Tuesday, June 28, 2011

YA Saves--Especially when it shows evil

Okay, I resisted last time. So many cool YA authors were on the front lines of defense that I figured my own voice would be superfluous.  Perhaps it still is. I like to talk regardless, so here goes.

On June 4, 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon published an essay called Darkness Too Visible in the Wall Street Journal in which she made a perfectly valid observation that there was a lot of darkness, drug use, sexual misconduct, violence, and general ugliness in YA fiction these days. If she'd just pointed it out, we'd all have just nodded our heads and commented on how observant she was. She didn't stop there, though. Instead, she vilified the practice, accusing those who write dark-themed YA books of poisoning the minds of the rising generation. She argued that exposing them to such awful themes made those themes more commonplace, and made the readers correspondingly more likely to mimic the actions of the deeply flawed protagonists.

Twitter exploded (see the #YASaves hashtag). YA blogs screamed (see Nathan Bransford's list of responding blogs). Almost everyone was firmly in support of dark YA and lashed out at Ms. Gurdon for saying such awful things about it.

The June 28, 2011 WSJ contains another essay by Ms. Gurdon entitled My 'Reprehensible' Take on Teen Literature. Because when thousands are calling you an idiot, you should always stick to your guns.

Her new essay is shorter than her first, but again makes the point that dark YA serves to normalize themes we'd do better to shelter our young ones from:
It is true that so-called problem novels may be helpful to children in anguished circumstances. The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and "cutting" (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.

There are real-world reasons for caution. For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
Now Ms. Gurdon has a valid concern. We may not agree with her conclusions, but I'm sure none of us wants to unintentionally encourage our young readers to mirror the bad behaviors of our characters.

I think, though, that Ms. Gurdon is missing the key difference between drug education programs and stories. Drug education programs give warning information. In much the same way sex education has been criticized for encouraging teenage sexual activity, drug education can't help but convey the idea that "we expect many of you-who-are-sitting-in-this-room to try this."

Stories are different.

Stories. Are. Different.

I attended college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. That's that Mormon school, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and proud to be listed as the most "Stone Cold Sober" school in the United States. Our honor code couldn't eradicate the foibles of youth, but it sure did a lot to discourage most of them.

My "home" building was the Harris Fine Arts Center, which would occasionally place barricades at all entrances warning conservative students and faculty that a "possibly offensive" fine art exhibit was currently on display in the main gallery. They did that not because they believed that the exhibits were worthy of censor, but because conservatives would complain otherwise.

Conservatives liked to complain about the theatre productions, too. When Brecht's The Chalk Circle was produced there, the department head received letters criticizing everything from the man taking a bath, fully clothed in the upside-down-table-tub to the man-removed-his-belt-and-threatened-to-rape-the-girl scene to the fourth-wall violations. *Gasp!* Such letter-writers thought that such plays ought not to be produced at a church university. Such letter-writers didn't know their church history.

Joseph Smith, the first LDS prophet, formed theatre troupes. Brigham Young, the second prophet, acted in them. When the saints relocated to the desert that was the Salt Lake valley, the crops were barely in the ground when the first theater was built. Brigham Young insisted that his 10 oldest daughters act in the productions so that the productions would be well-attended.

These productions were not full of sweetness and light. The plays weren't all about Jane finding the gospel and how much better her life was, now that she never cursed. The plays were about evil.

Brigham Young said:
Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls … can be revealed, and how to shun it” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1941, p. 243).
Did you catch the catch? You can't teach the consequences of sin without showing it. That's the original purpose of the theater: to teach the audience through story what they can expect if their behavior should mirror the behavior of the characters. That effect is called catharsis--we get to purge negative emotions without screwing up our own lives in the process.

No matter your religion, the principle holds true: people (including children) learn better through experience. We don't want them to experience rape, violence, drug use, cutting, bullying, damaging sexual relationships, or petty ugliness in their real lives. What to do? Catharsis. Vicarious purging. Expose them to a character they can relate to who will crawl through the muck for them, and take them along. Show them how--and WHY--bad decisions are made. Let your young readers scream at the pages and curse the character for being an idiot. Let them understand what might lead someone to be that stupid. Let them feel within themselves their own tendencies for error so they can take steps to fix them before they manifest.

