I read the article the tag was in response to, rolled my eyes, and went to bed, but I couldn't get it out of my mind all weekend. You can read the--well, "book review," as it's labeled, and editorial as it is, here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html?mod=WSJ_Books_LS_Books_6
And, given how connected the kidlit community is, it's no surprise that you can't throw a rock without hitting an excellent rebuttal. Obviously, the piece's comments are favorable, and I've seen a few comments in agreement elsewhere, as well as one defense of the reviewer that didn't give me any concrete reason why all those rebuttals were wrong.
I hate to give more attention to something I think as ill-conceived as what I've linked above, and if it had been published in a venue with less of an audience, I might be tempted to ignore it entirely. That said, I have some thoughts that reflect and expand on the responses I've seen.
First, the title: "Darkness Too Visible." I keep chewing on this one. Too visible? That means it's there and you just don't want to see it, right? Like an ostrich, head in the sand? There's something judgmental here already, something that seems to say that if you can't see it, it doesn't affect you.
How nice to be you.
Then, the blurb sounds like it's going to review a handful of specific books. Instead, we get treated to an anecdote about a mother who had a bad shopping experience. Now, this happens. I'm sure it happens a lot, and I'm sure it happens a lot in Barnes and Noble. First, the store clerk doesn't seem to have had any idea how to help the mother; I've worked in retail, been the person asked the unanswerable question (What size does my kid wear? Is your kid here in the store? No, she's at home--do you think she looks good in red?), been the person covering a department I know nothing about. The appropriate answer is to say hey, I don't know how to help you, but let me see if someone else in the store can. And maybe no one there could--retail survives on strings of part-time people, rarely paid enough to care, but certainly paid enough to agree with a customer that yeah, we don't carry anything you want to buy, whether the clerk really thinks that's true or not. (Heck, I'll even relate that I stood in a B&N recently and heard a bookseller who “specialized” in teen books give some of the worst recommendations ever--a mom looking for adventure was getting TWILIGHT read-alikes--but if you ask for opinions, you get opinions.)
I’d love to hear from the clerk in question: does this piece accurately reflect what you think happened?
Let's now note that there are lots and lots of places to get great book recommendations--often, very specific book recommendations. Librarians and teachers and indie booksellers (and yes, some booksellers at retail chains) really know their stuff, and the American Library Association puts out lists of popular and award-winning books. You can get a pretty good idea about books from their reviews on Goodreads, Librarything, Amazon, and other sites, and book bloggers review picture, middle grade, and YA books all over the place; some of the last even focus on particular types of books, particular themes, and so on.
And let’s note, too, that Barnes and Noble is there to make money. Money to pay its employees and shareholders, money to keep the lights on. To do that, they’re going to focus on what’s popular and selling, and focus less on what is purchased more rarely. I’m not always happy myself in how this plays out. New books that I think are fantastic aren’t picked up for sale at B&N, while books that I think are not so great have huge displays. Some perfectly teen-appropriate books end up in the middle grade (independent readers) section because there's nothing of sufficient explicitness to send it to the teen section. B&N recently separated its young adult section into paranormal romance and everything else, and I think that does a disservice to young adult readers, who’ve benefited from browsing a mixed collection, and based on my own browsing, it’s not even accurately divided! I’m really glad this wasn’t done in the last decade to follow the trends (witches, because those were confused with Harry Potter, then Potter read-alikes, then vampire boyfriends, and so on). I hope B&N drops the idea--in my closest store, you now have to actively seek out “everything else,” because it’s hidden where it’s even harder to find than before. It’s a long way from the middle-grade books, and it’s a long way from the adult books, too.
Really, what I’m saying is this: what you want might not be in your local B&N. That’s not good for you as a shopper, but it’s reality.
Next, I’m a little confused. “Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks...” Where? Really, honestly, where? Most books are spine out--completely uncompelling blocks of today’s popular fonts, identifiable by colophon (if you pay attention to that sort of thing, and I do), mostly with unmemorable titles. Turn the books face out and sure, I can get on board with dramatic, in some cases:
(Man, I love some of these.)
That's ignoring many book covers with a different approach, like these MG and YA covers:
...but lurid? Do you and I use this word the same way? I’d sure like more books with bright, lurid (!) colors on them, but whatever; I can’t see that any of these covers are shockingly sexually or violently explicit, or especially gruesome. And: so what if they were, or if they think you are? Helps you figure out what’s in the package.
Here, by the way, are the covers for the books referenced in the article:
What a range.
