YA throwdown

The YA blogosphere has been up in arms this week over a piece in this past Sunday’s Wall Street Journal decrying the current state of YA fiction as “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” Responses have been fast and furious, with an especially cutting blog post from Roger Sutton of the Horn Book that takes the Journal to task for not knowing its YA history. Also, check out Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog for a very well-argued (and deeply personal) response.

Myself, I’ve never really been drawn to super-dark YA—despite multiple attempts, I’ve just never gotten into Chris Lynch or Ellen Hopkins, though I can certainly appreciate their talents—but philosophically, I strongly believe there’s a place for dark YA in teen literature. And as a side note, I was really intrigued by Laurie’s comment that those who complain about dark YA tend to have younger kids–never thought of the YA bogeyman as an object of anticipated fears, though it makes total sense.

Whatcha think? Has contemporary YA grown too dark, or is it following in what is now a well-established literary tradition? Is there such a thing as too dark? Anyone find their opinions changing due to the age of their kids? Please, share, discuss, sound off, etc.

12 Responses to YA throwdown

  1. Josin says:

    I think it’s ironic, that not only was one of the books recommended in the article a dystopian about the possible dangers of censorship, but another was a dystopian with very dark themes starring a teen. Add to that that their chosen model of what should be written (Judy Blume) was, in her day, the person parents wanted off shelves and out of schools, and all the article does is prove that yesterday’s kids have grown into their own parents, with the same fears and the same complaints.

    But by far the biggest tragedy of the article is that it blatantly ignored the existence of anything other than the books that specifically fit the complaint. Sure things will look dark if you only look at the dark parts and refuse to acknowledge that there’s another bookshelf, right next to the one you hate, that has lighter fare.

  2. Julie Musil says:

    I think parents should do the parenting. If I don’t want my sons to read a certain book, that’s for me to decide. Personally, I loved HUNGER GAMES so much I recommended that my 14 year old read it. And he loved it too. There’s usually a message within these dark stories, and most kids are mature enough to handle it.

  3. Ciara says:

    I think it’s awfully “lucky” to think dark stories, no matter how dark, don’t have a place in young adult fiction. It’s one thing to stop your own kid reading a book, that’s your prerogative as a parent (though I would suggest closely examining why they feel their child should be shielded from everything but sunshine and puppies) but to act as if these topics are not relevant or relate-able to any teens is reaching a level of ignorance and privilege that borders on offensive. I think the YASAVES twitter tag proves that so many young people find comfort and understanding in these books and even if you live a nice enough life that does not include any darkness then chances are you know someone whose life is touched by these issues. What is wrong with a teen getting a perspective on self-harm or abuse when their friends may be dealing with those issues everyday.

  4. Deren Hansen says:

    Given the history of well-intentioned over-protection in children’s literature, I understand the passionate and heartfelt reactions to anything tainted with even a whiff of censorship, particularly if it comes wrapped in high-minded terms.

    But in the visceral reactions to Ms. Gurdon’s essay, at least in the pieces I’ve read, all the commentors have glossed over a critical, if only anecdotal fact: Mrs. Freeman “left the store empty-handed.”

    Some of the people taking exception to Ms. Gurdon’s questions extol the value of having books that speak in an authentic voice to young readers. What I find ironic is that no one is bothered that Mrs. Freeman (who admittedly isn’t a young reader) didn’t find anything on the bookshelves that spoke to her or addressed her needs.

    I, personally, wasn’t as offended by the WSJ piece as others because I read it as a call for greater variety. Why is dark the only authentic teen voice? Isn’t the fundamental point of those who object to Ms. Gurdon that we should have something for every one? If so, why are we so troubled when someone points out that the commercial side of bookselling seems inordinately focused on only one part of the spectrum?

  5. Julie Nilson says:

    I think a lot of the dark YA, particularly the supernatural/sci-fi/dystopian work, is ultimately about the battle of good vs evil, with good usually winning when the good people decide to work together and realize their own strengths. That’s a powerful message, especially for young readers.

    This discussion makes me think about one of my favorite quotes, from GK Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

  6. Stephen says:

    There seems to be a strange trend by some media news outlets to attack the ‘wholesomeness’ of pop culture. As I understand it, Andrew Smith, Lauren Myracle, and the other authors mentioned in the WSJ article are planning to attend a public reading with rapper Common at the White House. 😉

    I’d pay to see that and have popcorn ready for the ridiculous fallout.

    But what offends me more than anything in that article is the story of the mother that left empty handed from the book store. How ignorant is that? There is always, ALWAYS a book waiting to be taken home from a bookstore that will enrich a child’s life. I mean, seriously. They’re not even hidden. Just ask one of the employees. #mamafail

  7. Catherine Whitney says:

    When I was young, I had to hide my copy of Catcher in the Rye inside a flowery book jacket. My son did not have to do the same, as we read it aloud together. My parents and teachers feared that I would experience something too dark or risque, but their efforts to ban the book did not work so well. All my friends had copies! I prefer openness, especially if there is a parent on hand to host discussions and arguments, and create those wonderful teachable moments. (By the way, Catcher in the Rye is darker than The Hunger Games, because it is so clearly not a fantasy. It was the first major book to tackle pubescent depression, in the character’s voice–not to mention suicide.)