Toward the end of her essay, Ms. Gurdon quotes from the back cover of a recently-received YA ARC:
It so happened that, as the Twitterverse was roiling over "Darkness Too Visible," I received an advanced reader's copy of an "edgy paranormal" teen novel coming out in August. Have a look at the excerpt on the back cover, where publishers try to hook potential buyers: "I used to squirm when I heard people talking about cutting—taking a razor to your own flesh never seemed logical to me. But in reality, it's wonderful. You can cut into yourself all the frustrations people take out on you." Now ask yourself: Is a book the only thing being sold here?
Which, of course, demonstrates the folly of rhetorical questions. The excerpt on its face calls the practice of cutting illogical--but then provides a character who can explain why a teen might succumb to such an illogical practice. A character who will take the reader through that experience, in all its horror and folly and--I trust and hope--ultimately explain how to overcome the addiction of self-mutilation. For those who might be drawn to the practice, this book could serve as a life-saving reality check. For those who have never heard of it and would never do it, this book could still teach them about the damaging effects of addiction in any form and the value of staying far away from it.

No one--not even Ms. Gurdon--can know what the ultimate message of the book is without READING IT.

Now, I support Ms. Gurdon's right to express her opinion. I just wish she'd be more responsible about it. Rather than spotting scary themes, scenes, and habits in YA books and bemoaning the possible effects of exposing children to such horrors, I wish she'd take the time to read the books she's attacking. I wish she'd focus her attack on a book-by-book basis, pointing out what is TAUGHT, rather than what is SHOWN. I wish she'd criticize the moral of the story, rather than the means of delivery.

She might find that some lessons are most effectively learned in a crucible of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things.

Especially if those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen to a fictional character, instead of a real-live teen who was discouraged from reading about them for fear she'd learn too much about the horrible things in life.

What terrible things did you read about as a youth? Did you go right out and try them yourself?

UPDATE: Don't miss my YA Saves -- Counterpoint post. It was also published on International Business Times - Business & Books, which also linked to this post. *Waves to IBT readers*


  1. We never give kids enough credit. The entire discussion assumes that young adults are clean slates that the book is writing on. This is absurd. Kids know about cutting, rape, drug use, sex, guns, violence, and a myriad of horrors that adults probably aren't aware of themselves.

    I think that the author falls into the same trap a lot of us do when we think about teenagers. We take what we hope is true and assume it is reality.

    I am against any censorship because it is counterproductive to learning and public discourse about issues we face as an individual, community, and human beings. Just because I find it objectionable doesn't mean it shouldn't exist and be available.

    Taking their books away doesn't stop kids, or adults for that matter, from doing what they shouldn't do. People, even young adults, are responsible for their choices in life. Good, bad, or indifferent you learn from your mistakes.

    Ranting over - stepping down from soapbox.

  2. Josh--Yes! One of my favorite quotes (in the side bar, too): "Fairy tailes do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed." G.K. Chesterton

    It's useless to let kids grow up aware of horrors without effectively teaching them how to slay the horrors.

  3. "Show them how--and WHY--bad decisions are made. Let your young readers scream at the pages and curse the character for being an idiot. Let them understand what might lead someone to be that stupid. Let them feel within themselves their own tendencies for error so they can take steps to fix them before they manifest."

    Love this, Robin. Some of the problem that many people ignore is the number of kids doing these things without the author also showing the consequences. And the unspoken sermons can have unexpected results.

    I agree that Ms. Gurdon has painted the issue with a pretty broad stroke. But it doesn't mean there aren't a lot of irresponsible YA writers out there.

    Janette Rallison addressed it in one of her classes at Storymaker, and talked about how she got blasted for simply asking other YA authors to show the natural consequences.

    I've got an adult child who used to cut. This child ended up in the emergency room once. Even so, when under a lot of stress, it's still very tempting. It's dang scary.

    I'm not saying YA authors should be preachy. I just think they should show all sides. When showing the underbelly side of life, show what happens when people choose it.

  4. I've had mixed feelings about this whole controversy. For all her over-generalizing, I think Gurdon makes one good point that is being overlooked--a minority of books (certainly not all) books aimed at younger readers are marketed in such a way that glorifies various kinds of violence. I think in the haste to defend YA generally, and the desire to be "nice" and never specifically name books we don't care for, we've ignored the fact that in some (fairly rare) instances, Gurdon is right.

    What does that mean? I don't know. Certainly not that these books should be censored. Certainly not that kids are too dumb to sort through good and bad messages on their own. But at the very least, we should wonder what impact "edgy for the sake of being edgy" novels have on readers.

