It would be safe to say that Meghan Cox Gurdon really stuck her foot in her mouth with her Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible” (June 4, 2011), in which she badmouths a genre she clearly doesn’t understand. In fact, she makes clear that there’s a whole lot that she doesn’t understand about both young adults and literature in general. Read it HERE.


Luckily, readers and writers of all ages have used the article as a catalyst to begin a pro YA Lit conversation that went viral more quickly than you can blurt, “WHAT?!?”


Search for #yasaves on Twitter or Google, and you’ll find hundreds of voices rising to protest Gurdon’s misinformed anti-YA-Lit rant. I’ve read the article and waded through countless tweets, blogs, and comments, and the best shot-by-shot analysis of why this article should not be taken seriously (that I’ve found, anyway) is by Liz B. at schoollibraryjournal.com. Read it HERE.


Seriously, go read it – she covers many of the things I was going to rant about (then come back!).


Did you read it? Yes? Good reader (and thanks for coming back). No? Why not? [smack, smack] Do it.


Okay, then. My additions to Liz B.’s post:


First, statements like “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it” and “Yet it is also possible — indeed, likely — that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them…”are total crap unless you can back them up with data. You’re talking about human development and psychology here. There are lots (and lots and lots) of actual scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals about these things. Find some evidence of them and cite them if you are going to say them. Otherwise, they carry as much weight as any other nonsensical rant on the internet. A decently-worded sentence doesn’t indicate factual accuracy. Gosh, even my 9th graders know to answer the question “who says?” if they want their writing to be taken seriously.


Second, Gurdon writes, “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear.”


Really? Darker than V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? If I remember correctly, four siblings are locked in an attic when their mother marries a rich man but doesn’t want to tell him about her kids. One child dies of neglect, and two of the other children fall in love (and yeah, they consumate that love, too). Darker than that?


Perhaps that’s unfair. I don’t think many people have argued that Flowers in the Attic has a whole lot of literary value.


Okay, how about J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which was actually before my time)? The protagonist fails out of yet another prep school, he goes on the lam, depressed and cursing constantly, lives in a grimy, crime-infested hotel, is visited by a prostitute, decides everybody but his little sister is a phony, and eventually ends up institutionalized. Darker than that?


Let’s go further back. Like back to the 1600s. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet back. Bloody violence, hormonal teenagers, rebellion, sneaking around, underage (by today’s standard) sex, more violence, angry parents, sneaky clergy,more violence, and, eventually, a desperate and unnecessary double suicide. Darker than that? 


Wow. You’ve got to view the YA Lit of the past with a pretty specific filter to believe that comment.And don’t call me “my dear.” It’s irritating.


Third, Gurdon compares today’s YA Lit to that of Judy Blume, calling to mind such classics as Forever. Blume’s books, she asserts, though they dealt with adolescent issues that were “then-daring,” were okay because, “(o)bjectionable the material may be for some parents, but it’s not grotesque.”


There are two problems with this statement. To begin (and once again), says whom? In the 1970’s, many people found the honesty with which Blume addressed such issues as sexuality, birth control, puberty, and loss offensive, much like Amy Freeman, Gurdon’s “46-year-old mother of three” subject, finds every single YA book at Barnes and Noble’s offensive. Blumes books have been banned and censored and even considered dangerous. (Gasp – teenagers having sex? Well, sure, it happens, but do we have to talk about it? It might convince otherwise innocent and asexual teens to start screwing around…. or so says Gurdon’s theory of entertainment creating taste.)  Click HERE to read about it and HERE to hear Judy Blume talking about it herself.


Additionally, the statement means that current YA-Lit is grotesque, which means distorted, inaccurate, exaggerated, etc. This is an opinion, not a fact. Facts show that the “dark” issues addressed by YA-Lit are realities for many teens. For starters, check out childhelp.org and these publications from the CDC:

Keep in mind that the above data reflects only documented cases, and anyone who works with children or teens (or who reads) knows that so many cases are kept hidden or are never proven in court. If we are to believe the data, then the fact that YA Lit is “dark” is not grotesque, at all. That’s straying into anecdotal territory, however, so I should note that a stroll over to the memoir section of the store might have given Freeman a clue about why such topics are popular. How many non-fiction accounts of horror does one need to read to see that many young people deal with “dark” issues?

There’s irony here, too. The world is full of dark issues, and we – the grown ups – are responsible for almost all of it, yet many grown ups want to pretend that they don’t exist. Or, at the very least, avoid talking about them in any detail.

It all reminds me of the ending of another YA novel (back when they weren’t called YA novels), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read it, go get a copy and read it right now… it’s 12 action-packed chapters – you can read it in one sitting!)  In those 12 chapters, a group of young boys is marooned on a deserted island as they head off to boarding school while war wages all around them. Accidentally bombed and stranded, they find themselves with no adults, no supplies, and plenty of time. Golding’s vision of what would happen in such a situation paints a grim picture of the nature of man.

By the end of those 12 chapters, fear and violence have prevailed over reason and generosity, blood-lust is encouraged if not mandated, kids are dead (both accidentally and intentionally), the island is aflame, and our doomed protagonist, Ralph, is a moment away from being intimately acquainted with a stick sharpened at both ends. In the nick of time, Ralph is saved by the arrival of a Naval officer. The officer surveys the wreckage and the once civilized children, and expresses his disapproval:

“’I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you’re all British, aren’t you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that.'”

This officer, this grown up, this military man, one of the participants in the very war that stranded the boys in the first place, chastens the boys who have turned out just like the adults who have failed to save them from savagery.

Open a newspaper and take a look at what the world looks like. We are the grown ups. We are responsible. It’s neither strange nor new that it makes us uncomfortable to face the issues reflected in the literature that seems most compelling and relevant to our young people.

But YA Lit does bear a closer look from its most severe critics. For an honest look at YA Lit (and as a bit of redemption for the Wall Street Journal), I encourage you to read “It was, like, all dark and stormy” by Katie Roiphe, published in the Wall Street Journal Online on June 6, 2009. Click HERE to read it.

Now, what about you? What’s your view?

One Comment on “#yasaves

  1. Very thought provoking! I missed the original article, so I appreciate seeing it and the response you cited and your own thoughts. I'm going to share this with my friends who are working on PhDs in Literature for Children and Young Adults–I'm sure they'll have complex, well developed responses. I'm so scrambled from the last week of the quarter that I'm mostly saying “whoa.”


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