I was merrily working on a We Recommend post for someone looking for picture books about homelessness (coming soon!) when I read this, a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal about the dark and scary muck (more or less) that is contemporary young adult literature.
I am hesitant to weigh in, partly because it feels like the sort of article that wants to stir things up, and I hate being so easily manipulated. And yet…it got to me.
I do hope you all click on the link above just for fairness's sake. I am going to try to focus just on what disturbs me most about her piece; there are many other takes on it you can search for links via the #YAsaves hash tag on twitter.
Here, more or less, is what she says: contemporary YA has become an overly dark and profanity-laden cesspool, which in its pandering to adolescent rebellion and its penchant for swearwords, dark themes and the grotesque ends up normalizing pathologies, focusing on the terrible to the exclusion of all else. She feels, too, that "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." So her concerns: these books are upsetting. Grotesque. They normalize pathologies. Why are we feeling fine about bringing this crap to kids? Don't we care about what they read?
And here's the thing: whether she's right or wrong about what books to kids, and the definitions of good taste, and whether parents should be involved in what their teenagers read, it seems to me that she's blurring the line between parenting and publishing.
Parents are of course free to allow, encourage, or discourage certain books—to ban or allow them within their own homes. But there's a world of difference between that and saying that they shouldn't allow those same books in libraries, or to be published at all. She may bemoan the existence of a book about cutting. I may bemoan the existence of the creeping horror that was the Mary-Kate and Ashley mystery stories, but does she really want to live in a world where these books aren't allowed to be published?
Creeping me out even further, there is a certain sexism pervading the whole review that I found disturbing. See here:
"It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!""
Hmm. The children's and YA publishing world has petticoats? And it shrieks? Must be all those lady librarians and editors.
It's odd, too, that such a market-focused paper as the Wall Street Journal seems to be, let's say, pulling up its petticoats and shrieking "coarseness" when confronted by, horrors, the book industry (gee, that's an industry noted for greedy market-driven coarse minds? That must be why they went for children's publishing, because they were trying to make money) responding to what is clearly demand. Ms. Grudon's tsking over the fact that with the success of The Outsiders a market was born sounds a bit rich to me coming from the Wall Street Journal, which seems less judgmental when talking about, say, the banking industry.
In the end, she is of course free to prevent her own children from reading these books. Or trying to. But can she really be saying they oughtn't to be published? Or allowed in libraries? If her issue is with parents, why doesn't she take it to them? If she doesn't want her own children to read this stuff, there's a perfect solution, isn't there? But for the rest of us, struggling along in the world with our adolescents, their pathologies, and our own to consider, I am grateful for the messy, uneven, shocking, sometimes great literature out there in the world. What's available to us is, of course, imperfect. But that's what makes it like us—by turns coarse, delicate, rude, sparkling, poorly expressed, beautifully crafted—imperfect and striving to be great, and to be loved.