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Young Adult Fiction: Let Teens Choose

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It's hard to know how to respond to Meghan Cox Gurdon's June 4, 2011 article chronicling the "darkness" of modern day YA fiction in the Wall Street Journal [and Ru Freeman's Huffington Post support for it, on June 21]. I purposely waited a couple of weeks to let the early responders poke holes in her reasoning the way good educators and the writers of tough Young Adult fiction always have to respond to this kind of ill-thought-out and self-serving "reporting."

My one happy thought is that anyone serious about discovering good stories for teenagers probably won't go to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to find them, so the damage is already minimized.

Gurdon opens her piece telling us how Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three, stands before the Teen section in Barnes and Noble, despondent because there are no books she can buy as a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old daughter. They're all just too dark.

I think Gurdon is pulling our collective leg. As a member of the purveyors of dark young adult fiction, I can't tell you how many times I've read or heard the tired urban legend of a wonderfully protective parent standing in the YA section of Borders/Barnes and Noble/Hastings, fearing for the future of our young people, unable to find one book that won't taint purity of his or her child's coming of age. They always leave empty-handed and disappointed. I'm guessing "Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three," is either a figment of Gurdon's imagination or a close friend who shared a double-shot grande vanilla latte and a similar conservative philosophy in Starbucks one morning, concluding that Gurdon could and should sound the call to those who would go to the Wall Street Journal for guidance in selecting Young Adult literature.

Then I did what Gurdon obviously didn't do; I went to my local Barnes and Noble and stood in the teen section, as purportedly did Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three. And guess what? I saw a lot of the same "dark" literature Amy saw. And I saw a boatload of literature that was not dark, and a boatload more for which it was impossible to tell standing there staring. She would have had to open some books. I'm guessing Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three, wasn't as interested in finding her daughter a book as she was in making a statement that fit her philosophy.

It seems to me if you don't know anything about child development you shouldn't intimate in your "reporting" that you do. And it seems as if any reporter who got through Journalism her junior year of high school with at least a C- would know that using incendiary words like "depravity," "brutal(ity)," "horrendous," and "ugliness," to highlight a few, are not the tools of an honest journalist. By Gurdon's standards, To Kill a Mockingbird could easily be described as a horrendous or depraved or ugly or brutal novel about interracial rape.

So let's just say at the outset that, in my opinion, Meghan Cox Gurdon has an agenda. And to be fair let's also say that, in my opinion, so do I.

Gurdon says the intellectual freedom side of the argument is that kids who have gone through truly tough times relate to these stories and feel less alone. She's right. That is an argument. She also says, without any back-up, that these stories may cause kids who haven't had those experiences to respond negatively to the doom and gloom and that those who have, may wallow in them. A few may -- and I'd have no problem with that -- but it's not my experience. Laurie Halse Anderson, Sherman Alexie, Lauren Myracle, Lois Lowry, Robert Cormier (were he still alive), Judy Blume and even I could paper Ms. Gurdon's cubicle with letters and emails saying things from, "Until I read your book I didn't even know what happened to me was rape," "When I read your book I realized somebody knew what my life was like and I felt less alone," "Thank you for giving me a voice," to "Your book made me see that my life isn't so bad after all," "I think I'm one of those people who treat hurt people bad(ly)," "I didn't know what some of the people in my class had gone through until I read your book."

You can't bury under the horrendous-depravity-brutal-ugliness blanket, the true face of bigotry painted by Sherman Alexie in The Absolutely True Diary, or the helplessness Melinda feels in Speak before she learns that what was done to her wasn't her fault, and wasn't right. And "bad" language? Bad language gets kids to read books. Know why? It's real. It is the expression of adolescence. Bad language doesn't hurt anybody. It might make a few -- mostly adults -- uneasy, but it doesn't hurt anybody. Words can hurt. Name calling hurts. Oral bullying hurts. Humiliation hurts. But bad language doesn't do shit.

I have a solution for Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three. Next time you want to get a book for your thirteen-year-old, send her to Barnes and Noble with a few bucks to buy what she wants. Take a look at it. Read it with her. Talk about what you like and don't like, and learn what she likes and doesn't like. Don't make her read it; the freedom to read includes the freedom not to read. Put yourself into that enviable spot of being someone to turn to when your daughter's life, from her point of view, matches up with some book, because as much as you think -- or hope -- it won't, trust me, it will. When it does, if she thinks she will be diminished in your eyes, she'll go elsewhere for help.