And the latest moral panic is … books?

Andrew Smith’s “The Marbury Lens” is among the young-adult books in WSJ writer Meghan Cox Gurdon’s crosshairs — she says it’s inappropriate for teens.

In what rulebook, operations manual, or parenting guide is it written that children and teens are pure, innocent, and morally untainted? Where is it written that they never have sexual or violent ideas, aggressive feelings, or fears inspired not by media fictions but by real life or their own fertile imaginations? The idea that kids are blank slates, happy and pure of thought until corrupted, is at the root of every child-related moral panic, from the crackdown on comic books to in the 1950s to the current outrage over … young-adult books. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far, does it?

Last month, Wall Street Journal writer Meghan Cox Gurdon penned a screed decrying the current state of young-adult fiction. It’s a state she describes as, “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things.”

In the course of her article, Gurdon goes after a number of YA books, describing their content in lurid detail (almost echoing Justice Scalia’s recent descriptions of the gore and violence contained in youth literature dating back to the Brothers Grimm). These concepts, she argues, threaten “a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

Personally, I’m wondering whether it has dawned on her that reading accounts of teens’ dire straits might a) shine a light on the fact that far too many children experience trauma, or b) that reading about such experiences might actually help readers develop that “tenderness of heart” toward such experiences that Gurdon is fighting for. It doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind; instead, she posits, “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”

Fortunately, Gurdon’s piece opened a dialogue. One of those dialogues was with Lauren Myracle, author of “Shine,” one of the books on Gurdon’s blacklist. Myracle and Gurdon chatted last week on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and Myracle responded to Gurdon’s claims:

Do books normalize dangerous behaviors? My answer would be people aren’t dummies. Some are, but most aren’t. Kids aren’t, either. I think that kids are, again and again, not given enough credit for being smart and for being critical thinkers.

(Remember when the Harry Potter books came out, and religious leaders were convinced they’d inspire kids to become demon-worshipping wizards? The Vatican is now championing the final Potter film.)

YA author Frank Portman, author of King Dork and Andromeda Klein, chimed in on his own blog. He writes:

For Meghan Cox Gurdon, a book that fails to advance, or even merely complicates, that agenda, let alone actually impedes it, is a bad book, worse than useless, unsuited to the task at hand, which is, essentially, social engineering.

But, of course, that’s not at all how or why people read novels. In fact, some of the best novels, like other forms of art, were created with precisely the opposite agenda in mind: to rile, to irritate, to provoke, to test, to undermine conventional assumptions and to discourage conformity. I’d even go so far as to say that the books that have meant the most to me over the years, “young” and otherwise, have been the ones deliberately constructed in order to make the parent’s job harder.

Portman also goes after the anti-Gurdon movement, which tagged many missives on Twitter with the tag #YAsaves. Young-adult fiction, Portman points out, isn’t there to save lives any more than it’s there to make parents’ jobs easier. It’s there to be art. To be fiction. For teens who enjoy reading. End of story.

What’s the darkest thing you’ve ever read in a young-adult fiction book, and how did it affect you when you read it? Share your tales in the comments.


23 responses to “And the latest moral panic is … books?

  1. I read “Rosemary’s Baby” when it was brand-new, so I’d have been eleven or twelve. I wasn’t too impressed with it. I do recall finding the expression “making love” puzzling.

    I suppose that’s not actually “young adult fiction”.

  2. (My 12-yo granddaughter is into the “Lockdown” series, which looks pretty damned dark. Doesn’t seem to be warping her for life.)

  3. I think the issue goes deeper—since when do kids even need their own genre? Kids prior to, say, 1900 would read the same texts. In school they would read Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc, all with very adult themes and somehow life went on without everybody growing up to be a kleptomaniac rapist.

    Given the topic of your blog, I imagine you have your own strong feelings on this, but the conception of childhood really is new and fairly arbitrary. I actually think in a lot of ways to shelter a child is to dumb them down, crippling them in dealing with the adult themes that they invariably will have to deal with in any case.

