About a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece in their Book review section critiquing the darkness of young adult novels. Author Meghan Cox Gurdon asserts in the article that contemporary teen fiction is “darker than when you were a child, dear.” The horrors of “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings” are all we can find in books targeted at a 12-18 audience, it seems, and Gurdon isn’t okay with this. She argues, in fact, that reading about such terrible things can’t help but have a negative impact on the spirit of the developing adolescent. She goes on to express concern that “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them, and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their their plausibility and likelihood to young people who never would have imagined such extreme measures.”
So. Books in which characters practice self-harming behaviours are the gateway to real teens engaging in such behaviour? Books about kids who self-medicate with alcohol and drugs increase the likelihood of actual young people doing so? And those who are beaten, raped, and engage in sex work in books – are these characters putting real young people at risk for same?
National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie says no. In his response to Gurdon’s critique (that incidentally included his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Alexie insists that the stories of real-life young people are often far more “depraved” than what Gurdon protests. “Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother?” he asks. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?” He finds Gurdon’s piece entirely condescending to the young people about whom she’s writing – and she’s not writing about the kids who regularly write to him. Alexie maintains that Gurdon’s perceived vulnerable youth are not the poor kids, the Native kids, the Black or Latino kids. They’re certainly not the gay kids, or any of the kids who’ve been sexually abused or horrifically bullied.
I didn’t read a lot of young adult fiction until I was closer to adulthood. Between the ages of 9 and 15, my interests exceeded what I could find in the average book targeted at my age. I, like Alexie, read all of Stephen King’s works. I read books with explicit sex scenes, and dark, complicated plot lines. I was reading Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins by age 9, and V.C. Andrews (and her never-ending books about child abuse and sibling incest) by 12. The more horrible the books I read were, the calmer I felt in my own head. The supernatural horror, the abuse and violence — reading it helped me retain perspective. I may have felt completely crazy, but I wasn’t trapped in a car with a rabid dog trying to eat me, or locked in an attic with my siblings being fed arsenic. And sometimes, I did find glimpses of my own reality between the lines of these stories – the isolation, the anxiety, the fears. I found other kids with family members struggling with alcohol, and knew I wasn’t alone. I occasionally found younger lesbian characters where I least expected.
I had to hunt for the representations that spoke to me, though. In the late 80s, the teen books (few as they were) were mixed in with all the other adult literature. I occasionally surprised myself with amazing finds like M.E. Kerr or Norma Klein books, but for the most part, I hunted and pecked my way through, hoping to make connections with characters whose stuff I shared.
Gurdon’s concern is that fiction targeted at adolescents is upsetting to their parents. My response to this concern as both a parent and a voracious adult reader of young adult fiction is that it’s short-sighted to think that one’s child hasn’t already experienced some of what they’re reading, or that they don’t have friends who are living in worlds much like those in the contentious books. To paint an entire genre of literature as inappropriate is to erase the potential for family dialogue about difficult but necessary topics where it’s possible, and erases hope and shared identity for those young people whose relationships with their parents are not safe.