Monday, June 13, 2011

Needing Dark to See the Light

"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:

Beth Revis

Laurie Halse Anderson

And especially

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?

Alexie can:

“…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


  1. DIARY is on of one of my favorite books. It's such a perfect novel in its unperfectness.

    Great post on the WSJ fallout, Theresa.

  2. Why do people think children and teenagers should only read books about unicorns and rainbows? It's a tough world out there, and to help children better understand it (and avoid the bad) they must be taught the difference between right and wrong. Its unfortunate that parents are sheltering their children from wonderful books containing pertinent information about life's horrors when education is the key to avoidance.
    Excellent post!

  3. This is one of the best posts I've read on the WSJ article. THere is no way someone could walk into a bookstore and NOT find something suitable to read. How cool that you shared this with your students!

  4. Though I think there will always be parents keeping books from their children, the good that came from the WSJ article seems to be the conversations and dialogues that it's inspired. Talk is good, opening minds and thoughts to all sorts of opinions and viewpoints.

  5. Great post Theresa. Sounds like you had a great discussion with your class. We talk a lot about kids without talking to them. Interesting to hear one seventh grade class's take.

  6. I loved reading the kids' perspectives! Sometimes I wonder if as adults we jump to defend dark literature without pausing to reflect on what the kids who are reading them feel about it all. I'm a fan of books that deal with tough subjects; even as a young reader those were the books I was most drawn to, so I will always defend those, but I love hearing that kids find value in them too.

  7. Well said. I've read countless posts on this article. I'm sure she got the exposure she was searching for.

  8. Hear! Hear! Like I said in my comments about this matter:

    Dear Adults - trust your Children - they are not silly! Take care

  9. @ Jonathan, from what my son told me, I know a bit about the book, but I haven't read it yet. Thanks!

    @ Emily, I'm not a big fan of sheltering when it comes to books. I know how much time and care a writer and editor takes on these books. If individual parents want to censor certain books that's their choice, but I don't want them deciding for the rest of us.

    @ Alleged Author, thank you. Many of the covers in fantasy tend to be darker, but when I look around a bookstore, there are so many covers just like there are so many types of books. Beginning an article like that let you know how biased the rest would be.

    @ Joanne, the dialogue is good. And parents might want to take a closer look at what their kids are reading. They also should take a closer look at what their kids are watching and listening to. Books should be the least of their worries.

    @ Kristine, my class was so passionate about the books they loved that were targeted, I wish I could've quoted them. But I was a teacher first, blogger second. So I jotted notes after the discussion as soon as I could.

    @ Valerie, I think the most controversial books made me think the most about my choices when I was a teenager. I know Forever by Judy Blume had the opposite effect for me than what banners feared at the time.

    @ Miranda, she sure did receive exposure! I hadn't planned to write a post 1) because I couldn't do it better than Alexie, and 2) because I didn't want to promote her. But when I heard from the students, I wanted their voices to travel beyond the classroom.

    @ Old Kitty, short and sweet. Trust the children.

  10. I saw this book in Barnes & Noble yesterday and really wanted it. On another note, I think that the WSJ article actually just made YA novels that much stronger and the YA community band together. I also now want to read every novel she criticized.

  11. Is it "World Street Journal" or "Wall Street Journal"? I could have sworn it was the latter unless you are poking fun at it by deliberately changing the first name around.

    In any event, the Wall Street Journal was purchased by Rupert Murdoch several years ago and has since become just another pundit for right wing values as identified by the likes of Mike Huckabee and others that see the world the way that he does. Think Fox News and you'd be closer to how they report news as opposed to say...NPR. I'm thinking of Jon Stewart and how he challenged Bill O'Reilly in saying, "Fox News is nothing but a selective outrage machine." This attack on YA is just that...a selective outrage machine.

  12. Thanks for the links to Beth and Laurie's comments - I hadn't seen them. I posted a link to another article on my blog which I thought a very articulate rebuttal.

