*Gasp* Sometimes, #YAsaves!

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece “Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?”  The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the “darkness” that is in many young adult books these days.  A friend sent me the article on Friday and I just laughed while reading it, chalking it up to a journalist who didn’t do their research.  But then last night, the article went viral.  Now I am furious as I think of all the parents who will read this article and nod their heads, suddenly telling their teens that they can’t read YA anymore.

Are there books in the YA section that focus on “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff”, as the mother in the article claims?  Of course.  Barnes and Noble has an entire section devoted to Paranormal Teen Romance (another story altogether- my teens can’t stand it that BN has done this).  Twilight and The Vampire Diaries are books that both my former sixth graders and current high schoolers have read and loved.  I also watched those same students become readers after picking up the first book in a vampire series, asking for more books when they finished.  You can’t put a price on that.  Do I love vampire books?  Not really.  They aren’t a genre or plot line I enjoy.  But there are readers out there for those books (as evidenced by the sheer volume of books sold).  There are readers for every book, but not every book is for every reader.

There are also books about self-mutilation, suicide, depression, eating disorders, and abuse in the YA section.  Guess what- there are thousands of teens out there who are suffering in silence and a book can be a lifeline.  Maybe those books aren’t “right” for your child, but that doesn’t give any parent the right to censor those books or call them depraved.  You have every right to censor what your own child reads.  In fact, parents should be involved in the books choices their teens make.  Read alongside them, discuss the issues in those “dark” books, and get to know your teen.  They may not suffer from depression, or abuse, or an eating disorder but I guarantee they know someone in their school or circle of friends who needs help.  Books build empathy.  Books build bridges.  #YAsaves.

YA is written for ages 12-18.  That means there are some books more appropriate for 7th and 8th graders and others that I would recommend to my high school seniors.  Does that mean all YA needs to be censored?  Absolutely not!  It means that teens should (and do) self-censor.  It means that parents, teachers, and librarians should know what their teens are reading.  More importantly, it means those gatekeepers should be reading alongside their teens and reading ahead of their teens.  That way they can make knowledgeable recommendations to teens, recommendations that teens will trust.

And another thing- maybe the author of the article and the mother quoted haven’t looked that the books assigned in middle school and high school English classes lately.  My high school seniors last semester complained that every book they read in English was depressing.  You know what?  It’s true!  My sixth graders read Tuck Everlasting and The Giver.  My freshman read Romeo and Juliet, Antigone, and Things Fall Apart.  My poor seniors!  They read The Johnstown Flood, Animal Farm, An Enemy of the People, and Hamlet.  Talk about dark!

The most frustrating parts of the article actually deal with the booksellers mentioned.  Jewell Stoddard notes “that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.”  Do you know why?  Because schools teach them that the canon, which is awfully dark, is the only literature worth reading.  YA is seen as trashy and silly, not something to waste you time on.  Guess what?  I have seniors reading YA now that it is available in my classroom library.  I have a few who came to be in September to recommend books.  Seniors who love Ellen Hopkins, Sarah Dessen, and Christopher Paolini.  I have freshman who easily move between middle grade, YA, and adult books.  They don’t see a problem with blurring the lines, and they self-censor.  If the book doesn’t feel right in the first 10-20 pages, they don’t read it. We need to trust teens.  My sister is twelve and a lot of her friends are reading The Hunger Games.  She tried it, decided it was “too gross” for her after about 30 pages, and set it aside.  She told me she will try it again in a couple of years.  No one told her she couldn’t read it, no one told her it was not right for her- she just knew.  She picked up The Lightning Thief instead.

And the mother quoted in the article commented that she had a Barnes and Noble employee with her in the YA section who helped her flip through 78 books.  According to that mother, “because she  [the employee] had not in fact read any of the books for sale, she kind of kept me company more than helped, but it was still something.”  Gee, Barnes and Noble.  Maybe you need dedicated YA employees?  I could have found that mother books in under 10 minutes.  How do you expect to survive when your employees aren’t even familiar with the books you offer?  No one can “flip through” a book and understand it.  A parent isn’t going to read 78 books to find one they will give their teen.  Barnes and Noble lost that sale because there wasn’t an employee in the store who could recommend a light, funny contemporary YA book for a 13 year old girl.

But there are happy, funny books out there.  Take a look at some of the most popular books in my classroom.  They run the gamut from “dark” to hysterical.

  • The Hunger Games 
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • Paper Towns
  • An Abundance of Katherines
  • Revolution
  • Going Bovine
  • Bitter End
  • If I Stay
  • Nation
  • Between Shades of Grey
  • Life, After
  • Spilling Ink
  • The Thief
  • Shipbreaker
  • The Princess Diaries
  • Maximum Ride
  • Along for the Ride
  • The Heroes of Olympus series
#YAsaves.  The Wall Street Journal has published this piece as an article, not an editorial, and as such is doing a great disservice to parents, teachers, librarians, and teens everywhere.  They haven’t responded to the amazing #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter (thanks to Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray for getting it started!), so I felt the need to share my thoughts here.  YA is important and vital for teen readers.  Censoring all of it is not the answer.  Knowledge about the genre is needed.



