Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book editor at the Wall Street Journal, had the courage to say young adult novels are too dark. Books for teens today seem “guided by a kind of grotesque fun-house sensibility in which teenage turbulence is distorted, magnified and reflected back at young readers.”
And she is right.
You can barely earn critical acclaim for a young adult (YA) novel these days if you aren’t writing about abuse, rape, incest, substance abuse, cutting, eating disorders, homophobia, or some other dark theme, even better if you are writing about two or more with a little paranormal phenomena on the side.
But Gurdon wrote:
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.
Gurdon was of course immediately called to task, as a censor and a book banner. On Twitter she was called idiotic, brittle, narrow, ignorant, shrewish, irresponsible and reprehensible. The American Library Association said she was promoting “a culture of fear.” But isn’t that what she was protesting in the first place?
And her attackers had messianic delusions, protecting teens and authors from Gudon’s thoughtful essay with the hashtag “YASaves!” Lauren Myracle said Gudon’s essay was not about YA literature at all, but “an attack on the very act of reading.” And Sherman Alexie asked, “Does she (Gurdon) believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
Of course not. Gurdon just doesn’t believe most American teens live in anything like hell. And she’s right. They are exposed, however, to an endless stream of edgy, hopeless, tragic and very dark prose. Just walk in a bookstore and stand in front of the Young Adult section for about five minutes and see if it doesn’t scare you a bit.
And if you open or read the books you will quickly see why you can’t judge a book by its cover. Or its awards either.
In her essay, “Darkness too visible,” Gurdon writes “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.”
She gives several examples of the worst (“best?”) the genre has to offer. We’re far beyond Judy Blume talking about puberty here. Now we are dealing with a generation of young authors and publishers who grew up on graphic video games and movies and think that’s what every 12 year-old needs or wants.
So good for Gurdon, for saying what every parent knows: “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.” And if this essay causes parents to take a closer look at what their kids are reading, all the better.
This is not to argue for some pollyanna approach where evil is never confronted or overcome. Nor is it to say some kids don’t live in tragic circumstances.
But what is to be gained by turning them into role models? Or into norms that distort reality and pander to baser taste and prurient interests?
Nothing noble about that.
Hear NPR’s interview with Gurdon here.
See also her rebuttal in the Wall Street Journal.
One of Gurdon’s critics tries to explain “Why the best kids books are written in blood.”
Some of my other essays on reading and literature: