Yesterday’s online Wall Street Journal article had a tremendous effect on the YA community. Unfortunately for Meghan Cox Gurdon, author of the article, it is probably not the outcome she was hoping for. YA readers and authors alike, rallied on the social networking site, Twitter, to defend the honor of the YA genre that Ms. Gurdon so succinctly attacked.
In an article rife with generalizations and condemnations on certain “dark” YA novels and novelists, Ms. Gurdon took it upon herself to assume the voice of parents of teen readers, going so far as to cheer on the banning of books, saying, “In the parenting trade…we call this ‘judgment’ or ‘taste’.” She also states, “The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship.”
It makes me wonder several things about Ms. Gurdon (I won’t go so far as to assume, lest I be too much like her). Has Ms. Gurdon actually read the books she mentioned (Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars, Lauren Myracle’s Shine and Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games)? Does Ms. Gurdon have children of her own? And if so, does she actually want to propagate the mentality that censorship (especially in literature) of any kind is okay?
YA novels, like all other genres, are often meant to mimic real life issues while still entertaining the reader, even in books that revolve around sparkling vampires. The themes that we find in these novels are ones that are universal and ageless. At some point, we all know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, to be ostracized or to be hurt by someone we love. What we, as readers, take away from YA novels is precious. One need only read the tweets from last night’s #YAsaves twitter campaign to know that.
I am a 32-year-old mother. I have two 11-year-olds (one boy and one girl). It is only recently that my children have fallen in love with reading. As an editor and writer, it wasn’t easy to watch my children choose video games over books. But they have been avid readers for two years now. Both of them mainly read YA, mixing in some Middle Grade books on occasion. A year ago, they both picked out books at Barnes and Noble using gift cards they’d gotten for their birthdays. My daughter chose Holly Black’s White Cat and Ellen Hopkins’ Impulse. While Holly Black’s book might not be “dark” enough for Ms. Gurdon’s distaste (though I’ve had showdowns with parents at my kids’ school defending it as acceptable), Ellen Hopkins’ Impulse might be. It revolves around three teenagers who tell their stories in the aftermath of their failed suicides. I never once questioned the decision to allow my daughter to read these books. In fact, I encourage it. So much so that my daughter and I plan to read Scars together.
I lived through a childhood with a mother who did her parenting from the bottom of a Jim Beam bottle. The only thing that got me through it were books. And at that time, YA books were few and far between. I read whatever I could to escape, whether it was a Fabio-adorned historic romance or a horror novel by the King formerly known as Steven. And then I read Flowers in the Attic, a novel chock full of incest and abuse and murder and every taboo subject known to man. It was the closest thing I had to a modern-day YA novel and I was smitten. I devoured any V.C. Andrews book I could find, even after her death. And what I took from those books was not the glorification of sex or drugs, but instead, a message of hope. The protagonists in those novels either came from horrific situations or were thrust into them involuntarily, suffering unspeakable abuse at the hands of family members or trusted friends. What I drew from these characters was a sense of strength, a sense of courage. I learned that what my mother did was not my fault. That I would grow up to be different than her. I learned that no matter what we suffer through, that we can always overcome our pasts.
YA authors today are even more influential, and care more deeply about their readers. While there is intent to entertain, and of course, to sell books, it is apparent in the raw, honest way they write their characters that they understand on some level what it means to be a young adult in this gritty world.
As a mother, and a writer, I abhor censorship and its proponents. I understand that it is a parent’s prerogative (and duty) to act as a gatekeeper for their children. But there is a difference in protecting our children from actual harm, and barring our children from experience and knowledge. Morality and intelligence is not borne out of what we read. It comes from our experiences, our mistakes (and the lessons we learn from them) and the values we bear witness of in those around us. Ms. Gurdon’s logic is, in my opinion, flawed. I don’t fault her for it though, nor do I desire her to take down the article. I wouldn’t dream of that kind of censorship.