16 Responses

  1. […] This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece "Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"  The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the "darkness" that is in many young adult books these days.  A friend sent me the article on Friday and I just laughed while reading it, chalking it up to a journalist who didn't do their research.  But then la … Read More […]

  2. Testify!
    I was so happy to read this today, after reading the article and the foolish accompanying comments last night. While I love the classics that were recommended in the sidebar, Fahrenheit 451 and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn are not going to hook today’s teens. Books are the best possible addiction for adolescents…we should be encouraging them, not demonizing them!

  3. We are with you 100%. As parents (2 of us, anyway), we know how difficult it is to figure out what your kids are ready for, and what they need. But to extend that responsibility to EVERY KID? We have no right, and no desire. So who is this woman to tell anyone else, and to fly her opinions under the banner of the WSJ?

    Thanks for the list. It’s great. And your stories about kids self-censoring is fabulously enlightening and reassuring.

  4. I too posted about this on my site. As a middle school teacher I try to have a large selection of books for all ages and all genres. The best compliment I received came from a reluctant reader last year. He said, “I want you to know that I hate you because you have made me love reading. You told me that you had something on your shelves that would make me love to read and you would prove it and you did.” I asked him why that made him hate me and he said, “Because I will be leaving you and don’t know where to get book recommendations that I will like. We need to teach our kids there are good books out there and that what one likes another may not.

  5. I absolutely LOVE your post here and will be tweeting it. I couldn’t have said it better. Students DO self-censor!

  6. Excellent response.

    Just yesterday I was speaking with a friend about the literature taught in American public schools today. What’s typically required doesn’t make much connection to the average teen’s life. Why shouldn’t we bring YA into the classroom?

    By the way, Wall Street Journal, life is dark, depraved, and violent.

  7. well said. i’m kinda thrilled by all the hype though. i think that telling them about all this “trash” will get more teens interested than it will turn them away or empower too many parents to censor particular books.

  8. I’m impressed with all the reading you’re putting in on the 48hbc that you could pay this much attention to the issue – and write about it! I’m playing catch-up on it all today. (Though I can without question wag my finger at the WSJ for publishing an editorial as what appeared to be an informative article. Cause that’s about standards.)

  9. Wonderful article. Thanks for posting this.

  10. I agree with your response mostly. Except this….did that mother ask another employee for help? Many booksellers have read many titles from YA, I happen to be one of them. unfortunately for the customers we can’t be there 7 days a week. To group all B&N’s together is a bit unfair…other than flipping through the pages did the mother choose selections from the books and read them. To place blame is wrong…we as booksellers give the best we can but we are not, by any means, all knowing. Parents hold the ultimate responsibility an this woman failed on it apparently. Here is my response to the article that I had posted on my Facebook page: Being the YA Lit lover that I am, I of course had to put my two cents in….if I offend…..I’m not sorry….just so you know….

    This article enraged me! The reporter first and foremost must get her facts straight. The Young Reader Genre was not dubbed that until the 1960’s maybe but the “genre” has been around for quite some time…




    ..not to mention the fact of this…..to call any type of literature “appalling” is inexcusable. I work with children everyday that have seen horrors much darker than what is dealt with in these books. These children have seen the darker sides of human existence and most of it has been dealt to them by their parents. The rest is offered by our wonderful society who would rather forget they exist. Children are smarter than most of you give them credit for. They do understand that most of the time they are reading for entertainment or to gain knowledge…these darker teen titles were never put out there as “how to” books…..I mean how stupid is this reporter really! Most of what is dark and viscous in their worlds is what the adults and caretakers of this world have created. Yes teens cut themselves….starve themselves….and sometimes kill themselves….yes they are capable of becoming drug addicts and alcoholics….but they also are sometimes abused….mistreated…..ridiculed…..and thrown away as trash…..and most of the time this is done by the most trusted adults in their lives…there are those dumbfounded people who believe that if we take this type of literature away from the teens and children that they won’t think of these things…..WRONG!…..these horrors will not stop…..who will they identify with then…..some teens are moved to the point of action when reading this type of fiction…..they become confidants to their fellow troubled teens…or they become inspired….inspired to be creative themselves or inspired to be a stronger humans….or GASP! they read this type of fiction for pure escapism…..this article truly shows the ignorance of adults today….bravo to the authors who take the chance and actually “go there”…..and bravo to the excellent minds who create such fantasy that contain vampires and fairies and incredibly fantastic worlds! Bravo to the authors who give us an insight to the troubled minds of teens who are facing their inner demons….and shame on you adults and close minded people who want to just lock the darkness in the closet….shame on you for not facing the realities and darkness of our world today…..and shame on you for wanting to keep our  youth of today ignorant and blind and not prepared for the real world….. #YAsaves

    • Michelle-

      Thanks for sharing! I think we are on the same page- I understand that not every employee is going to be familiar with every book. And you sound like a fantastic bookseller. However, I have never found an employee in my two local BN that is knowledgeable about YA. I think BN needs to make an effort to bring in more YA employees! And if the employee who helped this woman could not offer her a single title (out of over 75 that the mother pulled off the shelf herself), then there is a problem with BN. Not the employees- BN, the corporation.

      • Maybe being familiar with the YA titles should be a requirement for The Children’s Lead position….I do agree…and thank you…
        I do adore my job 🙂

  11. […] *Gasp* Sometimes, #YAsaves! « The Reading Zone: “” […]

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