    I think of it like this--if Gurdon had written about films instead of books and pointed out that many stories glorify darker themes than they did in the past, most would agree with her. Could the "Saw" franchise hypothetically have a deeper meaning? Is "Sucker Punch" an exposition on feminism? Maybe so. Should they be censored? No. But I think the point is, at some point we should be able to call trash trash, even if it is a book.

  5. Ms. Gurdon did a follow up interview that was very interesting, and I think showed her true feelings a lot better than the article did. It was a lot more balanced than the article itself.

    That said, I didn't find offense in the article, because I agree with it in part. I don't think she's saying that issue books should be done away with. They shouldn't. Kids do need them. What I saw in her article was the POV of a regular, non-writer, non-reader parent. When I go into my local B&N, most of the teen section is comprised of dark covers and books with angsty, angry teens in abusive relationships. So much of paranormal romance glorifies abusive relationships.

    Do kids know that what they're reading is fiction? Yep. But everything we read, listen to, or watch does affect us on a subconscious level. Girls should never be told it's okay if their boyfriend is obsessive and controlling because they love them. And yet, we see that a lot in literature. That bothers me. The problem is, I think, many parents aren't aware of what their kids are reading and maybe aren't aware that the books on the shelves aren't the only ones there. I used to shop in the YA section all the time. I don't anymore. If I buy, I buy online. The selection is so much better.

    What bothered me most about the whole thing was the writing community's response. There were a few well-balanced posts written in response--Veronica Roth's was one. But most of what I saw were people not only attacking her opinion, but her character as well. The last few months have been rife with virtual witch hunts against anyone who dares to have an opinion contrary to what's popular. This is ironic as writers ought to be the most open-minded and able to see from another person's perspective. And the name calling, the insults against the writer herself, don't really serve to make anyone look bad but the people spreading the hate. I firmly believe that it's possible to be passionate about something, defend it to the death, without dragging someone else down in the process.

    In a lot of ways, while I support writers being able to express their opinions, I wish they'd be more responsible about it. Kids look up to them. And part of what they're seeing, whether they realize this on a conscious level or not, is that it's okay to react in an uncivil way if you don't agree with someone. And it's not.

    "Because when thousands are calling you an idiot, you should always stick to your guns."
    Although she's getting a lot of flack for this, I admire that she isn't willing to bow to the pressure to conform. She has a right to her opinion, and shouldn't be personally attacked for it. (Although it's perfectly reasonable and fair for people to counter her opinion.) In my opinion, the problem doesn't lay solely with her take on the matter (which could have been worded a little better), but also with those that feel the need to call her an idiot in the first place.

  6. I think Gurdon doesn't give teens enough credit. I also don't think she's read the classics, because there's a lot of darkness in them that she doesn't seem to mind. I don't understand why Lord of the Flies is okay but Hunger Games is not, or why Shakespearean teenage suicides are okay but Sherman Alexie is evil.

  7. PS - To sort of answer your question, "Stuck in Neutral." It's about a boy with cerebral palsy who is actually completely aware of the world around him, but is unable to interact with anyone because of his disability. He is aware that his father is planning to "mercy kill" him, but doesn't know how to let his father know that he's not in pain and he's more-or-less happy. It sounds grim, but is actually quite hopeful. And no, I've never tried to mercy kill anyone since reading it. :)

  8. Wow, great post!
    I loved Caucasian Chalk Circle and the rape scene was disturbing but tactfully done.
    I am going to stop there so that I can have the smallest comment. ;)

  9. I don't think her argument was as simplistic as that it runs out and makes people imitate those behaviors. I think it was that reading about rape, incest, pedophilia, self-mutilation, and bullying in its cruelest forms can damage kids' souls, and I think she's right. Heck, I'm a 30 year-old woman and last year I read a "YA" novel that damaged MY soul. The year before that I read another that damaged my soul. Both were highly acclaimed and recommended, and I wish I'd never read either one. There was no edification and no hope; there was only horror and a growing wariness of teenage boys.

    Her other claim is that reading about certain behaviors normalizes them, thus removing the psychological barrier that prevents us from pursuing the unknown, the bizarre, the abnormal. This seems quite logical to me. One of the tenets of behavioral psychology is that when a behavior is modeled, it increases the observer's likelihood to perform that behavior.

