Monday, June 6, 2011

Limited Visibility: My Response to THAT WSJ Article

Whew! I woke up yesterday morning to an Internet storm in the young adult lit blogosphere. If you frequent young adult lit blogs or follow YA authors on Twitter or are on a young adult services listserv, you will have likely read the now infamous article in the Wall Street Journal, "Darkness Too Visible" written by Meghan Cox Gurdan.  If not, check it out here.  

First, I'll say that there are so many extremely articulate and wonderfully thoughtful responses to this article by bloggers, librarians, and authors--I'm including a list of links to several of them at the bottom of this post.  Please check them out because they are far more experienced and eloquent than I am.  

Now, this WSJ article got me riled up for a large number of reasons.  There's such a great deal about it that frustrates me that I'm almost unsure where to begin.  I think that my objections can be tied into one overarching problem with this article: it's extremely limited viewpoint.  The article's content demonstrates a very narrow understanding of young adult literature, of young adults, and of librarians, authors, editors, and others in the industry.  

Firstly, the article begins by describing the experience of one mother who was very unsatisfied and unhappy with the selection of books in her local Barnes and Noble's teen section; she felt that there was nothing appropriate for her 13 year old daughter, saying: "It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."  The author goes on to agree with this statement, stating that "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18."  I have to say that such statements are indeed very "broadly speaking."  This generalization about the range of materials out there for young adults is especially frustrating because it is patently untrue.  I frequently find myself explaining to people that YA literature is not just one thing; it is not all vampire love stories or angsty prom tales or 'problem novels.'  Just like adult literature, young adult literature is extremely diverse.  Books dealing with some darker issues or situations are one type of fiction out there aimed at teens; they are far from the only kind of young adult literature being published and read right now.  What about the fabulously fun or romantic or hilarious or whimsical young adult novels out there? Additionally, not all teen fiction is aimed at the same age group; most YA literature is not created for the entire 12-18 demographic.  As other bloggers have noted already, if this mother had walked into a library and asked a teen or children's librarian for some advice, she likely would not have left empty-handed.  

The main thrust of the article is that the fiction being published for teenagers is too dark, covering topics previously considered taboo such as sexual and physical abuse, self-mutilation, depression, suicide, sexual assault, etc.  Other bloggers have articulated nicely that young adult literature has essentially contained 'problem novels' or issue-driven stories dealing with difficult topics since the genre has existed.  I would rather simply point out why I, as a librarian and youth advocate, feel that books addressing these topics are important.  I was a lucky kid--I lived a safe and comparatively happy life as a child and an adolescent.  But I knew that the scary stuff was out there; I either knew of or was friends with young people who dealt with some or several of these situations.  For a lot of teens, total innocence or ignorance of the dark side of life is simply not a reality.  Now that I am older, I am even more aware of the fact that for many young adults, abuse, self-injury, or sexual assault are things of reality rather than fiction.  Do I think that this means that every young adult should read about these topics? Of course not--each kid is unique and has distinct reading preferences and needs.  But I do think that the attempt to give a voice to the voiceless should not be dismissed as easily as Ms. Gurdon seems to feel it can be.  When we say that these topics cannot be written about--that they are dirty and depraved and so should be hidden in the dark--what message are we sending to the young survivors of abuse, assault, or depression?  We are telling them that their stories do not matter; we are saying that these realities should not be discussed.  As someone who has made it her job to care about young adults, I believe that such action is simply not okay.  

In her conclusion, Ms. Gurdon states that "book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children"; I would like to add to that that librarians (and along with other members of the young adult literature community) exist to defend each child's individual right to read and to provide a diverse literature in support of each child's discovery and understanding of the world around her and her place in it.  This difference in objectives ties into my last quibble with this article: there is a distinction between banning and guidance.  When we discuss censorship or book banning, we mean the demand that an item be removed from access by the public or by a large group of people (such as students at a particular school) based on the objections of an individual or a group.  Meanwhile guidance is on individual, personalized basis.  Parents should talk with their children about what they're reading; please do! However, individuals do not have the right to extend such guidance to other children or young adults.  

To end on an inspiring note, please check out the myriad of responses on Twitter using the hashtag #YAsaves; hundreds of teens and adults have shared their personal examples of how powerful stories written for teens can be.    

Here are a few of the great responses to this article so far- check them out! 

Liz B. @ A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy,  "There's Dark Things in Them There Books!"  

Stephanie Lawton, "YA Under Attack: Heaven Forbid We Address Reality" 

Libba Bray's recent Twitter feed compiled by WSJ 

Linda Holmes @ NPR's Monkey See, "Seeing Teenagers As We Wish They Were: The Debate Over YA Fiction"

Elizabeth Bird @ A Fuse 8 Production, "Fusenews: Hand Me My Smelling Salts! I Think I Have the Vapors!"

Laurie Halse Anderson, "Stuck Between Rage and Compassion" 

bookshelves of doom has a response and a round up of other responses 

 Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon Magazine, "Has Young Adult Fiction Become Too Dark?"

Malinda Lo, "The Moral of the Story" 

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