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
- Going Bovine
- Bitter End
- If I Stay
- Between Shades of Grey
- Life, After
- Spilling Ink
- The Thief
- The Princess Diaries
- Maximum Ride
- Along for the Ride
- The Heroes of Olympus series