Monday, June 20, 2011

My Response to the WSJ Article

The following is some of my thoughts regarding Wall Street Journal's recent article on Young Adult fiction, called Darkness Too Visible. To read the original article, click here.

Dear Ms. Meghan Cox Gurdon,

I was saddened to read your recent article, Darkness Too Visible. I felt that your portrayal of Young Adult literature was unfair and unrealistic. I would like to mention some of my thoughts in reading the article, to provide you with another perspective to view this issue. Although the article condemned the teen fiction for the amount of “explicit abuse, violence and depravity” held in its pages, some teens do live through these events and they deserve a voice.

You mentioned that you were concerned about the amount of violence contained in young adult books. I would answer that I am concerned about the amount of violence I see on the evening news. I think that authors react to what they see around them, and use words to paint situations they see in our society. They give words to those who have none, or who need to know that what they live through does not go unnoticed.

You described teen fiction as a “hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.” I was frustrated with this statement. Please consider those who live in these “distorted” mirrors. I would like to believe different- that teens do not suffer abuse, incest, hazing, thoughts of suicide and self-mutilation, but I am sad to report that this is not the world we live in. There are teens who live in those halls of mirrors every day, and for some of them, these books are their only voice.

Some of the books that you mentioned as instances of violence in Young Adult Literature, are curious examples. Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which was described in the article as “hyper violent” has always struck me as a book meant to show how society has become desensitized to violence. The members of the Capital city in the book, stand by and watch the Hunger Games on television idly, as countless young people are murdered in cold blood. It says a lot about our own relationship with violence, whether it’s okay to stand by and watch a violent act. It says something about the voyeuristic quality of reality television. I believe that Suzanne Collins asks the question of her readers, What would you do in the face of violence?

I also was concerned about singling out, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton as launching “an industry” of these dark books you have condemned. After all, there are so many points in this book that S.E. Hinton points out the meaninglessness of the violence between the greasers and the Socs. By the end, the main character, Ponyboy, realizes how little difference there is between the greasers and socs. Ponyboy is also a laudable character, for his perseverance in school, when he lives in an environment that doesn’t normally value academic success. It’s for these reasons that I was frustrated to hear the book painted in such a bleak perspective.

I am not saying that there isn’t violence in young adult books, or that any teen should be forced to read these books. But I believe that every teen has a right to read a book that speaks to them. It’s true that sometimes finding the right book is tough. You mentioned a parent, Amy Freeman, was overwhelmed trying to find a book at the bookstore surrounded by “dark, dark stuff.” I will agree that sometimes the Young Adult section holds enough vampire titles to give Buffy the Vampire Slayer a heart attack. But there are other books there too. I firmly believe there’s a book out there for every teen. I could name a number of books which, to my knowledge, have never included a vampire in their pages. Sarah Dessen narrates the struggles of the teenage heart. Francisco Stork’s Marcelo and the Real World chronicles the experiences of a teen compelled to do the right thing. There are countless other examples of unique reads in the young adult department. Although it is overwhelming, there are several people to help navigate the seas of Young Adult titles. Librarians and staff members of bookstores often have great ideas of titles that will fit individual readers, all they simply need to do is ask.

You lamented a book being left on the shelves. But if we are to take books off of the shelves, who decides what books are left? Which individual would be entrusted with passing judgement on books? I feel this is a dangerous subject to broach. There are such a variety of life experiences. How can one person, or even a group of people choose for everyone? We need to have more respect for the teens, respect them for their ability to choose books that speak to them. The fact of the matter is that hiding a book will not change who a teen is or the world they live in.


Jess Stork, a writer and library worker


  1. Jess, great post. I heard about this and while I don't read a whole lot of YA, I think it was just ridiculous. I'd add a few points to what you've said:

    1. The genre is young adult fiction, the adult part implying that they are perfectly capable of being mature readers.

    2. The genre is young adult fiction: you know, as in it's all made up, pretend, a story. Hansel and Gretel is a pretty brutal story we tell our kids. All made up! As young adults, I would expect that they can tell fact from fiction.

    3. I'm not sure I believe Gurdon's position. Too often, op eds like this are commissioned with primary idea to be controversial, as opposed to expressing a real opinion. Call me a skeptic, but I think this came up just to stir up some controversy and drum up press for the WSJ.

  2. Yes, I was concerned about the same thing Jamie. Particularly from the examples of books they cited, it seemed like the writer was more concentrated on controversy than the argument. In some ways, that's more frustrating that the writer actually making an argument, as it doesn't actually accomplish anything, except make people angry.

  3. Great post Jess! :D I would write a strongly worded letter... but it has been done here.

  4. Jess,

    Great points! I was a bit irritated by her claim that parents are not able direct thier children's reading because of cries of censorship. There is a difference between parents actively taking interest in their children's reading and trying to direct them towards what they feel are more appropriate books and asking bookstores and libraries to remove books parents find distasteful.

    I remember growing up books like "Flowers in the Attic" where a derranged mother obsessed on her families forture, locked her kids in an attic to pretend they didnt' exist. Then later she tries to kill them. The young boy and the young girl in the book experience their first sexual awakenings with each other since they have no other options. That's pretty dark and that was nearly 30 years ago, I'm sad to say.

    All of my mother's screaming and yelling could not disuade me from reading books like that. What worked was her offering me other books that were much more interesting. She took "Flowers in the Attic" from me and gave me Daphne DuMaurier's "The Glass Blowers." Certainly, not as salacious as the other book, but it awakened in me my love of literature and history.

    To imply that because these books are available for teens parents have no say in what their children read is a fallacy. Be involved with your children. Try to influence their reading through your own experience and discussion. Ask them why they find certain books interesting. Try reading what they read yourself and talk to them about it.

    You might be surprised what you find out.

  5. Colleen, interestingly, one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was carte blanche to read whatever I wanted. They taught me the value of reading, and the difference between fiction and fact, and beyond that, they let me read anything, and because of that, I devoured whatever I could find in the library. Sometimes it was science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it was science books. Sometimes it was Greek mythology. Sometimes it was National Geographics (because of the pictures, of course), but because they'd taught me the value of reading and how to judge a work on its own merits, they never needed to tell me what I should or shouldn't read.

  6. Jamie, that is a wonderful thing. Unfortuantely, my mother did not share your parent's views.

  7. I've never understood the concept of sheltering children from the realities of the world. I've never discovered the benefit. I would much rather my children encounter the unpleasant surprises the world offers while I am there to explain and guide, than to slam into the unknown alone with no safety net.

    I don't see the argument as virtue vs smut, but rather innocence vs experience. Experience arms you against the troubles of the future, while innocence leaves you naked in a field of thorns.

    In this respect parents that knowingly shelter their children are indulging in a form of negligence. Certainly when we are speaking of 12 - 18 year olds. I mean, at what point are they planning on taking the blinders off?

    But that's always been the problem with books. They often cause the reader to ask questions about their world and their lives, and I can see how that might be a chore some parents would prefer to avoid. It is better to remove the books and pretend the problems don't exist. That tends to work for a lot of things, not just books.

  8. Yes, there are some very different parenting styles out there. I'm really not trying to interfere with that. I disagree with banning though, because anyone you choose to do the banning will have a biased opinion. I'd agree with you though, Mike and Jaime. Hopefully when I have my own kids, I'll be open to just sitting down and talking them through issues rather than shying away from them. But I can say for sure... that sort of thing takes a lot of courage to face issues head on and be truthful about what's out there in the world and that's a tough thing.