Thursday, June 16, 2011


This is old news but important anyway, so we apologize for getting it up here late. On June 4 the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the topic of young adult fiction. Specifically, she asserts that most young adult (YA) fiction is dark, violent, horrible, etc. The article contains stuff like this:
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.
I stopped reading the thing somewhere around there, annoyed by the whole tone and not interested in feeling defensive about this category I spend much of my life reading and selling. It doesn't sound like she even reads YA for fun, so I felt okay dismissing the whole thing to save myself from a weekend of teeth-gnashing.

Well, one of the reasons I love YA is that the community of people who read, write, publish, review, and sell these books are particularly awesome and loyal people, and I should've known that the responses to this article would be worth keeping an eye on. Compiled below are some of my favorite responses so far.

The Twitter hashtag #yasaves got started (by Maureen Johnson, I believe) with authors and readers tweeting about YA books that saved them in some way. The New Yorker wrote about it. Maureen Johnson wrote about it in the Guardian. From her piece (she's referring to Cox Gurdon's suggested titles):
For non-dark, age-appropriate reading, she chooses Fahrenheit 451, a lighthearted romp that features suicide, teenagers who run cars into people, mechanical hounds that hunt living creatures for blood sport and nuclear war. It's a fantastic book, but its inclusion implies that the author of the article has a slippery definition of the term "dark". The fact that she breaks this list into books for girls and books for boys is another subject entirely.
From the Publishers Weekly article about the controversy:
To many, Cox Gurdon appeared to be cherry-picking the darkest stories to fit her thesis. “I found it was akin to walking down the street and seeing three dogs and saying every dog in New York is a terrier because you saw three of them,” said Rebecca Sherman, a literary agent at Writers House. “To say, ‘This book is dark, and this book is dark, and that book is dark, therefore YA fiction is dark’ is a leap of logic to me.”
Beloved local author Sherman Alexie's response is a favorite. He brings up the privilege angle of this debate, which I appreciate immensely (and will remember the next time an article like this comes out):
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
And finally, there's these: "The Darkest Children's Books Ever Written," which are your favorite picture books reimagined to include the dreaded "dark" teen themes.

So hooray to YA for a mostly classy and energizing and smart response to criticism. This is, again, a big part of why I love this stuff.

-Anna, Kids Books

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I happen to like those dark brooding YA books, see nothing wrong with them, and I could definitely come up with a personal story aka emotional justification for that ... so I really like what Mr. Alexie had to add to the overall discussion. Thanks Anna, for doing my homework for me! :O)

    It makes sense: from what used to be a limited number of kids considered to be part of the dysfunctional family rhetoric to almost all of them being lumped in nowadays ... we all need a story about how bad things can be ... and when we no longer need them, then we'll stop reading them out of lack of interest. Then writer & the biz will start writing about white picket fences again. Or most likely something else.

    just sayin'

    ps I also happen to know from my immensely knowledgeable cohorts in kids that there's a whole world of other books to chose from in that section ...


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