I don’t get much further in Gurdon’s piece before objecting to Freeman’s quote that she couldn’t find anything that wasn’t dark, anything without the themes of suicide, vampires, and/or self-mutilation. Giving some leeway for hyperbole, and going ahead with the assumption that mom is looking for something pretty lighthearted and that, perhaps, that’s exactly what her daughter would indeed like to read at this time--both of which are perfectly okay--how about any of these, off the top of my head, some of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, without looking anything up (and without knowing whether the 13-year-old is willing to read something a little bit older or younger than her age might indicate):
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin (but wait: a girl runs away)
THE GALLAGHER GIRLS series by Ally Carter (but wait: girls using weapons and wearing short skirts on the cover)
FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E. L. Konigsburg (but wait: a girl runs away to a museum)
A GIRL NAMED HAMLET by Erin Dionne (but wait: a girl is embarrassed by her parents...actually, maybe this fits better than I thought)
ASH by Malinda Lo (but wait: a girl has a girlfriend)
PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White (but wait: some fantastic creatures die)
DRUMS, GIRLS, AND DANGEROUS PIE by Jordan Sonnenblick (I think)
BRIGHTLY WOVEN by Alexandra Bracken (but wait: a girl might accidentally harm some other people...with magic)
MARE’S WAR by Tanita Davis (but wait: WWII)
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones (but wait: old people)
CLOAKED IN RED or HEIR APPARENT by Vivian Vande Velde (but wait: Red Riding Hood, already a pretty iiiiinteresting story, and multiple video-game deaths in the latter)
WILDWING by Emily Whitman (but wait: there’s time travel!)
I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU SOMEONE ELSE by Erin McCahan (but wait: a girl struggles with whether or not to get married)
HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY by Justine Larbalestier (but wait: there is a brief kidnapping)
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L. M. Montgomery (but wait: hair-pulling)
LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott (but wait: war)
And there are loads more I’m not thinking of right now--I’d love to have given a more diverse (in many ways) list here, but I kept having to take things off because, you know, there are Problems That Must Be Overcome, Sometimes Related to Big Ideas along the way (and I like books with peril and danger and violence and swearing and all the rest, so). That’s the thing about good stories: they have conflict before the resolution.
That brings me to my next point. As the piece says, “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear...” Thanks for dear-ing me, but when I was a child, I was reading V.C. Andrews. I was reading thrillers for grown-ups, with grown-up sex and violence. I was reading books of dirty limericks. I was reading AZTEC and THE COLOR PURPLE and GONE WITH THE WIND and A ROSE IN WINTER and LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER (booo-ring). My seventh-grade teacher was using IT as a read-aloud. Let’s roll things back even further: when I was five, the family Reader’s Digest medical guide told me how to make babies, and even what positions to make them in. I was not a teenage mom, by the way. I was also reading ANASTASIA KRUPNIK and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES...and books about kids who disappeared, or got cancer, or ran away from home, or did drugs (in that inaccurate monstrosity of a book, GO ASK ALICE). Teen lit wasn’t the same then as it is now, and what there was of it I mostly read when I was a “middle-grader”; a lot of it was missing what I now understand as stakes.
The big problems the reviewer sees: pederasty! Kidnapping! Incest! Brutal beatings! You know, in my sarcastic voice, things that people age 12-18 don’t know about and never experience, and that, if they only had heard of them, they’d be doing all the time. I read an awful lot of YA, and I can only think of a handful of books that address these topics--and for most of them, I’d say that the topics are treated with respect and presented to the reader respectfully. Sure, in the 40 years since the reviewer seemingly last had a good idea of what teens know about (and well into the history of young adult literature, for those of us better-informed), and do, and think about, books (and all media) have become more explicit. And again, my question is: So? Is anything accomplished by sweeping tough topics under the rug, by telling people that their experiences don't matter enough to become stories?
Many readers and authors have mentioned their stories of how YA saved them at one point or another, stories better than any I have to share. Maybe they read a story that helped them to feel like they weren’t alone as they came out, or as they struggled with abuse or bullying or violence, or pregnancy, or any of the many other problems kids and their friends face; maybe they just needed to have a variety of things to read to help them escape their real lives for a minute or an hour. The books I read as a child and a teen helped me know more about and be more prepared for the world. They didn’t help me with everything in it, and didn’t particularly help me with the biggest problems I personally faced as a teen, but certainly let me live in other worlds and lives and times--and I do believe that books can save.
I remember listening to some 13-year-olds discussing a book that one had read about a girl having an affair with her teacher and becoming pregnant--the sort of book called out in the WSJ review, I think. They understood that this is not at all what should happen; they were able to articulate their disgust, and in one teen’s expression, an understanding of how the situation might occur, and how complicated it could have been for the girl in the story. I hope this helped them all down the line, as statistics say that at least one of them is likely to have been pressured to be in some sort of relationship they don’t want, whether it was inappropriate adult advances, an abusive relationship, or something else. I wish that the books I had access to as a child had--sometimes--addressed these kinds of topics, because there are times when, armed with more knowledge, I could have been a better friend to people in such extreme situations. If I’d been abused or kidnapped or hurt, maybe I could have drawn on a fictional character’s experiences to plan my own strategy (as, after all, young adult lit rarely can be classified as tragedy, so there are strategies to be had--but someday, we’re going to discuss THE HUNGER GAMES as tragedy 'round these parts).
The review goes on to say that books show us the world, but that young adult literature shows a distorted picture of life. If you’re “careless” or “depraved,” you’ll seek to be surrounded by bad things, and thus become a worse person. Okay, I can get on board with that, modified: books can show us the world. But they can show us dystopia, utopia, distortion, and reality. No book has to, or should, do it all. Art isn’t required to reflect Nice Things alone, and the world would be poorer for it if it did. I’d argue that understanding what is ugly allows us to reflect on and appreciate beauty as well as to understand when Things Are Not Right. It’s perfectly all right with me if you want to read just “happy” books, but I wonder if you’ll be able to make sense of the world if you don’t read a handful that deal with topics like suicide, abuse, and so on.
