YA Lit; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Darkness

Last night I came across this article via one of the authors I follow on Twitter.  The article is by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who “writes regularly about children’s books” for the Wall Street Journal.  I’ll let you read it, digest it a bit, and then come back…

…Finished?  Good.  Because I’d like to make some points here…

First of all, let’s talk about the idea of ‘appropriateness’.  For many people, the label ‘Young Adult’ (or YA) serves, in their mind, like a movie rating.  For them, it is supposed to indicate the appropriateness of the book for adolescent readers according to the adults that apply the label.  The disconnect comes from the fact that this is not, and has never been, the case.  The YA label indicates the target audience of the work and nothing more.  It is not a label based on any sort of standard other than the fact that publishers feel that readers of that demographic will find the book appealing.  It is this disconnect that drives much of the above-mentioned article’s angst.

Why is there such a big disconnect here?  Because what many people seem to forget is that no one, NO ONE, but a child’s parent could possibly comment on the appropriateness of a book/movie/video game/etc. for their own child.  A librarian can’t (and shouldn’t).  A publisher can’t (and shouldn’t).

In the fifteen years that I’ve worked in libraries, I have heard the idea of book-ratings put forward on numerous occasions.  In theory, it would work as a guideline for parents.  The problem, as with all other rating systems, is that one parent’s standard is different from another’s.  Further, ratings place an unneeded stigma on a book. A book with an “R” rating is relegated to being a “dirty book”–and receives all the notoriety that comes with that.  In fact, as with most acts of censorship, it almost ensures its popularity, even if it may not be warranted.

The author of this article makes that point herself…

In an effort to keep the most grueling material out of the hands of younger readers, Ms. Stoddard and her colleagues at Politics & Prose, an independent Washington, D.C., bookstore, created a special “PG-15” nook for older teens. With some unease, she admits that creating a separate section may inadvertently lure the attention of younger children keen to seem older than they are.

Relegating dirty books to the ghetto of a rating system never, ever, works.

Another big problem with the idea of appropriateness is the inherent fluctuation of any applied standard.  Once again, one parent’s idea of what is appropriate varies from another. Further, in YA lit, you’re dealing with a fairly wide age range.  The author’s own definition of “novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18” serves pretty well.  However, I think only the most naive of  readers would actually make the claim that something that is appropriate for a 12-year-old would (or should) also be appropriate for an 18-year-old, and vice versa.  Are we to apply the ‘lowest’ possible standard in an effort to protect readers?  Here there be dragons.

Gurdon also seems appalled that American librarians “delight” in exposing acts of censorship by gatekeepers, such as herself.  Her biggest fear is that parents are bulldozed by The C-Word…Censorship:

The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.

As it stands, this statement is correct.  Parents are under no obligation to buy books that they feel are inappropriate.  It is their right and privilege.  However, I have never heard of a case where a parent was publicly lambasted as a censor for not buying their child a certain book.  The C-Word is usually only invoked when said parent attempts to make that decision for other parents and for other people’s children.  For example, when a parent pressures schools or public libraries to remove access to a book for all the other teens or readers, that is censorship and should be absolutely be gleefully exposed for what it is.

But what about this dark literature, filling the kid’s heads with scenes of depravity? Is there any reason why authors should explore these themes for the ‘yoots’?

As Gurdon points out…

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

Indeed, much of YA lit deals with dark “pathologies”.  There are instances of rape, incest, violence, and the like in many–but certainly not all or even most–of the work.  The difference is that Ms. Gurdon sees this as a cause of concern when it is, in fact, an indication of the growth and improvement of the literature.

The darkness exists.  Always has and, [insert appropriate deity here] help us, always will. That we are now able to speak of it in the presence of those that have actually, or could actually experience it is a Good Thing™.  For those that have spent time in the dark places, these books often demonstrate that they are not alone, that with strength and perseverance, they can emerge and be free.  For those that have not walked that dark path, they gain a degree of perspective on their own problems and also move away from the “blame the victim” mentality that often goes hand-in-hand with silence on such acts.  As one fellow author on Twitter brilliantly put it “Because we need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.”

