I think many of you who follow this blog have already heard plenty about the article recently posted in the Wall Street Journal called Darkness too Visible in which the author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, talks about how themes in today’s YA literature is too dark and depraved for young readers.
Yesterday, the ever outspoken Maureen Johnson, who as an author of 10 YA novels is quite knowledgeable and involved in the genre, and Ms. Gurdon discussed the topic on WHYY radio (click here to listen to the show or here for a quick overview of some of things that were discussed).
I decided I want to share my own experiences from being an avid reader as a child to my opinion on the topic now as an adult, as aspiring YA author, a child caretaker, an aunt and an educator.
As cliche as it may sound, I devoured books as a kid. Yes I read all the “happy” girlie series like the Sweet Valley stuff, Babysitters Club, etc. but by the 6th grade, I moved into adult literature because I was bored by the small collection of children’s books (YA didn’t exist then to the extent it does today). I read Gone with the Wind and a whooooole lot of Stephen King books. Did I ever have nightmares? No. Did I have aspirations to kidnap and hold my favorite author/musician/actor captive and have them make their art for me? No. Did the gore and killing bother me? Not in the least. Why? Because my folks did a good job teaching me the difference between fact and fiction.
I didn’t have the perfect childhood/adolescence either. Books served as an escape, not a manual on how to live my life. I wish there had been more books aimed at teens back then because maybe I could have found a character to sympathize with to help me get through my issues, but there weren’t, so I used them strictly as a get away from my reality.
As an aspiring YA author, I spend the majority of my time reading other YA novels. You can see from my lists of what books I read in a month just how much I still read and that 90% of the titles are in the YA genre. Have I found anything I think is “inappropriate” for teens? No. I will say I’ve come across several I wouldn’t recommend for younger teens, but even those, it depends on the maturity of individual. If parents are concerned about what their kids are reading, then they ought to read the books first. If you think your child is too impressionable, then find them Middle Grade books to read until they mature, or sit and have discussions with them about how the books they’re reading are fiction and that some of the scenarios can happen in real life (if they’re reading contemporary novels) and explain to them how they could handle it if it happens in their own life. The topics some of these books touch on, bullying, date rape, depression, etc. they’re topics parents should be talking to their kids about in the first place.
Here’s the other thing, if YA wasn’t around, these kids would be like me and gravitate towards adult works. Why that isn’t an awful thing (and many of the avid readers will anyhow) what about those who can’t relate to adult characters? What about those who are into movies and video games and need to start reading more? Anne of Green Gables is probably not going to cut it for them and get them interested. They need those stories with a lot of action, some horror, some cussing (let’s face it, they all know the words already anyhow) and the darker aspects to catch their attention. Again, I think if parents are discussing important topics with their kids, they won’t end up mimicking the characters.
I also think it’s important to stress to young readers that fictional books are for entertainment purposes, just like movies and video games. They are not for them to base their lives and actions on. The authors create and control the world and the outcome of the characters. Just because a character in a book is being chased by a bully and gets away by breaking into a condemned building doesn’t mean that’s how the reader should handle that kind of situation. Just because a character seeks revenge by feeding their enemies prune laced brownies and gets away with it, doesn’t mean the reader can do the same and escape persecution from the powers that be.
All in all I think it comes down to parents being involved in their children’s lives and knowing what they’re reading, watching, listening to. It’s about having discussions with them about the “dark” topics. I think it’s about teaching children the difference between fact and fiction. Do I think YA today has some dark themes? Yes. Do I think that means kids shouldn’t read them? No. Besides, if your kids are anything like I was, the books you tell them not to read are going to be the ones they gravitate towards the most and they will read them without you knowing. I did and I turned out just fine.