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.