It's kind of like robbing a bank that keeps its cash in an unguarded shoebox in a public park to say "I'm going to take on the Wall Street Journal's commentary on YA Literature, "Darkness Too Visible"
penned by Meghan Cox Gurdon" whose inbox, no doubt, like the illustrious Journal's is probably filling up with incredulous and angry comments from people more eloquent and informed than I. But Gurdon provides extremely low hanging fruit that it's really hard not to swat at, beginning with the proposion that Young Adult Literature is: "all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation ... dark, dark stuff"
Which is sort of like standing in a mall parking lot and shouting "ALL CARS ARE RED!" One hardly need point out that Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, the Phantom Tollbooth, The House With the Clock in its Walls, the Chronicles of Narnia,
and hundreds of other classics of yesterday are still YA literature, and are still on shelves
. It also ignores modern classics like Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda
which has neither vampires nor suicides, but a daring young heroine who would be excellent role model material for any daughter I had. On top of that, it ignores the fact that some of the greatest works of YA literature, like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
are ... well, dark
Gurdon goes on to make the bizarre claim that "...40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing", claiming, somewhat incredulously, that it began in 1967 with the publication of The Outsiders
, this of course discounts not just Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn
, perhaps the two most widely known books written for a young adult audience in the English Language, but also books like Kidnapped
and Treasure Island
which adolescents were reading for generations before Outsiders
author S.E. Hinton was born. On my shelf right now I have a book called Six Girls
by Fanny Belle Irving published in 1882 -- I haven't read it, but I can assure you it's audience is teenage girls who might also be reading Little Women
or Jane Austen. (In fact, the article's own sidebar recommends the 1943 novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
for kids.) All this serves to suggest that Gurdon doesn't have a clue what she's talking about -- that she hasn't even taken the time to read the Wikipedia page about the topic she's writing on, and that carelessness suggests that we should take everything else she has to say with a grain of salt.
Gurdon then goes on to criticize a series of books individually, she takes time to specifically complain about Jackie Morse Kessler's book "Rage" which involves a girl who turns to self injury after being the victim of "a sadistic sexual prank". When we live in a world where teenage girls cut themselves at prodigious rates (and this is nothing new, it's been happening for hundreds of years) The Wall Street Journal thinks that we shouldn't have books for teens that discuss it. Gurdon takes to task an editor who laments having to cut language from a book in order to get it in schools as though it was a conversation never held between Mark Twain and his editor.
But this is simply the history of books and literature, it is the way things progress and regress and progress again. In the late 1800's Arthur Winfield began an extremely popular series of books for young readers called The Rover Boys
and I scored a complete collection of these
a couple of years ago and found them so offensive, so sexist, so racist, so classist, as to be nearly unreadable -- the best-selling morality tales of the late 1800's and early 1900's were all about making fun of the poor & underprivileged, those with accents, or dark skin, or those not able to get into the same prep school. The Rover Boys play vicious pranks on their school mates who are fat or who speak with a lisp, and they succeed and persevere because they're rich and they're entitled to and, hey, it's all in good fun.
I realized while trying to read these that YA literature reflects the times as they are and that they will also, occasionally, attempt to grasp the times that Aren't Yet and pull them closer. If there's a glut of vampire books on the market now there may not be in fifteen years. Of these, many will fade into obscurity and some, the ones that strive, will remain -- Darwin will police the stacks -- and in the meantime, the literature will evolve. Things people look at as taboo in one era (women wearing pants) don't warrant a second glance in another. YA literature is one of the mechanisms by which children learn what types of adults they will become. They likely won't learn to become vampires, but they may learn that they're not the only teenage girls who have a compulsion to cut themselves, or that they're not the only boys who are attracted to other boys, or they may learn how to build a house in a tree if they ever get stranded on an island.
There are many YA books out there -- some of them good, and some of them bad. Some of them I'd be happy to let my (theoretical) children read, and some that I think would be a waste of their time.
I feel compelled to quote Heavy Metal Rocker Dee Snider who, when called before the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Comission) in 1985 by a very clueless Al Gore to testify about the harm rock music caused teens, schooled the Senator in parenting in one of the most one sided smackdowns since Lloyd Benson told Dan Quayle that he was, in fact, "No Jack Kennedy".
Senatore GORE: [Should a parent have] To sit down and listen to every song on the album?
Mr. SNIDER. Well, if they are really concerned about it I think that they have to.
Senator GORE. Do you think it is reasonable to expect parents to do that?
Mr. SNIDER. Being a parent is not a reasonable thing. It is a very hard thing. I am a parent and I know.
I don't know what's more embarrassing, that Congress would waste tax dollars on such a farce, or that the senior Senator from Tennessee got his ass handed to him in a debate by a guy who appeared on his album cover wearing shoulder pads, spandex pants, and pink lace-up boots waving a bloody soup bone.
I'm not sure why the Wall Street Journal would bother to print such nonsense, I can only hope it is a result of laying off so much of the editorial staff over the past few years rather than policy.
- Being a parent is not supposed to be easy.
- It's not the publishing industry's job to decide what to print based on what you like to read.
- Not all books are good books.
- Every single book that you liked as a child you can still get for your own kids, if not from your local bookstore, then from ebay.
- Good literature stays around, the bad stuff is transient.
- At some point your child will probably read a book that you don't think is good that will change their lives in a good way.
- Ranting to the Wall Street Journal that YA literature sucks when you apparently know nothing about YA literature is a sad attempt at making a shortcut to responsible parenting.
- Ask a librarian, they're there to help.
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