    Now, I'm not arguing for censorship and for what it's worth, I don't think she is either, but I think her point that children need some "softer" YA books is valid.

  10. Donna--yes: this is why I think it's okay to attack books individually. If the book's overall theme or lack of natural consequences tends to support something that is unhealthy, it is fair to warn readers about it. It's the shotgun approach to "bad" elements that irks me.

    Ru--we should absolutely be allowed to call trash trash. Even if someone else thinks it's treasure.

    Danyelle--touche on the idiot comment. I should have made clear that I don't think she's an idiot, just that she's not conveying a well-balanced approach to the issue in her essays. I'd have advised her to acknowledge some of the good points made by her opposition and then support her argument with more concrete examples. I have no real problem with her supporting her opinion. I just don't think that's what she did.

    Books: Let's not forget the Bible. There's enough violence, incest, and hate in that book alone to send any censor running for the burn barrel.

    Shelly: I know, right? CCC was a brilliant production. I got to sit on the stage. :)

    Heidi: books can absolutely damage your soul. But I'd bet it wasn't the elements of the book that did it, but the theme. I can imagine a perfectly soul-destroying book that has nothing worse than mild profanity (for example, one that subtly suggests that a mother is justified in calling her daughter worthless). The messages in the books bring the power. Showing bad elements, like showing monsters, is only soul-destroying if the bad is allowed to triumph or if the good is ultimately vilified. Otherwise, even the worst elements I can imagine can be a stepping-stone to amazing personal growth and a sense of cathartic accomplishment.

    That said, softer YA books are also cool and there really should be more of them. Janette Rallison is a wonderful example of a YA author who writes softer YA--and very successfully.

  11. Respectfully, it wasn't the message that traumatized me: it was the elements. The author of the book I have in mind tried--desperately--to make it a story of redemption and healing, but ultimately, nothing could undo the sickness and darkness I felt from reading that scene. It damaged my soul, and I should not have read that (YA) book. I think that the majority of teens would also be damaged by reading that book.

    There are some books that can present a horror and then show the power of fighting against and healing from that horror. Hunger Games and Wells' serial killer series are good examples of that, but there are some horrors that, in my opinion, traumatize the reader so badly that it's virtually impossible to make the book a net positive for the reader's heart and mind. I can't list exactly what those things are, and perhaps they're different for everybody, but I've read them enough to know they exist, and I want to keep my kids from reading books that contain those elements.

  12. Amen Robin! I love that quote by Brigham Young! My problem with SOME YA is that they are morally ambiguous. Authors don't want to preach. I'm not advocating preaching at teens (that never works), but a little direction would be nice.

  13. Heidi--after I posted my last comment, I remembered that my own mother thought that Dan Wells's books were a tad soul-destroying. I was appalled, but how do you argue that someone else's soul wasn't damaged by something you found hopeful? So I'm going to concede the point that there are some elements that some people will find damaging, in and of themselves. I'll have to conclude, though, that it's dang hard to know which elements will damage which individuals and maintain that vilifying any element in general can be unfair. It's why parents make the best filters, since we can screen for individual children. (For example, I know my 10 year old will get nightmares from the monsters the younger two will think are funny.)

    Angie--I couldn't say it better myself. It does irk me that some YA authors let their characters live in a consequence-free zone. You don't have to preach to kids--just let the natural consequences flow.

  14. Yes! What I wanted to know after I read this article, and read about the ARC she received was, DID SHE READ IT?

    If not, none of her opinion is valid. You can't judge YA by the assumed content without actually reading to see the underlying message of hope.

    THAT is what Gurdon's articles keep missing. She's misrepresenting YA without ever having read the books she's condoning.

  15. You make some excellent points here and I don't think that Wall Street Journal woman has got it right at all. I think she's just standing on a right-wing platform and choosing to be selective with her outrage.

  16. Tere--for a college persuasive writing class one year, I chose to attack R-rated movies, in order to persuade people not to watch them. Did I watch the movies I condemned? Nope. My paper was not at all persuasive, either. (Yes, I'm assuming you meant "condemning" not "condoning.") :)

    Michael--it's so much easier to be outraged in ignorance.

  17. UNBELIEVABLE post Robin! These are the thoughts I couldn't put together into coherent anything, but you have done it well! Thank you.

