Last week, Meghan Cox Gurdon's article "Darkness Too Visible" denounced YA lit as trying to "bulldoze coarseness or misery" into children's lives. Gurdon gets YA wrong on so many levels, and the kidlit world noticed. Massively. Most responses have been smart and heartfelt, but are we preaching to the choir?
I'd like to believe that the Gurdons of this world are reading some of these responses and rethinking their positions, but I think those in Gurdon’s camp are just keeping quiet... not necessarily being converted by our pronouncements. Still, the WSJ article has forced many of us to refine our defenses for the work we do as writers, teachers, librarians, and youth advocates. So even if we're preaching to the choir, it's still good preaching.
Today I take you on a quick tour of my favorite responses to Gurdon, and I chime in with my two cents whenever I can’t resist. Be sure to check out the funnies after you're done being outraged. And--of course--read the original article. It's only fair to do so (and you have to if you want to enjoy the playful parody cited at the end of this post).
Why resisting Gurdon's stance on "darkness" is such a big deal
Sherman Alexie's post captures the urgency of getting books that speak to marginalized teens (and all teens feel marginalized in some way) onto bookshelves:
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read...
When I think of the poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager that I was, I can only wish, immodestly, that I’d been given the opportunity to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak.” Or Chris Lynch’s “Inexusable.” Or any of the books that Ms. Gurdon believes to be irredeemable. I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.
Laurie Halse Anderson's blog post comes at things from a different angle. Like Anderson, I am "someone who loves a lot of conservatives," so I share her interest in actually understanding where the Gurdons of the world are coming for, if most out of a desire to change their minds. Anderson works to think through what makes some parents resist books that are dark, concluding that it's not really the books that they're afraid of. Rather,
They are afraid of their inability to talk to their kids about the scary, awful, real-world stuff that is out there. And they know, deep-down, that even if their own children are blessed with violence- and trauma-free childhoods and adolescences, their kids will daily come in contact with other kids who aren’t that lucky. So they know they·should be talking about this stuff, but they don’t know where to start. And when their kid starts reading books about subjects that make Mom and Dad uncomfortable, the reaction is to get rid of the book, instead of summoning the courage and faith to have conversations that make them uneasy.
Both Alexie and Anderson provide clear demonstrations that what Gurdon calls "darkness" (and others of us call "reality") matters in writing for teens.
Why Gurdon is crazy to claim that all of YA is dark
If you think I'm exaggerrating, check out Gurdon's (troublingly gendered) list of recommendations for "young women." Does she really think you have to go back to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) to find something that's suitably sunny?
Lisa Von Drasek's post highlights the diversity in YA lit with a special emphasis on what might appeal to teens (or parents) who shy away from too gritty offerings. Her recommendations range from serious to breezy (Meg Cabot), and she points out the merit in even the trendiest "dark" (by Gurdon's standards) YA. I kind of wanted to give Lisa a hug or stand up and cheer at this point in her post:
For heaven’s sake give it a rest. There is as wide a range of genres in Young Adult fiction as in adult — mystery, chick lit, romance, historical fiction, adventure, trauma, survival, speculative fiction, sports, light humor, and books set in other cultures. Do you make your adult reading selections from the mass market rack at the Seven/Eleven?
E. Kristin Anderson stuffs reading recommendations into her open letter to the mother Gurdon features in her article, a mother who left Barnes & Noble bookless because she couldn't find anything that she could imagine giving to her thirteen-year-old-daughter. E. K. Anderson gets mad props for responding without condescending, as you can tell from the closing of her letter:
And if you’re looking for, you know, well-written, heart-felt, and intelligent replies to the article in the Wall Street Journal, I hope that you will look here, here, or here. Or, like, Google it — everyone in YA has something to say about the bias in the article, the anger, the ignorance, and the hate. I’m choosing the let the other voices say what I’m thinking about this part of your complaint, because they’ve already done it so well. I’m offering you my book shopping help instead. Because YA is so big. Kidlit is enormous. We have books for everyone!
Why laughing is part of what we must do in response to Gurdon
Okay, if you want to know how I really felt reading Gurdon's article, just check out this Forever Young Adult post by Erin. Maybe this makes sense because a while back Erin confessed here that she and my character Marisa are secret sisters. I loved this retort:
It seems that Gurdon’s main complaint is that, well, YA books just make it sound like life is so hard, y’all. And, as we all know, life is roses and cupcakes and if we expose our young people to depravity, they will become depraved. Violence does not exist except where we seek to create it! Rape is not common unless you insist upon hanging out with people who have been raped! Parents do not abuse their children and, if they do, then we still shouldn’t have to read about it because I bet those beaten up kids don’t even know how to read. And nobody would masturbate if you guys would stop telling them how to do it!
What's funny is how Erin channels the YA world's incredulity; her points in response to Gurdon, though, are serious.
Finally, check out this parody of the "Darkness Too Visible" piece. I love how, taking the tone of many board books as the focal point, it lambasts Gurdon's failure to recognize the importance of darkness for teens:
The argument for such books is that they brighten the day of tykes and turn them onto reading, as well as instructing them on important topics like shapes, colors, parts of the body, and counting to ten. I think it sets expectations unrealistically high for the real world, simultaneous suggesting the demands of life are much lower than they really are. I worry that my son will expect the reality to be soft-toned, primary-colored, and full of smiling and well meaning adults and animals who never eat one another…
The whole post is a treat.
If you want still more perspectives and responses on this topic, there are long and growing lists of links at Cheryl Rainfield's site (her book Scars was one of the ones slammed in Gurdon's article) as well as on the School Library Journal blog here.