The Dark Side of YA

There has been a lot of controversy lately regarding Young Adult (YA) literature and what some consider its dark undertones. A recent article by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal caused a stir among authors, publishers, and librarians for condemning YA books featuring themes such as sexual abuse and self-harm. The following paragraph stood out to me:

“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

I don’t agree that these books are “hideously distorted portrayals” of real life. The unfortunate reality is that for many teens, these things are all too real. I also take offense to the idea that someone who reads these books is “seek[ing] out depravity.” Teens reading these books are not “depraved,” but rather are looking for confirmation that they are not alone, that others are going through the same things they are. Or maybe they have a friend going through a difficult time and don’t know how to help. Or maybe they have never experienced these issues and they are curious. All are valid reasons for picking up a book.

Gurdon goes on to argue that “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.” I wonder whether Gurdon has actually read any of these books. I recently finished Cut by Patricia McCormick, and I can honestly say there is nothing in here that would drive impressionable teens to cut themselves. Yes, the book is about a girl, Callie, who is in therapy because she cuts herself. But self-harm is not glamourized in any way, and in fact the book is about Callie’s coming to terms with the incident that caused her to begin cutting herself. If anything, the novel affirms that hope is out there.

Perhaps more disturbing than Gurdon’s article is one by author Ru Freeman on the Huffington Post in which she agrees with Gurdon. Freeman compares giving teens books about anorexia to “giv[ing] a young anorexic girl a great ball-by-ball account of how to starve herself to death.” I think it a gross insult to teens’ intelligence to assume that just because someone reads a book he or she will imitate the characters’ behaviour. Teens may be impressionable but they also have judgement. I doubt reading a book about anorexia will cause a teen to develop an eating disorder any more than the millions of adults who read books featuring murder would become murderers. I have yet to find a book that shows anorexia in a desirable light, as a thing to aspire to.

Freeman also writes “I can assure you that, growing up, I did not sit around wishing I could read about the hardships I was undergoing.” That’s great, but that doesn’t mean no one else wants to read about characters they identify with. Freeman is at her most presumptuous when she states “Here’s to all those adults who, having undertaken to have children of their own, choose to care for all children.” Thanks, but when I have children, I’ll decide how to raise them just as you did for yours. And I for one will not blindly assume I can protect my teenage children from the evils of the world by censoring what they choose to read. The world is not made of sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns, and while I agree that young children do not need to be exposed to the dark side of life and I understand parents wishing to preserve their children’s innocence as long as possible, if you think teenagers don’t know about rape, drug abuse, or self-harm, you are seriously deluding yourself.  The fact of the matter is teens are referred to as young adults for a reason. You can’t protect them forever, and while I would never suggest forcing any type of literature on your children I also think there comes a time when you should let them choose for themselves. And if a teen happens to choose one of these “dark” books he or she shouldn’t be judged for it, especially when the book in question may be providing a much-needed lifeline.  YA saves, whether the Gurdons and Freemans of the world like it or not.

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of YA

  1. Excellent Post. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Should we ban “The Velveteen Rabbit” because young children might believe that their stuffed animal could turn into a real one? I also take offense at their suggestion that these books glamourize extreme behaviours. There is not one book I can think of that suggests cutting/starving/killing as a thing to do for entertainment. The teens who do these things are in distress, and that’s what these books reflect.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rachel! Sometimes I wonder if these writers actually read any of these books before condemning them based on their subject matter.

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