  18. Thanks, Deana! I've been defending theatre since I could talk, and even wrote a paper on "Evil in Theatre" in college. Easy application to YA novels. :)

  19. And that's why parents should be reading--and talking about--the books their kids read. Something that an adult whose been around the block a few times and has thicker skin would be able to balance and not be as impacted by could be terrible for an impressive mind without that balance and experience. If that makes sense.

    Even Twilight had issues that I think needed to have a parent talking to teen readers over. The whole Stalked Edward issue being a big one. As an adult I recognized that what is romantic in a fairy tale (having an amazing guy find you so interesting he sneaks into your room to watch you sleep at night) would SO not be romantic in real life. Can you imagine some kid sneaking into your house to watch your 16 year old daughter sleep, while she's completely unaware? Yet I spoke with LOTS of girls who never stopped to separate the two in their minds. They just thought it was cute, romantic. Um, in real life it would be creepy.

  20. Donna--so true. Even traumatic parts of books are more palatable when an adult is available to talk about them. Or point out the creep-factor.

  21. Great post and great comments. I have nothing to add except that I agree books should be treated individually and not as a genre.

    In reading this, a follow-up question comes to mind that would be worthy of its own blog post. So I will state the question but hold my thoughts on it until such time. Here is the follow-up question:

    Would you as an author/future author be able to or willing to write a book that has those types of distirbing immages. And if you do choose to write about about them, how will it affect you as an author to write them.

  22. Did you hear Andrew Smith (one of the authors vilified in her original article) on NPR on the subject?

    It was a great hour of radio:


  23. Eric--LOL! I was planning a counterpoint followup ('cause arguing with myself is fun), so I guess I can include your question. :)

    Matthew--I haven't heard that interview. I'll be sure to do so! Thanks!

  24. That was an entertaining broadcast, Matt.

    Can't wait for your followup, Robin. People's sensibilities are so varied. My hubby is particularly sensitive to stuff, and I may not be able to have him read some of it. Which he would be totally offended by, but he'd be traumatized if I read it to him. Can't win. And my stuff is mild.

  25. I grew up in the 80's when parents were blaming music for our behavior. Even as a teenager I saw a flaw in this so called reasoning. I listened to Ozzy and Metallica and was a well adjusted smart kid who respected her elders. I felt that if a kid killed himself while listening to a certain kind of music there was something else going on. Was I the only one paying attention here?

    Well, I would never be caught reading any books containing vampires, warewolves, or the like. Not my thing, but my daughter is a different story. I HONESTLY feel she would not be in college now if it weren't for RL Stine, JK Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer.

    My daughter would not read anything. School sucked. Friends sucked. She was losing her interest in dance. I didn't know what to do. One day I brought home a Goosebumps book... that's where it all started. SHE WAS READING! She was grades behind in her reading level and from reading these books she started to improve in school.

    She worked her way through these books through the years. Now at 19 she's got a bookshelf FULL of books from a variety of authors who write this dark type of YA literature. She now also enjoys the American classics and is a well rounded responsible young woman. She's dabbling at writing her own book, and she's an English major - in secondary education. I'm so proud of her.

    Not only did these books improve her reading skills and widen her interests in reading, but they were an emotional outlet. Being a teen gets harder and harder through the years and while kids were sitting in front of their computer games, or talking to weirdos on the internet mine had her head in a book. When things sucked at school she would read her books.

    I cried while writing this. I can't believe how far she has come and how much she has grown. Her interest in books thrills me. Right now we have Passion by Lauren Kate sitting on our table waiting for Heidi to come home from a short trip she is on. The second she walks through the door, she will sit down and start reading. I will forever be a defender in all things literary.

  26. Oops, sorry this is so long. I guess i got carried away. I have a habit of babbling. :)

  27. Kimberly--never apologize for long comments on my blog. I have no stones to throw on that count. That was great stuff!

    The incentive to read, all by itself, is a powerful argument in favor of any kind of book. Now, if she'd started mutilating cats or looking for a boyfriend who dreamed of killing her, you might have had problems. Funny how there are NO stories out there to support that fear, huh?

    Thanks for your comment! (I wonder if my boys would like Goosebumps....)

  28. Johnathan Rand's American Chillers and Michigan Chillers are good too. He's a Michigan native and since we live in Michigan we thought that was pretty cool. Met the author once, he really has a way of connecting with the kids. My daughter Heidi has been buying these books for her younger brother over the last several years. He didn't read anything before that.

  29. I'll have to check em out. I suspect my boys will be more into sports books than scary books, but anything that will get them reading is good in my opinion!