I won’t say that a reviewer must like every book that’s “dark”; there are a couple mentioned in the review and elsewhere that I’ve written about and never posted my negative reviews of. (I decided that the world wouldn't change much if I kept my thoughts to myself, as these books weren't my cup of tea at all.) I think books that deal with unhappy topics can be crap, and not be great at addressing these unhappy topics, but so can anything. I think it's okay to criticize how authors tackle themes and characterization and topics. I think the assertion that all books in which bad things happen normalize bad things is ludicrous, however, and removes agency from readers who are well able to understand when an action or situation is harmful even if it’s not made explicit in the text. I think wailing that books will teach teens to do bad things is silly; I think there are more complex and nuanced reasons why teens engage in self-destructive behavior than “I read it in a book and I thought it was cool.”
I also think, and not everyone will agree, that removing anything from teens’ lives that might harm them--or remind them that they can harm themselves, in the WSJ’s example--is about the worst way to help them grow up. Teens know the difference between reality and fiction. Life is an endless string of difficult situations, and we need the opportunity to practice dealing with such situations. And in reading, no one need be hurt in real life for lessons to be learned.
That’s why I’m a little horrified about the reasoning for why some of the books called out in the WSJ piece are so bad. In SHINE, a gay teenager is assaulted and left for dead. It’s like we’re supposed to ignore this in fiction, when instead, we need to be dealing with and preventing these situations in real life. Check out CNN. You won’t have to look back very far or wait very long for a report to come in. This is reality, and we must live in it. If we're lucky and willful, we can change it.
Next, the WSJ piece starts to talk about whether or not parents want their children reading “bad language.” Trust me, trust me, your child has heard it all before. If it’s a concern for you, talk about it with your child, and let your child take the next step. There are perfectly reasonable discussions to have without pretending bad language doesn’t exist. There are perfectly reasonable discussions to have regarding whether swearing is appropriate in particular situations (or not), and discussions to have regarding why an author may have chosen to use that particular word in lieu of another.
Just remember this: being a parent does not automatically qualify you to parent every child, nor does it give you the right to parent every child.
The author of the WSJ piece writes, “Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books.” Besides my objection to that hyphen, I’ll tell you exactly why I’m not sympathetic. I’ve told you part of it: You’re policing me, my students, other people’s kids, teachers, librarians, and so on. Another part of it: There’s a big, wide world of literature out there, and the books you’re referring to are only a small slice of the whole, meaning that you can indeed find something else to read. The biggest part of it: The article goes on to advocate, in only slightly veiled terms, book banning. Calling it “judgment” or “taste,” as the author does, is not getting to the heart of the matter; “judgment” and “taste” are about what you choose to read, not what everyone else does.
Those people who make selections for teen readers generally genuinely care about teens, want to help them find books that match their interests, and want them to find books they will love. They will, sometimes, get it wrong. But it’s sickening when a so-called professional book reviewer says that the American Library Association “delights” in informing people about frequently challenged books.
Since when is anyone happy to have to defend a book--maybe even a book they don’t like--but that has no reason to be removed from a library’s shelves? You know, that thing where a defender probably has to put her career on the line, be ripped apart in the media, explain every possible justification, and still not have it be taken as the bigger picture, the greater good?
And for the record, Sherman Alexie’s oft-challenged DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN is one of the best books I’ve ever read. There is masturbation in it. Teenagers do that, sometimes.
The article, review, whatever it is only goes downhill from there, telling parents that they don’t have to take it anymore! As if they didn’t have the opportunity to shape what their (own) kids were reading in the first place. Thank you mom, and dad, and Great-Aunt Barbara, and grandma, and grandpa, and everyone else in my family for reading a little bit of everything. I learned that there were many things to read, and that people might not agree on the content of these many things to read.
I know or know of some parents who screen everything their child reads (or everything they think their child is reading), and who read along; I know some parents who have a read-what-you-want policy. The important thing is that people are reading. Talk to a literacy expert, who’ll tell you how this benefits your teen’s facility with mechanics of grammar and spelling. Talk to a college composition teacher, who’ll appreciate how your teen has had extra opportunities to read and think about books without the explicit guidance of an English teacher. Talk to your child, or your child’s friends, who have a shared experience, a bridge between each other, a bridge for talking about weighty topics. Talk to your child about what’s important to you. And then trust.
And before I wrap up, note that the sidebar of the WSJ piece (visible to you if you’re on a computer, but not to me, reading on a mobile phone) that some of the recommended books are not free from the scary, violent, or explicit, and that they’ve been split out into books for boys and books for girls, rather than books for teens, or by theme, or genre. What I’m supposed to think of this, I don’t know, but it reinforces the WSJ piece as something not fully thought through.
Let me just end with a rebellion I always hoped would go away when I grew up:
Don’t tell me what to read.