It’s been an interesting week in the teen-lit world. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a story that said modern YA novels were “rife with depravity” and “so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things.” The piece immediately set off an Internet frenzy. That night, 13 Little Blue Envelopes author Maureen Johnson started the #YAsaves hashtag with this tweet: “Did YA help you? Let the world know how! Tell your story with a #YAsaves tag. And copy the @wsj for good measure.” Within hours, #YAsaves got 15,000 responses from regular readers and from such big-name writers as Judy Blume and Neil Gaiman. Bloggers — but also writers at major news outlets such as National Public Radio and New York magazine — weighed in.
The brouhaha is likely to heat up again soon when, according to Meghan Cox Gurdon, author of the story, the Wall Street Journal will “probably” publish a Part Two.
Cox Gurdon stands by her story, which she described as “an essay” in an email interview with Publishers Weekly, and shrugged off the naysayers. “Any piece of criticism is bound to be met with displeasure in some quarters,” she said. “What has most surprised me is the degree to which people have leapt off on tangents, and then tried to skewer me for things that I didn’t say. It’s almost comical how quickly a discussion of the content of books turns into wild-eyed accusations of censorship and banning.”
Her article “was not about YA literature in its whole but about the lurid elements of a growing number of books within the genre,” she said. The mother of five (including two teenagers), Cox Gurdon said her own kids read novels by contemporary YA authors, such as Judy Blundell, Sarah Dessen, Meg Cabot, and M.T. Anderson.
One big question: is YA saving — or damaging — teen lives? In a piece for New York magazine, Margaret Lyons wrote that Cox Gurdon is wrong when she said it’s “indeed likely” that today’s books subtly encourage and popularize self-harm. And tweeters on #YAsaves note that “dark” teen books that bring up homosexuality, cutting, suicide, and rape, among other tough topics, prevent rather than promote dangerous behavior.
For her part, Cox Gurdon bristles at the postings. “This is another great example of people supplying from their own fevered minds what I didn’t say,” she said. “There’s a big graph in the piece about the argument in favor of these books — that they are thought to validate the experience of teens who are suffering.”
Yet critics say she discounts that argument. After all, in the paragraph following the argument in favor of the books, she wrote, “Yet it is also possible — indeed, likely — that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.”
Cox Gurdon’s story failed to recognize “the good part of what literature does for everybody,” said Jacob Lewis, co-founder and CEO of the teen literary site Figment. “Movies and books and TV all deal with millions of subjects that are sometimes uncomfortable to deal with. It’s the way we deal with and introduce subjects into the consciousness.... We can use those resources in art and literature as ways of understanding them.”
“What makes me really angry about what she said is this pseudo-scientific theory that if you talk about these things, they’ll give kids ideas,” said Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak. Kids who are cutting themselves and considering suicide are not getting those ideas from novels, she said. “They can turn to a book and find hope. They can turn to a book and find understanding.”
Like Halse Anderson, many publishers, booksellers, authors, and teens question whether consuming “dark” novels leads kids down a destructive path. “I’ve definitely read a lot of these kinds of books, and I don’t cut myself or do drugs,” said Will McAneny, 18, an avid reader in Oakland, Calif.
In fact, he and others think the books are more likely to help kids than hurt them. Frankie Spring, 14, of Mishawaka, Ind., a writer who posts her own stories on Figment.com, said Julia Hoban’s Willow, about a girl who cuts herself, did not make her want to give it a go herself. “I don’t have any reason why I’d do it,” she said. But the novel helped her understand why kids harm themselves, she said.
Along those lines, David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic and author of several YA novels himself, refers to Patricia McCormick’s Cut, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. “It’s about being a cutter but getting help and finding your way out of a bad place,” he said. “It sounds so clichéd to say, but we have had so many emails from kids and the adults in their life saying this book saved the kid from doing the thing portrayed in the book.”
Amy Alessio, a teen librarian in Schaumburg, Ill., still recommends quality books with dark content, such as the Hunger Games trilogy, to adolescents. “I don’t think it inspires teens to be more violent.” She herself loves reading mysteries but notes that they don’t inspire her to go out and solve crimes in real life.
Megan Lucas, 13, a Figment writer who lives in Camp Hill, Pa., said that just as playing with Barbie dolls doesn’t make girls become anorexic, reading about teens with problems doesn’t make kids develop problems. Instead, she said, it’s beneficial. “They understand it’s not real,” she said. “I do think reading stuff that is kind of parallel to what you’re going through is very helpful.”
Like many critics of the Wall Street Journal piece, Melissa Posten, who runs the children’s department at Pudd’nHead Books in Webster Groves, Mo., took offense at Gurden’s attack on such titles as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. “She seemed to be saying that reading Alexie’s book would be turning kids into dark, horrible people. It could not be clearer that she did not even open Sherman Alexie’s book,” she said. “Nothing she said led me to believe she had made any effort to become even passingly familiar with what is available.”
Author Maureen Johnson said she is angry at the “idea that anyone would take away a support tool for a kid.” In her mind, YA reassures teens that they’re “not alone” and that what they’re experiencing is “survivable,” she said. “There’s someone like me. There’s someone this happened to.”
Though opponents are more vocal, many readers have written in support of the piece, according to Cox Gurdon. “As it happens, there’s also been a wave of gratitude, relief, and agreement from parents, librarians, teenagers, and even two publishers, who have observed the same things I have,” she told PW.
And she noted the positive response by oneminutebookreviews.com writer Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who blogged: “Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment: She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.”
Where Were All the Nonviolent Books?
