"The books that the world call immoral are the books that show the world its own shame."
- Oscar Wilde
There’s been much hullabaloo over the Wall Street Journal article "Darkness Too Visible" by Meghan Cox Gurdon about YA being too dark.
Eloquent authors have addressed this subject passionately:
Sherman Alexie’s article, "Why the Best Books are Written in Blood"
My son read Alexie’s YA book The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian in 5th-grade when he was 11 years old. I knew it had brutal content: poverty, sexual and physical abuse. But I also knew that it had moved a few of his classmates, who recommended it to him. He said, “it was sad, but it had funny parts too”; he in turn recommended it to his friends. And he told me his then 7-year-old younger sister wasn’t ready to read it yet.
I trusted my son’s judgment, just like I trusted his 5th-grade teacher for providing the book. While my son read the story, he shared it with me, and we had several mature discussions.
I agree with Alexie:
“Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
On Friday, I told a class of 7th-graders (ages 12 and 13) about the World Street Journal article, especially the part about the woman who supposedly couldn’t even find a wholesome YA cover, so she walked out of the bookstore without purchasing anything. (Hadn’t she ever heard the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?)
They were affronted. They don’t like to be talked down to. They don’t like being told what to read and what not to read. They don’t like adults thinking there are subjects they don’t know about. And they don’t like information that could warn them or help them get through something difficult being withheld for their own good.
They made excellent points.
I think Alexie has a good response for them:
“And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”
Last fall, these 7th-graders read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in their ELA class. They were incredulous that it’s been banned. They laughed at the ludicrousness that Harry Potter has been banned. They admitted that nobody bothers monitoring their access to the Internet, movies, or TV that has inappropriate content. They acknowledged that they see horrid things on the news, where it’s not explained. They told me books help them understand their world, so why would anyone want to take them away? They wanted to know why anyone would want to stop them from reading?
They asked excellent questions.
Care to answer Meghan Cox Gurdon?
“…they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.”
My son may be lucky enough to not ever have to face the darker reality YA uncovers, but neither should he be ignorant about it. I’ve always provided my children with books to help them prepare for difficulties, whether it be visiting the dentist or enduring the first day of kindergarten. As they get older, the preparation may be less wholesome but no less vital. Sometimes we need darkness to see the light.
"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." - Oscar Wilde