YA literature doesn’t present the world as it should be.  It presents it as it is.  Even when they’re encountering angsty vampires and demons, the good ones invoke a realistic emotional resonance that connects.  Young adults wouldn’t have it any other way.  Anyone that has worked with teens know that they can smell falseness and “phony-ism” a mile away.  Too be fair, life is not all darkness and evil lurking around the corner–and neither is all of the literature.  If you want more of the light, then by all means buy it, read it, and love it.  Heck, try your hand at writing it.  But to expect to find only the light without the dark is unrealistic and shallow.  One does not exist without the other.

About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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27 Responses to YA Lit; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Darkness

  1. Kate Cornell says:

    Thank you for a precise post that’s not outraged reaction, but thoughtful analysis.

  2. Rose S. says:

    That was very well said. It is exactly how I feel! I have been a librarian for five years and a bookseller before that and I would never tell a parent what is appropirate. I always suggest authors that I like but urge them to read the bookcover at the least and make the decision as to what is appropriate for their kids.

  3. Absolutely hit the nail on the head. Very eloquent and heartfelt.

  4. Very well said. I love that quote: “Because we need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.” Thank you for adding it. I think it will be going up on my wall at some point. Great post!!!

    Emma Michaels

  5. Isabel Roman says:

    I’m also a librarian and PT writer and after struggling to get through the WSJ article that’s rather full of itself and definitely one-sided, I have to say: No matter what the author says, it’s not up to her, either. If I want my child to read a certain book, Ms. Gurdon’s opinion isn’t going to disuade me. And if he reads it on the sly and then has questions, I’m certainly not going to freak out and never talk about it! Dialog is key here, which I’m afraid Ms. Gurdon has forgotten.

    I also have to say I’m disappointed in her limited selection of books she doesn’t like and uses as examples, and the old *ahem ‘classic’* ones she recommends. I did notice how Mark Twain wasn’t on there, either.

  6. Isabel Roman says:

    BTW: Thanks for posting a thoughtful not off-the-cuff response.

  7. Carradee says:

    “Dark” fiction actually helps me when I’m depressed. It reminds me how great a life I have.

    I’ve thought of book ratings, but comments on book content would be more valuable. But even such comments wouldn’t address how the content is handled.

    My own writing contains “dark” themes, without being entirely “dark” in tone. I’ve known 16 year olds who I wouldn’t hand my book for fear of giving them nightmares—and I’ve known 8 year olds fine with what I write.

    When I was a teenager, I actually contacted an author if all his original (non-Star Wars) fiction had the same level of crass language as the book I’d found. I loved his Star Wars books, but as much as I liked them, I didn’t want to read the kind of language I’d found in his original fiction. The only place I’d found to contact him was on a public forum. He replied that all his original fiction had that kind of language, and I suspect he was laughing at me for having an issue with it.

    With that in mind, I have a content advisory on my website for my stories, with a note at the top on what kind of content is in all of them.

  8. Shedrick says:

    I don’t have a beef with content advisories per se. I think it’s great that you take the time and thought to do that and definitely see where that would be helpful. I just don’t think that publishers, booksellers, or librarians should be the ones responsible for providing them. If I come across something in my reading that offends me, my first reaction is just not “Why didn’t someone warn me?”. Usually it’s more along the lines of “Well that sucked” and then I move on. Sometimes in reading we come across stuff we don’t like. The great thing about it is that we can set that book down and get another.

    I’m sorry for your less-than-great experience with an author. I’d like to think that when I become a glamorous bestselling author I’d treat my readers with a little more humility. But I also know that I’m human and some days are better than others.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments!

  9. As a mother of teens and a middle school teacher, I’ve engaged with students who are unsure whether a book is “safe” or “too dark.” Purchasing young adult fiction should (ideally) protect them, somewhat, from more adult-related subjects (such as sex). I’ve had many students find themselves exposed to things they weren’t planning on through a book. If it had been a movie, they would have known from the start that it contained nudity and violence. Why can’t we do the same with books? This isn’t censorship. It has been a struggle for me as a parent to keep up with what my kids are reading. There is a new book in my daughter’s hands every day, and sometimes the cover is dark. She assures me it is fine, but how do I know what she is reading? A rating system would notify me at a glance what the book contained.

