Thinking About YA, the Wall Street Journal, and the Difference Between Parenting (pardon the hideous non-verb) and Publishing

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.

5 thoughts on “Thinking About YA, the Wall Street Journal, and the Difference Between Parenting (pardon the hideous non-verb) and Publishing

  1. I am so sick of hearing from these “ignorance is bliss” kind of parents. I’ve long since wanted to ban them from making any decisions about public education, but now I’m starting to worry about the harm they cause their own children.

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  2. Ms. Gurdon is from a long line of censors and judgmental book reviewers, I imagine, and her article is ridiculous. I find it hilarious that she writes for The Wall Street Journal — that’s some serious darkness that I hope to shield my own children from!

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  3. Well, the other thing (ONE other thing) is that in her opening anecdote she posits a scenario that’s highly unlikely: one in which the poor, hapless parent, wanting only to find a cheerful book for her daughter, finds herself literally surrounded by darkness and degradation, with no alternative at all! If that were the case– if *all* a parent or teen could find in the way of YA literature was dark/depressing/ edgy stuff–then yeah, it would be a problem. But that’s just not the case! Many bloggers & commenters have noted that the parent in question could’ve gone to an independent bookstore or her local public library (or, heck, the Internet) (or even, quite possibly, if the store employee had been better-trained or better-read, another section of the very store she was in!) to find many, many, MANY books for teens that don’t fit Gordun’s dire description.
    So the whole rant– oh, sorry, “review”–is based on bad, selective, cherry-picked, verging-on-mendacious reporting. It’s beyond infuriating.

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  4. The author’s opening anecdote points out that the mom wanted to be able to go into a standard bookstore like Borders or B&N and find something for her daughter. Of course you can pore through Amazon and indie stories (although the 2 indies near me have YA shelves that are filled with mostly vampire/bad fairy books). It’s the dark stuff that is becoming standard fare. Head to Borders and look at the YA shelf — a huge preponderance of the covers are now black and gray.
    Surely there’s a line between recognizing the dark side of human existence and having unrelieved darkness the only thing on the shelves. Relentless positivity is just as cheerless, of course. But the current crop of YA makes me think of Shelley: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” etc etc. It’s beyond tiresome.

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