  8. John says:

    I’m really intrigued that Josin, Derren and Stephen frame the issue in terms of shelving and bookstores. Usually, when it comes to questions of content, the publishers get blamed more than the bookstores. And yet, when you go to the YA section at the B&N in Union Square, the majority of the shelving is given over to the three big “dark” categories: paranormal, dystopian, and romance, all of which have the titles face-out. Anything that doesn’t fit goes spine-out in a low-level side bookcase that’s VERY easy to ignore…

    So while I totally agree with Stephen that the mother should have been able to find something, the stores don’t necessarily make it easy or attractive. The question, then, is who needs to change the game–the publishers by supplying more variety, or the stores by better displaying said variety? Afraid there’s a chicken and an egg in that one…

    • Stephen says:

      The fear inherent in the WSJ article (and most arguments for ratings in entertainment media – something I’m not necessarily advocating) is that a sensitive child will happen upon content that is too adult. That ridiculous article aside, I think this is a reasonable parental concern. So, if there is some catagorization done at the bookstore level, those concerned parents might relax on pressuring the publishers to watch their content.

      I have to admit, more often than not, I’m grabbing someone in an apron to point me in the right direction for a book. With such a wide spectrum of interest and themes found in YA, and considering how enthusiastic its readers are, the big-box stores need to do something about addressing the issue of easing and narrowing the browsing experience.

      Shelf space is what it is. I don’t expect much change to happen there. But since most YA readers are practically computer engineers by age 10, and most are packing phones in their pockets more powerful than the computer I’m writing this on, you’d think someone might invent an app for that. Hey Apple, you listening?

  9. Roxanne says:

    I’m not a parent, but I am a former teen.
    From what I remember, those teen years were dark.
    Lemme think why…..

    We were all sure we were going to die in a nuclear apocalypse.
    If that didn’t get you, AIDS or cancer would.
    We felt powerless, relying on parents, school, etc. for everything, yet having no voice.
    Pressures to get good grades, get into college, and so on were stifling.
    Hormones, first crushes, and so on.
    The pressure to be the same, to not be different was crushing.
    Bullying was rampant.

    These days, a nuclear end has been replaced by a terrorist end,
    and you need to add in economic distress…but the rest haven’t changed.

    I would have loved more literature about teens who navigate dark issues
    with some success. They give hope.

    I would have loved more literature where teens who were different found
    their differences were a gift that gave them strength…gifts like magic,
    etc. My differences giving strengths instead of weakness? What an idea.

    I suspect those factors contribute to why paranormal YA is popular. Why take that away?

  10. Jennifer says:

    I don’t have kids so maybe one day my opinion will change, but I know that when I was a teenager I was reading adult books, some pretty adult, and I’m also fairly certain that my mother wouldn’t have approved of quite a few had she read them first. At the same time, I could handle it.

    I think the world is full of scary things, and the teen years are when a lot of people start realizing that the world isn’t always a happy, easy, safe place. I also think that there is so much terrifying stuff going on in the world these days that kids *need* an outlet to explore that in, and what better outlet than books? I can see why dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories are gaining popularity just by listening to the news. Sometimes it’s hard to know if society is even going to exist in fifty years with all of the doomsday predictions.

    Besides, even though teenagers seem younger and younger every time I’m around them, I remember what that age was like, and they’re a lot more complex and grown up than we give them credit for.

  11. LupLun says:

    Know what I think? I think I’m going to plop in front of the metaphorical couch, grab some literal Ritz crackers and Pepperjack cheese, plus a glass of instant iced tea and a small cheese cleaver, and enjoy a night at the net-fights.

    Do you object to my cavalier attitude? Sorry, but I’m cynical. This happens every six months or so: some guy with a big mouth goes on a rant about OH NOES THE PRECIOUS CHILDREN OF OTHER PEOPLE I DONT KNOW. Then the internet hears about it and goes OH NOES THE PRECIOUS BOOKS IVE NEVER READ, and like boxes touching gloves at the center of the ring, that’s the signal for the big fight to start.

    And for a time the WWW is a scene out of Braveheart or 300 There are swordfights and Spartan boasts and javelin impalings and dramatic final speeches and yadda yadda yadda, and somehow it all proceeds despite the fact that most of the time the internet has no opposing army. Just some loudmouth who ranted a bit at the start and then lost interest and walked away long before Paul Revere came trotting around on the drama llama. So it winds up being a bunch of Pikmin-like netizens against an army of very threatening strawman dummies, with the occasional boss fight against some lulz-seeking troll with powerful attacks but terrible AI. Yellers yell, criers cry, and the general public doesn’t really give a crap.

    Then after a week or two, the Grand Crusade fizzles out and life goes on. Nothing changes, for good or bad. And then a month later it’s all forgotten. ‘Cause you know why people complain? Because there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. If they could do something, they wouldn’t talk about it, they would act. That goes for the people who try to dictate what shouldn’t be in YA fiction, and it goes just as much so for the people who immediately go into siege mode when someone’s wagging the finger at their favorite art form. It’s all useless screaming that drowns out content.

    Calm down. Relax. Have some Ritz and Pepperjack.

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