The Novels Grim

By Laura Weber

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.” —From “Darkness Too Visible,” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, published June 4, 2011, Wall Street Journal

Grim Illustration 

Last June, as teenagers across America were anticipating their summer vacations, the Wall Street Journal published an essay about their reading choices that launched thousands of tweets, blog posts, and online comments—not to mention a flurry of activity on public radio call-in shows. Like comic books, television shows, music lyrics, and video games before it, young adult (YA) literature became the latest flash point in the always contentious debate about the media’s impact on young minds.

The essay—“Darkness Too Visible”—by children’s book critic Meghan Cox Gurdon posited the following question: “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence, and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” Quoting a passage from Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a young girl who brutally cuts herself after a sadistic sexual prank, Gurdon wrote 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.” However, “that is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.” Most of the books Gurdon targets in her essay were reviewed for high school students, not for younger teens.

Parents, teens, librarians, booksellers, and publishers responded immediately and passionately to this dire portrait of YA lit, and were divided roughly into two camps. Gurdon’s supporters appreciated someone who defended parents’ roles as concerned gatekeepers against a media culture that is skewed to the dark and angry. Her detractors—and they outnumbered the defenders—considered the essay to be “poorly researched,” “ignorant of what is actually in the YA world,” and “a clone of every critique of teen culture since Elvis.” Perhaps most vocal were readers for whom books about their real-life experiences (self-mutilation, abuse, bullying) have been a lifeline, providing validation and catharsis that have helped many people heal from trauma. Thus was born #YASaves, a Twitter hashtag that appeared almost immediately after the newspaper published the essay. Within days it had received 15,000 comments, and it continues today as an active forum for lovers of YA lit.

A subgenre of children’s literature aimed at and portraying teens from ages 12 to 18, YA literature emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, says Andrew Karre, editorial director for three children’s book imprints at Lerner Publishing Group in Minneapolis, including Carolrhoda Lab, described as a home for “boundary-pushing works of young adult fiction.”

The Harry Potter phenomenon, the demographic rise in the number of teenagers, the ability of kids to communicate without adult intermediaries via social media, and inevitably, commerce, have created a recent “explosion of interest” in YA lit, says Karre. “Hundreds of books in this genre are published by established publishing houses every year.”

An active social media commenter in this summer’s debate over YA literature, Karre acknowledges that there is no lack of dark subject matter, but he points out that there’s also no shortage of lighter fare. He calls this diversity “the sign of a maturing genre.”

The audience for YA lit includes a significant number of adults, says Karre, because “the adolescent experience is something we all survive, more or less. Adults never get over being a teenager. I don’t think of my life as an eight- or nine-year-old, but I do think about my life as a teenager. It is an important period.”

Perhaps common ground for both camps—lovers of literature all—may be found in an interview Gurdon gave this fall to the Christian children’s literature website, Redeemed Reader. The purpose of literature for young people, she said, is “to take us worlds away, to take us deep into ourselves, to entertain and delight and stir and frighten and educate and civilize, to let us live vicariously as someone else, to participate in conversations that in life would be closed to us, to learn the literary rhythms of our culture, to feed our imaginations—these are all purposes of storytelling and story-reading.”

We asked school librarian Kathleen Odean ’75 and book editor Cheryl Klein ’00—two authorities on YA literature—about this hot topic. Their edited responses are below.

What nerve did “Darkness Too Visible” hit?

Katherine Odean, a public and school librarian for 17 years, served as chair of the Newbery Award Committee. Her reviews of books for young people appear in national publications and she presents at conferences on young adult books throughout the United States. She is the author of four book guides for parents, available at www.kathleenodean.com.

Cheryl Klein is executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, and the author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults (2011). She served as continuity editor for the last two Harry Potter books. (She was profiled in the winter 2008 Voice.) The most recent book she’s edited is The Girls of No Return by Erin (Brown) Saladin ’00.

Odean: Anyone who writes an exaggerated opinion piece full of loaded rhetoric in a major newspaper will strike a nerve with those who know the topic well. I give workshops for educators on new young adult books, so I’ve read at least 200 YA books each year for the past decade. While there are more YA books with tough topics and strong language today, that’s partly because there are many more books altogether, including more books for older teens. There are also more fantasy novels, mysteries and thrillers, humorous books, romances, and nonfiction, none of which Gurdon mentions. It’s a wonderful time to be a teenager who likes to read, because the choices are so many and so varied.

Klein: I think she hit three nerves. First, the emphasis of her article [that nearly all YA encourages teenagers to dwell on trauma and violence] was factually wrong, given the huge number of non-dark YA books available, so it immediately cast her credibility in doubt with the YA reading and writing communities. Children’s and YA books get far less major media and review coverage than adult books, so having someone make misstatements about the genre in an important national newspaper got everyone off on the wrong foot.