Critics also noted that Cox Gurdon did not mention the many YA books (by authors such as Sarah Dessen and Meg Cabot) that have nothing to do with depravity. New York magazine singled out the absence of The Last Little Blue Envelope, Okay for Now, Anna and the French Kiss, The Cardturner, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
But Cox Gurdon said she consciously omitted non-dark titles “because the article was not about YA literature in its whole but about the lurid elements of a growing number of books within the genre... as I said in the piece.”
As for her apparently negative view of the Hunger Games trilogy (she called it “hyper-violent” in her piece), Cox Gurdon said she mentioned them “because they’re often challenged, not because I think anything awful about them,” and referred to her Wall Street Journal review of the third book, Mockingjay. In it, she talked about the story’s violence (“people are murdered by a stunningly baroque variety of means: snared in barbed nets, smothered with gas, coated in poisonous gel, steamed like lobsters, melted like candles, and beheaded by mutants”).
But Levithan contends that teen novelists use violence for a reason. “The Hunger Games trilogy is a critique of war and living in wartime and being involved in war,” he said. “The violence isn’t there to titillate. It’s there for a thematic reason. It’s a violence to teach us about violence.”
Cox Gurdon’s example of a mother who could only find books about “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation” when she was shopping for a gift for her 13-year-old at Barnes & Noble also aroused ire. “If she had walked into an independent bookstore or a school library, she would have found educated people who would have understood the depth of the field and would have helped her find exactly the right book for her daughter,” said Halse Anderson. That mom’s experience was not representative, said bookseller Posten. “Barnes & Noble is not where you go when you want an expert on children’s books,” she said. “She interviewed the most sensationalist person she could find.”
To many, Cox Gurdon appeared to be condemning all teen literature. “She doesn’t seem to be aware of the stretch of YA,” said Johnson. “YA simply connotes an age range, not a specific genre.” Critics also say the piece too sweepingly labeled YA as dark. “Would one ever say all adult literature is fill in the blank?” said Halse Anderson. “The genre has become so rich and deep and varied that there is no one word that anyone can apply to the entire genre except perhaps for booming because it’s growing so quickly.”
And authors of lighter YA books felt she overlooked a large number of titles. “She was pretty much claiming books like mine don’t exist,” said Ally Carter, author of Heist Society and I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. “She obviously didn’t look that closely in the Barnes & Noble.”
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.”
“It really was an opinion piece being presented as journalism,” said Libba Bray, author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and several other YA titles. “It doesn’t present the reality we know.” But as Cox Gurdon said in her email to PW, she was writing an essay, presented as a book review in the newspaper, rather than an objective news story.
Should Dark Stories Be Taboo?
Many authors and librarians expressed concern about restricting teen access to novels that might help them deal with issues such as rape, suicide, and homosexuality. “There are plenty of kids out there who need those dark books to make it through tomorrow and the next day,” said Veronica Roth, author of the YA dystopian thriller Divergent. “Maybe those kids aren’t your kids.... I just wish the author of the article and the woman described in it would think about how their experience in life is not everyone’s experience and that the world is a pretty shocking and dark place.”
“Many of the greatest stories in literature are dark. To say there shouldn’t be darkness in stories sort of implies you haven’t read anything ever,” said Johnson. “Dickens is a pretty dark author, sending orphans out to work for pickpockets and thieves.” Grimm’s fairy tales, Shakespeare, and the Bible are also dark, she said. “I went to a Catholic girls’ school, and I was 13, and I had to read a Bible cover to cover. That’s a terrifying experience!” Lot turns his daughters over to the townspeople and says, “Go ahead, rape them,” she say. “That’s fairly horrible.”
The teen-age years are “pretty dark,” said Blue Bloods author Melissa de la Cruz. “It’s a very cruel age. Dark books do appeal to kids because they have nice, sheltered lives — and they also appeal to children who are going through pretty hard times themselves.”
Suggested Reading List
Some also took offense at Cox Gurden’s suggested reading lists for “young men” and “young women” which were called sexist and antiquated by critics. De la Cruz also quibbles with Cox Gurdon’s boy-girl reading lists. “Now you’re gender-defining literature,” she said. Bray’s take: “What year is this? 1955?”
Halse Anderson said it was “ridiculous” to divide it by gender. She suggests parents instead check lists such as ReadingRants!, by a librarian in Manhattan, which recommends titles by topic and type of reader. The Wall Street Journal could have linked to “really robust lists of books that are read and recommended by people who have a broad understanding of the field,” she said.
For her part, Cox Gurdon said “the books were divided because that is how parents and other adults buy books for young people — e.g., ‘What book would be good for a 15-year-old boy?’” she said. She did not elaborate on how she picked the titles.
The suggested reading list contributed to many critics’ feeling that Cox Gurdon is unfamiliar with much of contemporary teen literature. “I just brushed it off. I don’t think she has any idea what she’s talking about,” said Posten. To her mind, Gurden was “writing to stir people up,” she said. “She’s not writing about the young adult world that I know.”
Annoyed — but United
In the end, the piece simply annoyed many book lovers. “The part that stuck with me was the paragraph that the editors and the publishers were shoving it down teens’ throats,” said Alessio. “Anything anyone tries to shove down teens’ throats they would eschew. They would run the other way.”
What depresses author Carter is that the Wall Street Journal’s two million readers will get the wrong idea. “Most of the people who read that article are never going to know about YA beyond that article,” she said. “We’ll have parents who don’t take their kids to the bookstore.”
If nothing else, the article has rallied YA novelists, publishers and readers around the flag. “I think that reporter is entitled to her viewpoint, but what she inadvertently released is all of this profound evidence of the worth of what we do,” said Levithan.
In the end, the piece has united many book lovers. “I’m always proud to be a part of the YA community,” said Carter. “This shows it’s a powerful community.”