    I am surprised by how many people don't see the incredible breadth of YA literature. Yes, there are the darker novels. They certainly have their place and are invaluable. But for those who don't want to read darker titles, they are NOT the only YA lit out there. There are plenty of others!

  13. I've been reading a lot of posts about the WSJ article--but I think you put it the most clearly.

  14. Theresa, what a great post, allowing the kids to voice their thoughts creates a balanced argument.

    Books, I agree are the least of our worries when it comes to influences on our kids.

  15. Love what you said here and the quotes too. Alexie has always been one of my favorites.

  16. The response from the YA community to the WSJ thing has been huge and amazing.

    Seriously, the more that people try to tell us that young adult literature is wrong or bad, the more we rise up to contradict them. They never seem to learn. :)

  17. Books are an amazing tool for kids. The learn so much from them. For me, as a teen, books were an escape to a better place...even if the book was not about rainbows and fields of flowers. They gave me strength. They gave me insight. They let me see what life could potentially be like. They gave me a direction. They taught me how to cope...

  18. I love that last quote. That is so perfect! Tabitha Olson had a really good post on this subject too today!

  19. I think writing YA must be one of the most difficult tasks in our business. Romantic entanglements and crime fiction is SO much easier. Kudos to all the YA novelists out there. Keep up the good work.

  20. Duh. That should be ARE so much easier. It's been a busy Monday :)

  21. As a teacher, I have occasionally encountered parents who want to limit the literature their children encounter. One mother wanted to take me in front of the school board for giving her daughter a book by Sharon Creech. I sometimes wonder what kind of relationship she has with her daughter now, 12 years later ...

  22. Lots to think about, that's for sure! Thanks for the links!

  23. Wonderful post and I also think one of the best on this hotly debated topic. Let the kids decide - we are nuts if we think we CAN even attempt to censor them - they won't have it and it would be impossible. Besides - they are smart cookies and can figure it out. My mother snuck me D.H. Lawrence books that my father (in a very weird for him move) forbade them! ha.

  24. It seems like some people think if we don't let kids read a book about something, then that thing isn't going to happen. Like we can protect them from life by not letting them read about it. I'm very grateful for the YA authors who tackle the hard issues.

  25. I went with my daughters and their teachers choices but I was always there for discussion. We have a lot of memories about books that are no longer considered appropriate for youth.

  26. @ Magan, I almost put up another Oscar Wilde quote about making something more popular by saying it's immoral. Something like that. I think we answer people who write articles like that by supporting those authors.

    @ Michael, no, I just lost my mind. Thanks for picking that up. World, what was I thinking?

    I love your phrase at the end, it is a selective outrage machine.

    Even if there are parents who think YA has gotten too dark, then those parents can monitor what their children read. I know what my children are reading. But I don't want other people taking away my child's right to read books I approve of.

    @ Susanna, I'll have to check out your link.

    It's funny because I don't read a lot of the dark YA. But I don't have a problem with it being there. And I never have problems finding the lighter YA books either.

    @ The Golden Eagle, thank you. I have to thank children for helping me articulate what was wrong with the assertions in the article.

    @ Brigid, I had no intention on writing on this subject until I discussed it with the students. They were so passionate and articulate, I wish I had direct quotes.

    @ Bossy Betty, thanks. I have even more respect for Alexie after reading his article.

    @ Meagan, you're right. The article shows that we pay attention and use our voices and connections to voice our opinions.

  27. I shout my emphatic "YES!" from the rooftops, Theresa. This is how my high school students respond, too. If there is one thing teens in today's world HATE, it is having their decisions made for them without their input--and that includes reading material. :-)

  28. I agree with you, Theresa. When I pick a book now that I'm an adult, I always wonder "Why didn't I find this when I was younger?" I've read a lot of books that I often wished I had read when I was a child. You are so right. Books are messages that children need to prepare them to face the darkness, to face reality and truth about the world they live in. What a wonderful post!

