 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    We usually tear Megan Cox Gurdon’s column out of the paper to put in our library file, so I especially enjoyed reading this. It is also very satisfying to hear her reflections on “Darkness too Visible” after a bit of time and, in particular, her response to the purpose of literature for young people.

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