    Because I have been in the lives of teens and tweeners for so many years, I’ve observed that the darkness of a book can truly affect the emotional health of a child. Time and time again, I’ve seen my students become depressed, withdrawn, moody, and speak of suicide and cutting after reading books of that nature. It is hard to put your finger on causation and correlation with something like this, but it is a topic worth discussing and exploring.

    • Shedrick says:

      First of all, thanks for the very well-stated response. This is a topic that is meaningful and emotional for everyone, it’s a topic that matters, and I totally agree that it is worth discussing and exploring.

      I just absolutely can’t buy the idea of causation between books or media and self-harm. I can see being drawn to darker works if that is where one’s head is at or can even imagine cases where such works don’t help when a person’s head in such a place. At the same time there are numerous examples where such dark works have actually helped people that have walked dark paths (or been thrust upon them) see that they are not alone and see characters that deal with what they deal with. I believe in the power of words, in their power to inspire. I also fully realize that this can be both positive and negative. But inspiration is not causation. And authors or producers simply should not be held responsible for the choices other people make. But I also get that it’s a dance across a line that constantly moves.

      Content advisories and ratings are, in my view, a form of censorship in that they automatically stigmatize the work. Ratings do this more than a well-thought out content advisory, admittedly, because a rating is such a blanket statement, a statement without nuance. For example, when the MPAA created the NC-17 rating, it was supposed to be for works that had artistic merit but with more “adult” material than a typical “R” movie. They tried this before with the X rating–which later came synonymous with porn. Which is essentially what the NC-17 became. It wasn’t highly adult but with meritable content…it was a “dirty movie”. Plus, we’re talking about a spectrum here. I’ve seen movies rated “R” that had the same level of sex and/or violence as a typical TV crime drama–but was rated due to one dropping of an f-bomb. Then there’s R-rated torture porn. Also, slapping a rating on it could give a work that would normally fade out of the popular consciousness due to being just poorly written a new lease on life due to notoriety. A rating doesn’t really solve the problem or inform nearly as well as we want it to. It’s an easy-out that ultimately harms more than it helps.

      No, I don’t think it reasonable to expect every parent to read every book. But ideally parents should be able to have the tough conversations necessary when their teen comes across material in a book/movie/videogame/song that challenges their sensibilities. The idea, to me, is that teens (especially older teens) should be able to find and explore things on their own because their parents have instilled values, sensibilities, and critical thinking skills that will allow them to accept or discard works based on their own judgement. Parents shouldn’t have to read everything because their kids have been raised well enough to make some of those decisions on their own and parents can trust that they have smart kids. But, like in most things, those same kids have to be given room to fail and learn. When those smart kids come across something that disturbs them, shakes them up, may be too much to handle, the parent is there to talk to them about it and help. Ideally, parenting is preparing young adults to handle challenges in the adult world–not shield them from it. When Dee Snyder from Twisted Sister was brought before a Congressional board in the 80s about censorship, he was asked if it was reasonable for parents to be expected to read or listen or watch everything that their child could be exposed to. His reply was no, it wasn’t reasonable; but being a parent isn’t reasonable, it’s hard. I can certainly understand a desire for some help along that lines. I just don’t think ratings are the answer. I think parents and teens having an open relationship is.

      Plus, these books are seldom devious in their marketing. You can usually tell by the jacket description whether or not these books are going to explore uncomfortable territory or not. You may not get a sense of the explicitness, but an inkling of the route of the journey. Plus there are review sites, book discussion groups, friends, neighbors, etc. All kinds of sources to learn and discuss a book without placing an arbitrary value on it based on the judgement of some anonymous ratings board.

      And like I said, my point isn’t that these books are for everyone. If you don’t like them, don’t value them, then by all means don’t buy them. I just don’t buy that they are inherently bad and I think that that is a decision that individuals need to make for themselves.

      Thank you so much for your comments and your insights!

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