    I will check Sherman Alexie's book out :) Thanks for sharing.

  29. I agree with all the points your kids made. My daughter and her friends do not like being talked down to, which is what this article says we should do. Hopefully they won't experience all this dark stuff but they need to be aware of it. And they don't want to read books without it.

  30. So true! I loved that you talked to your students about this. They're the ones being affected by book censorship--it's only fair that they get their opinions heard.

  31. Interesting discussion, Theresa, specially since you personally get the viewpoints of that age group
    That Oscar Wilde quote pretty much says it all. :)

  32. @ Sharon, you're so right. Books have helped me through so many hard times. We can never know which book is going to have significance for someone.

    @ Laura, thanks for letting me know. I looked up her blog.

    @ Carol, you're right. I consider so much when I write YA, and I haven't tackled the most difficult subject matter.

    @ Dianne, it must have been so stressful when the mom tried to bring you before the school board. I'd wonder what the relationship between the mom and daughter would be too.

    @ Karen, you're welcome. I don't think the content in YA is for everyone. But I do think each parent can make the choice with their children.

    @ Jan, the best way to make a book popular is to ban it. How interesting your dad banned something, and your mom let you read it.

    @ Susan, you put it so well. I can't say it any better. I'm grateful for authors who tackle the difficult issues too.

    @ GigglesandGuns, I always know what my kids are reading and discuss it with them too. I'm curious what books they read that are no longer appropriate.

    @ Shannon, yes, how different would the WSJ article have been if she had talked to teens too.

    @ Len, I agree. YA was tiny when I was young. Now that there's so much to choose from, they can reach more people who need them.

  33. I have heard a lot about this article and there has been a great debate. I'm not sure what my feelings are exactly but I know that I'm only responsible for what my son reads until he's an adult but I should help him learn to make good choices.

  34. I've avoided blogging about the article because I do think there are a ton of negative, dark voices out there that I never would have read as a teen and don't read now. But I'm a small voice in many - a "dark" book could also be one I love (for example, Speak). A book that uses swear words every other line so people get the point that teens swear? Not for me.

    My son is 10 and reads way above grade level. Yes, I want to know what he's reading and why. I LOVED Sherman Alexie's book, but my son isn't interested in it (he reads mostly fantasy). boo. AND THE FACT THAT IT'S ON THE BANNED BOOK LIST IS LUDICROUS!! (sorry for shouting).

    Also, (you know, since I'm not blogging about it, hehe) - there are tons of fantastic covers out there. And fantastic books. You have to actually take the time to look for ones that fit your needs.

  35. Sherman Alexie is one of those excellent authors who can get away with writing "questionable" material because his writing is so good. It's also because his material isn't just about the fact that it includes stuff that makes some people uncomfortable. It's also because he's trying to enlighten and inspire people by making them think about things that can't just be glossed over, and more often than not he succeeds.
    I totally agree with you that kids don't like being told what to do. Kids and teenagers are often more likely to read banned books just because they are banned, and they often end up learning a lot more than if they hadn't read those books.

  36. Excellent points! I don't know that I could add any more to the discussion except to say well said.

  37. Sherman Alexie is one of my fave authors and DIARY, one of my fave books.

    I think the bright spot in all of this is that people are discussing YA. People don't have to agree on everything but at least people are discussing. I tend to ignore the posts/comments where people simply attack the other side. I thought Alexie's response was very measured and well stated.

  38. I have Alexie's book in my to-be-read pile.

    I loved that you talked to young people about this issue. I know how they hate being talked down to, and that it's important that they have a choice on what to read.