    • A good point! Yes, the “adolescent” age group is relatively recent, and teens didn’t have their own media/culture until the 1950s. And as soon as it was invented, it was distrusted/demonized by “concerned” adults who worried it would corrupt the children. Of course, adulthood once began at the age of 12 or 13 when sexual maturity began. Is this the downside of longer lifespans? I certainly hope not…

    I read that in the 6th grade in 1977. It only takes a cursory glance at the themes to know that dark themes for children have been around for as long as writing has been around. Z for Zachariah (yes, I own a copy now) is a frightfully disturbing book if you’re in the 6th grade in the 70s. Nuclear war possibilities weren’t exactly out of the question and everyone I knew as a kid talked about it as if it were an inevitable future event. This book put the idea out there that survival was possible, yet bleak and dangerous. This was well before Mad Max for me, and almost around the time of The Day After, but this was one of the first novels I remember reading with great interest and it’s a disturbing, dark affair in which the main character, a 12 year old girl, is threatened with sexual assault by a man slowly dying from radiation poisoning and she has to survive her day-to-day life on top of that.

  5. I also, as a kid in the 70s, read THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. *cough cough* Let me just say that was a MISTAKE. That is an incredibly terrifying book for a 12 year old kid who lives in a rural area and has a whole host of stupid supernatural beliefs to begin with. That was not an assigned book from a teacher, of course. 🙂 Z for Zachariah was, though.

  6. Seriously? Roald Dahl’s entire career (with the possible exception of his adult horror and SF) is based on children’s need for the disturbing. And I was immensely struck by the darkness of The Green Futures of Tycho (as well as another book in the same young adult imprint from MacDonald, the name of which entirely escapes me). Andre Norton and Ursula LeGuin were both often classed – if not quite as YA as we know it – then certain as child suitable.

    Ender’s Game is so explicitly for precocious kids (please take it as read that I’ve spent three paras ranting about Orson Scott Card and his massive closet). On which note… The Chronicles of Narnia. Dark, especially The Last Battle. (I never got the Christian references until someone told me about them when I was 17, but I got the “big gory battle, everyone dies in a train wreck” bit).

    Hell. The Prydain novels by Lloyd Alexander, and everything Alan Garner ever wrote.

    All “children’s books”. All dark, dark, dark.
    As they should be.

    They really spoke to me as a child. They got me reading. I also liked Greek, Norse and Celtic mythology tales, complete with the poison dripping into Loki’s eyes and eagles pecking out Prometheus’ liver.

    We clearly need these memes and have done for a long time.

    I was recently rather taken by The Hunger Games, but showing kids a world that isn’t all flowers and rainbows and friendly neighbours is hardly a recent thing.

    Vicariously experiencing the pain of a fictional character doesn’t make the young heart less tender. It makes us better able to care, to empathise and to be moved in response to the unjust fate of another. Even if they only exist for the length of a novel.

  7. Oh, and for dark, try Junk by Melvyn Burgess (translated as Smack in the US). It’s an (I believe) semi-autobiographical story about some abused kids who end up on the streets, find themselves hope with some squatters, but it all ends up going downhill when the squat breaks up and they get caught in a spiral of heroin addiction. Brutally accurate portrayal of addiction, showing both the good and the bad, without any judgemental hectoring. The BBC made an extremely good YA drama based on it. It was even used as part of the national curriculum for a few years.

  8. Hans Andersen

    Try “Rifles for Watie”, in 5th grade no less. More violent and bloody than The Two Towers, and with no fantastical good-vs-evil story to put distance between you and Confederate minie balls. Also, was the first book I read where the villain actually made me feel shock and revulsion at a human level, perhaps because he was the first villain I ran across who was actually a sadist and a scumbag, rather than some simple cosmic evil.

  9. I don’t think I read a lot of young adult fiction when I was a young adult. I mean, I was reading Dr. Seuss, and then Beverly Cleary and Edith Nesbit, and then I kinda skipped over to Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Heinlein (not the young adult stuff). So, while I remember a lot of disturbing things, I don’t remember anything specifically from that genre.

