Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a ‘commentary’ on young adult fiction by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who evidently ‘regularly writes about children’s books for the Journal.‘ With a qualification like that, you can expect some quality journalism; a thoughtful discussion, perhaps, of the current state of YA, maybe. Some coverage of attempts at book bannings, perhaps, like the assault on Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak that occurred last year. Possibly even some coverage of the rise of crossover fiction, books that appeal to both youths and adults. There are lots of things to talk about, given that YA is exploding, as a genre.
But no. This is the Wall Street Journal. And that means it’s time to concerntroll for pageviews:
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…a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds…Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that 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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.
Ah. I see. Land sakes, we can’t go around normalising human experience! Gurdon’s commentary proceeds to single out a number of books she thinks are deserving of condemnation; many of them are on my shelves, and the rest of them will be by the end of the week, when my order at the bookstore comes in. She clearly believes that YA is entirely too dark these days and that youth need to be protected from it since apparently they are so tender and impressionable that they are incapable of reading a book without immediately running out to imitate the narrator. And evidently, she thinks that teens who experience things like depression, suicidality, rape, abuse, are abnormal and should feel properly shamed about it. Her palpable contempt of the American Library Association’s coverage of banned books is, well, palpable:
Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books.
That ALA, highlighting book challenges! What are they thinking. Have you checked out the list of banned and challenged classics, Ms. Gurdon? Many of the inclusions on that list might actually surprise you. Some of them are books by Judy Blume, the author you laud as an example of acceptable YA because her work isn’t ‘grotesque.’ (Are you aware, Ms. Gurdon, that Ms. Blume is an ardent opponent of book banning and often speaks out on this topic?) I guess we know how this ‘commentator’ feels about book bans:
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.
Those publishers, printing books! What are they thinking. Families must defend themselves from the evil of companies that print books their children want to read! And let’s talk about those literary agents, who dare to offer these dark, gloomy, no-fun authors representation. Agent Janet Reid puts it best:
Hey WSJ, I refuse to apologize for repping, selling, and reading “ever more appalling” YA novels.
Almost as soon as this appalling piece of ‘journalism’ went live, people started pushing back on it. Authors Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray both had rather a lot to say about the topic, and Ms. Johnson even started a hashtag, #YAsaves, asking readers to testify about what this ‘depraved’ literary genre has done for them. The results were stunning; within half an hour, it was among the top trending topics in the United States, and the testimonials are varied and eloquent. (Gosh, it’s almost like regular reading makes people better writers and communicators.)
Gurdon says that modern YA is ‘too dark’ for teens to be reading. Well, when I was a teen, I read a lot of dark books. And you know what? They were there for me in an extremely dark time, and they spoke to me in a way that other books did not. They reminded me that I was not alone, that other people had similar experiences, that there was a chance I could get through it. I could escape from my own darkness and into the darkness of another in a way that more upbeat books couldn’t pull me outside my experiences. I couldn’t read a cheerful book and feel better about myself. If anything, ‘nice’ books made me feel worse. Like more of a failure and a freak. I needed to read books where the protagonist was like me. I wish I’d read more books where the protagonist was like me.
In high school, I didn’t understand a lot of things about myself, like that I was mentally ill and that was a big part of why I struggled so much with things that seemed so easy for everyone around me. Maybe if I’d had access to more books about mentally ill teens, I could have recognised myself and I would have had the tools I needed to ask for help. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost a semester in college to my mental illnesses. Maybe I would have felt strong and proud, instead of useless and worthless. Maybe if the people around me hadn’t used rose-tinted glasses to describe childhood and the teenage years, I would have understood that my experiences were not at all uncommon.
The ‘depravity’ described; rape, incest, assault, these are all indeed terrible things. And they are terrible things that happen to teens. Teens read dark books because some of them have dark lives. Teens are raped. Teens are beaten. Teens are tormented and harassed. Teens are in abusive relationships. Teens have horrible home lives. Teens are hungry and homeless and desperate. Teens use drugs. Reading books about these experiences don’t make teen readers commit horrible acts. They help teen readers identify the things that have happened to them and develop tools to talk about them. Reading Speak, for example, has a profound impact on a lot of teens who have experienced rape. Go Ask Alice, namechecked as an early leader in the ‘depraved’ YA literature field, was and continues to be important for many teens. Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t make people commit suicide, but it sure helps if you’re feeling suicidal and you need to read a book with a protagonist you can identify with.
And it’s not just teens who benefit from dark YA. Lots of adults read it too. There’s a reason crossover fiction is big right now. I have copious YA on my shelves and not just for research purposes. Because, yes, The Hunger Games did more for me than nice acceptable ‘adult’ books at a particular time in my life. Adults are active on the #YAsaves hashtag as well, talking about their experiences with it now, and how reading YA as youths led some of them to pursue careers as librarians and teachers (undoubtedly corrupting the youth by forcing evil, evil books into their hands).
The WSJ, ever interested in service to readers, helpfully provided readers with an acceptable list of young adult books. It’s divided into boy books and girl books, naturally, and that gendered split follows in terms of narrators, as well. Girls should read books with girl protagonists, while boys should read books with boy protagonists. As for the rest of us, well, I suspect the WSJ doesn’t think we exist, and would put books with genderqueer and androgyne or other nonbinary protagonists in the ‘depraved’ category. Naturally, none of the recommended books feature binary trans protagonists. After all, those sorts of books, with protagonists who experience oppression because of their gender, ability status, race, class…might be a bad influence on impressionable teens. We certainly wouldn’t want trans teens learning that they’re not freaks and there’s a word to describe what they’re experiencing. We wouldn’t want teens of colour and nonwhite teens learning that they can and should take pride in their identities. &tc.
YA is a powerful genre and a lot of young adult authors do impressive anti-oppression work. It is heartening to see so many standing in solidarity with their readers today as the WSJ attacks them. Rather than condemning the ‘depravity’ of young adult fiction, we should be talking about the real-world depravity that so many teens experience in a world with murderous bullying, sexual assault, and so many other things. We should be asking why the government is so bent on cutting the social services so critical to teens; why it is that so many children and teens are living with hunger and homelessness; why it is that the treatment of teen rape victims is dependent on the social status of their rapists; why it is that queer and trans teens experience suicidality and poverty at rates much higher than that of the general population; why it is, if our youth are so important, that we treat them like garbage. That is depraved. Books that help teens survive in a harsh world speak not to the need to censor books, but to the need to fix the world we live in.