Is YA Lit Gruesome?
This week’s readings presented the idea that young adult literature corrupts youth. Sherman Alexie cites Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal review of young adult texts from Hinton’s 1967 The Outsiders to the top banned books in 2010, which includes The Hunger Games trilogy and Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (Gurdon). Gurdon says that in 1971 Go Ask Alice “Mirror[ed] the tumultuous times, [and] dark topics [that] began surging on to children's bookshelves.” Gurdon contends that young adult booksellers intentionally push pathologically dark and brutal content to increase book sales, citing the horror a mother faced when trying to find a book as a gift for her daughter. Alexie’s response to Gurdon’s call for more literary and uplifting YA literature is that it is “way, way too late.” Those who read YA literature, Alexie says, have already experienced horrors by the time they read books such as his. Writers can’t protect students from sex when they have already been raped, as happened to him.
One also cannot protect readers from sex even when they have no experience with it. My mother approved of and purchased a book in the 1980s when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. We were on vacation, and I wanted a new book. I learned about heterosexual sex occurring between high school camp counselors in the woods. And, yes, I was shocked at what I read and that my mother approved the book. High school students have sex, they have sex at camp, and they get caught by a driver doing it on a dirt road when his car headlights illuminate their activity That those were all possible actions had never occurred to me. Yes, I was shocked at my new knowledge and shocked that my mother allowed me to read such a book, but there was no way she could have known everything that was in it. I was confused, but that had more to do with my lack of knowledge and less about the fact that I learned this from a book. Had I a more inquisitive mind I could have easily discovered these things on my own.
Which, unfortunately, is Alexie’s point. Adolescents have always existed who were not sheltered. Adolescents who have been brutalized have always been among us. Life is not a cheery world for many teens who struggle not just with their own changing selves as they determine their own identities but also with a world that has always treated many people, children included, as mere objects instead of agentically enabled people. Today’s YA literature acknowledges the horrors and the wonders (Katniss’ and Rue’s relationship, for example, in The Hunger Games) of the world and provides adolescents and those who teach YA literature the opportunity to discuss hard-hitting problems with some distance between YA literature subject and the self. YA literature provides the opportunity for space to safely discuss what may be happening to students themselves in a way that allows them to control when and how they disclose their sometimes horrendous living circumstances.
I may not approve of wizardry or know specific situations of abuse (Harry Potter; and yes, the Dursley’s abuse Harry) or body modification and environmental responsibility (Uglies), but I can discuss those issues through YA literature. A teen may not be aware of sex, but she can learn about what is inappropriate by reading Speak. It is not the reading but the follow up discussion that parents and educators must engage in for YA literature to be effective. My husband once asked if I still felt Gilmore Girls was an appropriate show for teenagers once Rory had sex with her ex-boyfriend who was married. My answer was that I would allow my teens to watch, but I would watch with them and encourage discussion by asking questions such as, “Why is Rory and Dean having sex morally wrong? Would it ever be right for them to have sex? What do our family values say about this topic?”
Gurdon needs to heed this advice. Parents have a right to be concerned, and if they have a child who wants to read “grueling material” (Gurdon), then that parent needs to read with her children or simply ask follow up questions as the child reads such as “Have you learned anything new?” Yes, it takes time, but it is what is known as parenting. (734 words)
Alexie, Sherman. “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011, https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/.
Gurdon, Meghan Cox. “Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary Fiction for Teens Is Rife with Explicit Abuse, Violence and Depravity; Why Is This Considered a Good Idea?” The Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2011. ProQuest.