    In fact, the most disturbing thing I remember reading as a kid was in a picture book filled with skeletons that for some reason had a lot of mucus flowing out of their noses. Totally messed me up.

    Hey, wait! Does VC Andrews count as young adult fiction? ’cause I remember finding a book called My Sweet Audrina at the bottom of my locker in junior high (I still have no idea where it came from) and being plenty disturbed by it.

  10. “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.” — Meghan Gurdon

    This is the nut of the argument. Do you believe this or don’t you?

    Personally, I don’t. I’m basing that on my own experience, which is not the same as a scientific sample, but it’s what I’ve got. My taste — my proclivities — my sense of aesthetic value — was _informed_ by the art I experienced, but not created by it. I learned nearly as much from exposure to things I didn’t like as I did from things I did like. And, of course, almost any work of art/entertainment/literature is going to have both in it. Using my critical facilities to isolate what I did and didn’t like in a work of art is part of the pleasure, for me, and I was doing it from a very young age. (You probably were, too. Kids are smarter than they remember being when they grow up, mostly.)

    It’s more like my personal aesthetic existed already, but became revealed to me by exposure to art. As I became more familiar with it, I figured out how to find more of what I was looking for…and sometimes, how to create it myself. But never once did any work of art, no matter how manipulative, force me to engage with it. I could always walk away. Sometimes, I did. Mostly I didn’t. Either way, I was making a choice.

    Darkest YA experience? Wow, there’ve been quite a few. The one that stands out the most to me is “House of Stairs” by William Sleator, who also wrote “The Green Futures of Tycho”. “House of Stairs” straight fucked me up when I read it — struck dead center of my deepest fears. I can barely talk about it now except to say that it is very well written, totally plausible, and utterly merciless in its depiction of human cruelty. It gave me nightmares for months. Years? I recommend it highly.

    Aside from that, there’s the ever-reliable Robert Cormier, the most sadistic writer I’ve ever encountered, whose every book crushes the spirit a little more. Again: a heck of a good writer. He knows his craft. But his stuff I actually hate because of how it fetishizes negativity and cruelty. He’s got his fans; I’m not among them.

    Then there’s “Bridge to Terabithia”, “Animal Farm”, and too many others to list…

    • Thank you! The House of Stairs was the book I read at the same time as Green Futures that I was trying to remember! William Sleator is bloody twisted. 😉

  11. All the best YA/kids’ books are dark. Ever noticed how many of them involve dead or missing parents, for starters? For some reason the Madeleine L’Engle books are coming to mind right now.

  12. Yeah, “A Wrinkle in Time” really bothered me when I read it — the whole business with Camazotz and brain control (literally) was too intense for me. I appreciated it after I’d had a chance to calm down, which took a few years, but at the time I was like “Moooooooooom?”

  13. I’m having trouble remembering what shocked or frightened me as a teen reading YA – I remember reading “The Face on the Milk Carton”, about abduction, because I found it sort of morbidly fascinating, but that’s all I can come up with at the moment.

    I read “Push” by Sapphire as a young adult, shelved in YA when I read it though I don’t believe that YA is the intended audience. To say that it is upsetting is a total understatement. It is shocking and raw in its honesty and brutality. More recently, I read “Living Dead Girl”, which is extremely, deeply disturbing. (It’s about a teenage girl who was abducted as a 10 year old, and the abuse she suffers at the hands of her abductor…but to explain it that way does not do justice to how horrifying it is.) I think both of these books are extremely disturbing and upsetting, but in short: they both acknowledge the reality of some teen girls who actually live through horrifying things – and to censor that, even if it is deeply painful to read about – is to pretend that young people never suffer and that no one could possibly identify with this kind of pain. Actually, Sherman Alexie wrote a great article about the importance of children’s literature that, as he put it, is “written in blood” – I believe as part of the #YASaves effort – and he made this point far better than I just did.

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  17. It is crazy to think that ANYTHING can be included in in YA novel and not be subject to legitimate criticism. No one wants to “infringe” on a child’s right to read…..well that is what adults are supposed to do in society. Protect children.

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