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.