Second, she implied that these books were simply exploitative depravity, and that reading about these experiences didn’t make an actual difference in readers’ lives, except, again, to encourage them to think about and engage in the depravity. The #YASaves Twitter campaign started with the idea that YA books can give readers strength and hope, and let them know they aren’t alone. And the idea that authors only wrote about these subjects to make money was a further insult to the authors’ integrity. Many of them have personal experience with the darkness they write about, and see their work almost as a mission to help YA readers deal with those subjects.

Finally, Gurdon seemed to be reading these books solely as a moral critic: the nature of the surface action appeared to determine the literary worth of the book for her. And for people who spend a lot of time thinking about the actual emotional and literary depth of their books, as most YA authors and editors do, it was frustrating.

To what degree should parents monitor their teens’ reading?

Odean: I have published four guides to help parents find good books for their children so, yes, I think parents should be involved up to some point with what their children read. But it’s important to distinguish between middle school readers, who may need guidance, and high school readers, who probably don’t.

Klein: It’s wonderful for parents to discuss books with their children and teenagers, and to assist in their own children’s book selection. Then I’d hope that parents grant their teenagers a little more reading freedom than they would children under age 12, and let their kids know they are open to discussion. It’s better for a young adult to encounter the darkness of the world for the first time in a book rather than in person, and I’d argue that thinking through these issues on the page, before encountering them in person, might actually strengthen the young adult’s ability to respond in real life in a manner that parents would appreciate.

Do many adults read YA lit? If so, why? If not, why should they?

Odean: There are more adults reading YA books than in the past because there are more choices, more books pitched at an older audience, and so many great writers in the field. I’d love to see someone write about how great YA books are now since that’s the reality.

Klein: Well, the books are really good, for one thing. I’d hold up the Hunger Games trilogy, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Year of Secret Assignments, or Marcelo in the Real World (this last is a book I edited, I admit) next to most modern adult novels for literary quality, character depth, thoughtful philosophy, and sheer reading pleasure.

After that, I think YA lit offers something that no other genre does to the same extent: firsts. First love, first kiss, first road trip, first encounter with some injustice or evil in the world, first time to fight those injustices or evils on your own, with no parents to guard you. . . . Firsts are always intense. But for books with adult protagonists, these things are all old hat, so it’s exciting for adult readers to experience those firsts again in YA fiction.


How to Raise a Reader

FOR PARENTS OF YOUNGER CHILDREN
  • Read aloud to your children for as long as they are willing to listen. The benefits are myriad, and it’s fun.
  • Let your children see you reading books, newspapers, or magazines. Homes that incorporate reading produce stronger readers.
  • Leave books lying around the house that are likely to appeal to your child.
  • Connect books to your child’s interests and hobbies.
  • Give books as presents and encourage relatives and friends to do the same. Combine a book with the child’s interests, such as a soccer ball and a soccer book.
  • Suggest that your child join a book group at school or the public library. Or you can start one among friends.
  • Respect that some children, especially boys, who may fear being teased, want to keeptheir reading private. They may not want to talk about everything they read or be praised for reading.
  • Choose a book together to give in a child’s name to the school or public library.
FOR PARENTS OF TEENS
  • Subscribe to magazines that interest them. Magazines are the number-one print reading choice of teenagers.
  • Don’t criticize what your teen chooses to read. He or she may not share your interests.
  • Encourage your teen to read newspapers in print or online. Reading newspapers is important—and often more challenging than many novels in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure.
  • Don’t dismiss graphic novels, which offer complex plots and themes and may appeal to teens who don’t read other books. Check out the classic Maus by Art Spiegelman, the more recent Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, or manga, popular Japanese graphic novels that read from back to front.
  • Recognize the power of audiobooks. Many public libraries have audiobooks that can be downloaded as MP3 files for use on iPods and similar devices.
  • Suggest your teenager read the book before seeing the movie. The number of YA books being made into movies has skyrocketed. Learn more at www.teenreads.com/features/books-on-screen.
  • Alert your teen to book trailers. Publishers—and kids—are making videos that are like movie trailers for books. Check out www.booktrailersforall.com.
  • Encourage e-reading. Some teens are more receptive to reading books on their e-readers or smart phones than in print. Many public libraries and some school libraries offer e-books at minimal or no cost.
  • Try the Dear Reader Teen Book Club. Sign up at www.dearreader.com and your children will receive an e-mail every day with a chapter from a well-chosen book. A different book is featured each week, so if something snags their interest, they’ll have to check it out at the library or buy it to find out what happens.
  • Explore your local public library. Many libraries have a young adult specialist on staff who may be a good source for reading advice.

—Kathleen Odean ’75

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