In Praise of the “Dark”

As a member of the literary and education worlds, it was hard to ignore this article in the Wall Street Journal today.  In “Darkness Too Visible,” author Meghan Cox Gurdon argues that Young Adult Literature (which I’ve already professed my love for) is too dark, too violent, too gritty.  It puts bad ideas in children’s heads, showing them “hideously distorted portrayals of what life is like.”  Young Adult novels, Gurdon proclaims, are bad for our youth.

OK.  It took me about 12 hours to really process this.  To get over my initial anger and respond like a rational sane person.  I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.  Here are my thoughts.

  • Gurdon argues that Young Adult Literature has become “dark” in the past 40 or so years.  That books like Go Ask Alice really began the Young Adult genre and exposed our children to the horrors of things like rape.  One of the books she suggests young women pick up instead of modern Young Adult Lit is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  (Don’t even get me started on how the recommendations are broken down by gender not something more appropriate like, oh, I don’t know, AGE).  Now, I LOVE A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  It’s a book that touched me profoundly when I read it as a sophomore in high school.  But light and fluffy it ain’t.  Alcoholism?  Check.  Poverty?  Check.  Death of a parent?  Check.  Weird aunt who can’t have a baby and insists on calling all of her many husbands (lovers?) by the same name?  Check.  So it’s not exactly Disney here.  And A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t the only classic “young adult” text with such darkness.  One of the commenters suggested Oliver Twist.  The protagonist is a criminal.  There’s murder and mayhem abound.  Lord of the Flies?  You’re right–totally more appropriate than Speak.  The “darkness” of classics, whether intended for Young Adults or not, should not be ignored.  Is it the newness of the “darkness” that’s a problem?  That these books are dealing with today’s issues?
  • Gurdon ignores one of what I think is the primary functions of literature and particularly reading as a young adult: realizing you’re not alone.  That other people in other places and other times may have felt something that you’ve felt.  Does that mean that everyone who picks up Twisted by the incomparable Laurie Halse Anderson is going to be someone who has suicidal thoughts?  Of course not.  But for the kid who’s felt like an outsider, reading a novel with a protagonist who’s gone through something you’ve gone through is important.  To realize that, in a world like high school that is preaching conformity, there is something real, important and authentic about your experiences.  For many students, finding a book with a protagonist (or even minor character) that has shared a similar experience is what helps them develop into life long readers.  Reading Harriet the Spy made me realize other nerdy girls liked to read and take notes on weird things.  Young Adult literature serves the same purpose for today’s teens.
  • Even if students aren’t experiencing those things first hand, maybe they know someone who is.  Or they will meet someone who is.  And wouldn’t it be nice for them to have some experience with it?  Rather than dealing with those issues without any background, wouldn’t it be nice if teens could gain insight into those issues that plague others in their generation? Maybe it would provide them with empathy.  Gurdon argues that reading about “darkness” normalizes it, makes teens think it happens regularly and that it’s OK that it happens.  Isn’t that the message we’re trying to send?  That if something terrible has happened to you, it’s OK?  That it’s not your fault.  And, on the whole, that’s NOT what YA lit does.  Rather than normalize, Young Adult Literature makes these events accessible, allowing those who have and who have not experienced them understand them.
  • On the whole, Gurdon’s argument reeks of censorship.  “I don’t want my child to read that book, so it shouldn’t be available.”  She completely ignores parental and educator responsibility in her argument.  There are thousands upon thousands of books published yearly.  Is every book good for every kid?  Of course it’s not.  If you don’t think your child is mature enough to read a book that involves a protagonist who is a cutter (the primary example repeatedly uses in the article), don’t let them read the book.  Would I as a teacher assign the book to the whole class?  Probably not.  Would I offer it in my Independent Reading library with an “adult content” warning?  Absolutely.  Just because these books are being published doesn’t mean all children everywhere have to read them.
  • And then of course, there is the educator in me who wants to scream to Gurdon: Most young adults aren’t reading enough anyway!  There is the occasional book worm but most teenagers just don’t identify themselves as readers.  So if we can find a book to interest them, isn’t it worth trying?  If we can move a student from The Hunger Games to Brave New World, isn’t that the goal?  If a Young Adult book makes a teenager realize that books can be “fun,” shouldn’t we let them read it?  Shouldn’t we encourage other students to read it?  The mother in the opening anecdote leaves Barnes and Noble despondent because all she found was “dark” Young Adult Literature.  Instead of abandoning the bookstore, the parent would have been better served by asking a book seller or librarian about title recommendations.  Or, shockingly enough, browsing some of the books.  Skimming the blurbs on the back cover.  Familiarizing herself with the books she wanted to give her child before she gave them to her child.
  • Finally, teenagers, Ms. Gurdon, are not children.  Do they often fool us and act like children?  Oh certainly.  But the issues are far more complex than we usually realize.  I am not even a full 10 years older than my students, and already our “growing up” experiences are vastly different.  Today’s students face issues that many adults never had to face and may never have to face in the entirety of their lives.  There is a difference between Children’s Literature and Young Adult Literature.  If Gurdon had argued that Young Adult Literature should be geared toward older adolescents (15 and up, say), I wouldn’t have taken such umbrage.  If she had argued that more books need to be written for younger teens, I would have agreed!  But she didn’t.  I suspect that Gurdon has very little interaction with actual teenagers and even less interaction with most Young Adult Literature.  Her moralizing seemed out of touch with actual teens and their needs.

As I wrap up the school year, I’m beginning to outline an Independent Reading program for next year’s students.  My goal is to use some of the very novels Gurdon rails against to help motivate students to read more, in the way other amazing educators have done.  Young Adult Literature is so powerful for both adults and teens.  There’s been amazing Twitter backlash to the article (check out the hashtag #YASaves) praising the healing, redemptive power of YA Lit.  At its best, reading brings us an understanding of a world, whether it be ours or another.  The best YA Lit does that.  Is there terrible YA Lit?  Of course.  Don’t even get me started on Twilight.  But there is also amazing YA Literature out there, and to dismiss it all like this simply does not tell the whole story of what’s available for teens today.  (Story, get it?)

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3 Comments

Filed under Books, Newspapers, School

3 responses to “In Praise of the “Dark”

  1. Excellent piece. I’ve posted it on Facebook. I’m going to link to it from my blog, too.

  2. Yes, wonderful, thoughtful response! It’s so great to hear directly from educators too.

    (Btw, as someone who has read both Hunger Games and Brave New World, I’m not sure the latter is any less dark than the former… Which is fine. Just proves your point against Gurdon even more.)

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