  39. Spot ON, girlfriend! Excellent post-- I loved hearing the student's reaction (Affronted, huh? Awesome)!

  40. Those kids are fantastic! Thanks for posting their reactions. It's priceless. :)

    I loved Alexie's response to Gurdon's article. He highlights everything that Gurdon simply doesn't understand. I do hope she attempts to learn...but I'm not holding my breath. :)

  41. Your response is very thoughtful and interesting, Theresa. I'm old fashioned, I guess, and feel children should remain as innocent as possible as long as possible. It is almost an impossible task these days as media exposes them very early to the vices of the world. Unless we shelter them from TV, music, radio, computers, etc they must face adult issues very early in life. I would hope that there would still be some YA literature that allows them the joy of reading as an escape from all of that instead of compounding it.

  42. @ Natalie, I just heard today that in Texas, a cheerleader is being sued for 30k because she won't cheer her accused rapist who's on the team. He pleaded in the case to a lesser offense. It made me think of books like Speak.

    @ Meredith, they are the ones who are being affected. The WSJ author not getting their feedback for the article speaks volumes.

    @ Jennifer, I like that Alexie mentioned teens too. The books are for them so we should talk to them about the issue. I talked to my children about it as well.

    @ Clarissa, I think that's a good way to look at it. I also monitor what my kids read, what they watch, and what they do on-line without being too intrusive. But I don't want anyone else telling them what's good for them. That's my job.

    @ Erica, there are teen books out there I don't love, but they may have their place too. I don't like books peppered with too many swear words. Maybe one teen who hates to read will like a book that curses because it sounds like the reader. Some of the dark subject-matter is too much for me to stomach (I don't even like zombie books). But the subjects in the books brought up in the article, I have no problem having my son read.

    @ Neurotic Workaholic, I'm sure banned books sell way more copies than they would otherwise. Night by Elie Wiesel is required reading in many high schools. Life can be darker than we thought possible when we were kids. We shouldn't hide it from people just years away from adulthood.

    @ Carolina, thank you.

    @ Liz, I agree with you. Alexie had a good measured response. And I like the open debate too. It shouldn't be ugly.

    @ Medeia, I've noticed that students respond well to any adult who treats them like people with valid thoughts and opinions. I wish some people advocating on their behalf asked them first.

    @ Christina, they impressed me with their opinions and vocabulary. You should've heard them when we discussed the Japanese earthquake or debated microloans. They've blown me away a few times.

    @ Pat, I wish kids could remain innocent longer too. Why is Limited Too selling thongs to young kids? Why are parents letting kindergartners listen to lyrics about sex? Why are people playing truth or dare on Formspring when they're in elementary school? Reading is the least of it.

    And there are plenty of wonderful books out there that aren't about sex, incest, cutting, rape, and suicide. The difference between music and media vs. books is that one glorifies some of the nastier stuff while the other helps teens deal with these realities.

  43. Hello! great post. Well thought out.

  44. The message is the most important part and sometimes getting there can be a bit rocky. If parents are concerned maybe it's a good idea for them to read what their kids are reading so they can discuss it together.

    Tossing It Out

  45. Great points. I think there is a place for that side of YA fiction. Anything gratuitous for shock sake alone cheapens it and desensitizes our youth. I do think it's important for parents to know what their kids are reading so they can at least discuss possible issues that the books might raise.

  46. Very well said, Theresa. Society is far from being all rainbows and chocolate, unfortunately. I don't understand how people have no problem letting kids actively engage in hacking people to death in video games, yet don't want them to read risque books.

  47. This is a touchy subject better left to the parent to decide what is right or not right for their children to read. I have my opinion, and I respect the opinions of others on this matter.

  48. I think a lot of adults like to feel that trauma is their domain. It's too easy to forget that young people experience just as much 'stuff' as adults - some of them more. It's wrong headed to patronise them with tales of how they wouldn't understand. Most of us were as intelligent as teenagers as we are now, and some more so.

  49. Really good post! I love that you debate things like this with the kids themselves. I believe many adults forget to include youngsters in their discussions.

    These kids are at the sharp end - they understand depth far more than are given credit for.

  50. Sorry I'm late but WOW what a good post. Not being a parent, I have always thought for a child to make a judgment they can stand behind they must first have ALL the facts. Not just the ones we think they need.

