This is the question we must ask ourselves upon reading Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article “Darkness to Visible” in The Wall Street Journal. Sonya Hartnett is the brilliant Australian author of mostly YA fiction although she has dabbled in “adult” fiction more recently. Her books include: Wilful Blue, Sleeping Dogs, All My Dangerous Friends, Thursday’s Child, and many others. She has won almost every book award for a young adult author and even went as far as using a pseudonym for her book, Landscape with Animals, so it wouldn’t be just stuck along the shelf and put into a category of YA deliberately because of her name being attached to it. The thing I love about Sonya Hartnett is that she will pile on the gore, the disbelief, the horrors hiding in the small cupboards of your grandparents house and not give a shit a that thirteen-year-old can find it in the “young adult” section and take it home, learning about the world of abuse and incest.
Here’s a little story: during my time in my Australia, I was fresh off a bachelor’s degree and in desperate need of some new material. I was writing manuscripts and crossing my fingers on their finality and their brilliance, but I was also on a hunger for reading. So, what else would I do, being that I stayed mostly on a college campus, but look up the creative writing and literature courses and sneak into a few I found most interesting. One of these was called, “Writing for Young People” taught by one of my favorite professors … ever (even though he has no idea who I am and I was never supposed to be in the dark rafters of his theater-seated class) named Anthony Eaton. He had that Robert Pattinson habit of using his hands like small cups and introduced me to writers like Sonya Hartnett and artists like Shaun Tan. Eaton himself is a prominent Australian young adult author and alluded to the many disturbing parts of Young Adult writing as well as the complete horrors in children’s writing (Shel Silverstein anyone)?
But this is all hoopla to my real point…(for lack of better words), Meghan Cox Gurdon is a complete and utter asshole (just in this article), and not only that, she probably hasn’t taken the time to really read any of the young adult novels she’s evangelizing against. She discusses the vampire-ridden love stories on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but does she ever dive deeper into the actual books? Did she read Sherman Alexie, Lauren Macayle, Laurie Halse Anderson or Sarah Dessen? Her main argument is that Young Adult writing has become TOO dark for the feeble minds of thirteen year olds (sarcasm). She says that parents should be instead buying their children happy stories, maybe even fairytales (obviously not Grimm), so that the behavior in books doesn’t become commonplace and we aren’t aghast when it happens in real life. In other words she thinks young adult fiction will make us numb to the actual situations. But then if everyone read happy-Disney-fairytale stories, we’d all still be believing (us teenage girls I mean) in riding off into the sunset, strapped to a steed and the ass crack of Prince Charming. Our hands clasped tightly around his grid abs. And we all know where those books and beliefs got us: He’s Just Not that Into You.
While there are writer’s out there who write primarily high school relationship stories for the young adult genre (Sarah Dessen and my personal favorite, Judy Blume), we can’t just cast out the writer’s that are opening ignorant eyes to the ideas of feminism, incest, abuse, sexuality, life not working out exactly how you want it to all the time, and the darker aspects of adult fiction. While Sarah Dessen is more cupcakes and lollipops young adult relationship fiction, Judy Blume has had some experiences diving into the more serious, the sexual, the power dynamics of female and male high school students and so on. Which is fitting because she just wrote an introduction about her own censorship (she’s one of the most banned writer’s in the Nation as of right now) which fits right against Gurdon’s argument. Judy Blume’s introduction on the stupidity of censorship can be found here.
I think the thing I really am displeased about by Gurdon is her idea that young adults don’t have the mind capacity, the imagination, or the level of knowledge about life to really know how to handle these darker stories like Sleeping Dogs, filled with love through incest, child abandonment, abuse and neglect and even death. Gurdon says,
“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds…”
But isn’t this life? Aren’t one in four children abused by a family member, or known adult? Isn’t a report of child abuse made every 10 seconds (http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics)? In 2000, every 8 out of 100,000 teens committed suicide and how do we even know if this percentage has increased since the idea of cyber bullying (National Institute for Mental Health)? If we’re in a place in the world where 1 in 5 teens are thinking about suicide, how is that our children can’t read about the various things that are happening around them in high school (National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center)? I think Gurdon’s knowledge of the young adult world is sparse. Just last night on NBC Dateline there was a story on teen bullying. Parents were put in one room and children were in another while two actors bullied and one actor was the victim, just to see who would stand up to the bullies and take a stand against this behavior. You’ll have to watch it to see what happened, but the fact of the matter, that Gurdon is totally missing, is that THIS IS HAPPENING.
I’m here to tell you, straight from the source that I quit at Harry Potter #4 because he wasn’t having sex. Harry and I were growing up together, we were experiencing the same sort of involvement in our selves and our friendships, we weren’t learning the same education wise, but we were learning the same morals, the same values, the same lessons for later in life. But, by book 4 it was apparent to me that Harry Potter was never going to have a “happy ending,” where he would kill Voldemort and then take Hermoine to a sweet love nest. (I have since discovered it is little, freckled Ginny that Harry ultimately woos, and even after they are married, we have no knowledge of their sexual exploits). This might also be why I devoured the Twilight series all in four days without peeing, (mostly not eating) and hunkered down waiting for the Vampire sex.
Now that anecdote may not make you feel like your child is ready to experience 1000 Brushstrokes before Bed but, it may tell you that I’m quite the average young adult. I was raised in a good Catholic home, I went to church every Sunday, I swam four hours a day on a year-round team and eventually became the Captain of my high school swim team, did youth retreats, and got into one of my State’s best colleges. And yet, here I am (humblebrag) wanting good ol’ English bloke Harry Potter to get some. I think the lessons of female empowerment and friendship that Rowling does convey in her Young Adult series far outweigh any sex she may have written about, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want it.
So, who did I (and still do) turn to? Judy Blume, my queen of young adult literature. Or Laurie Halse Anderson with her novel Speak about a young woman’s rape. (Laurie Halse Anderson has since written books on the Revolutionary War, and a girl who loves chemistry, both young adult books and both award winners, as was Speak). Were the people who gave those awards just full of death and despair or was the book actually a well-written account of young adulthood? This is the question we really need to ask ourselves.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever censor what my child reads. If my fourteen-year old finds Erica Jong, and Anais Nin I’ll let them inspire what they will in her. I will make sure my children are reading at their own grade level or above, but I won’t ever tell them that erotica is too mature for them because of its explicit sexuality, or that Sleeping Dogs is just too intense. How will they ever learn to deal with their own despair if they don’t first learn to deal with it and live through it in a character’s eyes? How will they learn about the world? There’s only so far I can go on a talk about birth control, how to put a tampon in properly and what boys want in the backs of cars. I’m not saying that I want someone in control of my parenting, because please believe I will be a total helicopter mom (much like my own who reads everyone of these blogs and never said no to my reading habits). I just think reading books is an education of its own. Sometimes books can give you a better education than a classroom ever would and sometimes we need to let books do that work. Whether they be on vampire sex, rape, magical realism, chick-lit, high school relationships gone wild, or abuse. These are things that are happening in young adult America and books are a way to cope, a way to mature, a way to enlighten and a way to escape. How could I ever, EVER, deny my child those rights? And how can you?
Megan Cox Gurdon’s article can be found here:
Another response to Gurdon’s article can be found here:
A defense of Gurdon can be found here:
And here is a list of some of my favorite young adult books:
- Summer Sisters – Judy Blume
- Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson
- Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
- Sleeping Dogs – Sonya Hartnett
- Book Thief – Markus Zusak (also marketed in adult fiction)
- Goldengrove – Francine Prose