    Again great post Theresa!
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  51. I think this is one of the best worded, and well-said responses to that article.

    Also - that book is WAY high on my TBR pile.

  52. Glad I stopped by today. I love your response to the article and citing your students responses eloquently illustrates the point. Well done! =)

  53. @ Michelle, thank you.

    @ Arlee, I agree. Parents should be reading what their kids are reading or have some idea of the content. I told my kids I didn't want them reading Twilight because Bella isn't a good female model and the child-werewolf attraction at the end was inappropriate to me.

    @ Lynda, yes, there's so much sensationalism bombarding kids and teens. We should be reading and discussing with our children.

    @ Talli, that's why I'm a good parent - I allow both hacking and reading.

    @ Stephen, yes, parents should decide what's appropriate for their children to read, watch, and listen to.

    @ Tony, when I think what I'd been exposed to when I was a child: mental illness and alcoholism, I would've loved books on those subjects then. Right now, I'm read A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler. Where was this book when I was a teen?

    @ Margo, my children and students continuously surprise me with their knowledge. They also have a lot of innocence. It's a balance to give them knowledge and not remove their innocence. I think YA authors try to strike that balance. And for the books that are extreme, the back cover is usually pretty clear what the book is about. If the teens know they don't want to tackle that subject, they won't open the book.

    @ Jules, exactly! Couldn't have said it better myself. We never know what is the piece of vital info, do we?

    @ Jolene, thank you. This book is on my TBR pile too.

    @ Shannon, thank you. I appreciate it.

  54. Yes!

    I love Alexie's response - powerful enough to give me chills.

    Kids and teens are so much more capable and intelligent as readers than so many people realize. They are much more worldly than was at there age - much more exposed to the darker sides of life. And for those poor kids who suffer in their personal hells, books can often provide them with hope - and that hope can translate into reality.

  55. The article was really disturbing to me. I was so glad so many people came forward to express, better than I could, the other side of the argument.

  56. Hi Theresa .. this is so interesting - not having kids .. we just don't know - but if we let them choose, they usually choose wisely .. if they're not interested - then the kids simply aren't interested and won't read, or look or buy ..

    Excellent post stirring some good content - Hilary

  57. @ Jemi, while I think kids are exposed to more, I think they're luck there are so many books to help them cope. My family was great at pretending things weren't problems, and not looking for solutions. I would've loved to have had access to some of the titles I come across now.

    I love the way you call books hope and how the hope can translate into reality.

    @ Lydia, I'm glad so many came forward to argue against the WSJ article too. And I'm sure your contribution would've been worthy!

    @ Hilary, I agree. Children know what they're able to and need to read. They aren't going to bother investing hours in a book that isn't going to resonate with them.

  58. Great post Theresa. I don't think kids should be "protected" - reading about all sorts of experiences helps broaden your ideas so much. And if you read a book that helps you understand an experience or come to terms with it, so much the better no?

  59. @ Deniz, thank you. Yes, books are a great way to understand and come to terms with an experience.

  60. Great response to the article. I love that you brought up the article to your students.

    What struck me in the original article is how flustered the mom in the example was from just looking at the books and reading back cover descriptions. I wish it had been noted what her criteria was for "dark." And just because a book is about abuse, more times than not it's about how the character deals with abuse, not just abuse for no reason. I get if parents aren't into vampires or witches, that's fine, but the article hashed on issue-driven books, too, and I can't believe teh article author was baffled by reactions of censorship.

    I wish more people who jump on the book banning train would get how books can teach us. With Mtv's "Jersey Shore," all visual with no teaching. We see drunkeness, illiteracy, violence and it's supposed to be *funny*. Not to say the same parents who have issues with "dark" books are OK with Jersey Shore, but half of cable TV is flooded with reality shows about people with no values. Why cry outrage over books that show consequences and depth of emotion?

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