An uproar in YA-land

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article criticizing (if that’s a strong enough word) the darkness in YA literature. Publishers, the author says, “use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.” As someone who has always enjoyed young adult literature, you can imagine this struck a nerve.

I’ve blogged before about genres that don’t seem to get enough respect, and so I’ve spent the last few hours trying to find a way to put a new spin on this issue (because, really, this is just another iteration). But then I came across this response, which didn’t fit with my thoughts at all but still felt oh so right. I still believe issues such as this (and, as another example, the V.S. Naipaul crap) need to be talked about. Tonight, however, I’ll let others do the talking for me. In the meantime, I think I’ll go read a dark and threatening book.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    This is absolutely nauseating. This is almost always the claim for censorship and the protecting of our precious, fragile youth, whether from lyrics or from fiction:

    “Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.”

    What’s so ridiculous about this is that, to some degree or another, most serious books focus on damage — or maybe on pathologies — except for unicorn and rainbow books, which are still plenty available.

    If my kids want to read Crime and Punishment, they can. Very disturbing, that Raskolnikov, what you might call pathological.

    They can also read Sanctuary — and learn about Popeye’s disease. Or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — and swim for awhile in the illness of an entire culture.

    Treating kids like idiots only makes them less prepared for life, and causes resentment, of course — because they’re not idiots.

    There’s so much to push back against regarding all this fear of the kiddies being ruined by books.

    • Kathryn says:

      Treating our youth like they are idiots is what I, too, see as more damaging. The idea that people under 18 can’t think for themselves, or can’t make decisions without first consulting pop culture trends, is demeaning. Besides, damage is–to use a cliche–where you see truth, what people are made of. Where some of the most interesting stories are.

      I see this at work, where I write for you young children. We try so hard not to hurt anyone that we wind up giving everyone watered down versions of literature. Then we wonder why the kids don’t progress. There’d isn’t some magic age at which we grow up, overnight becoming adults. So why treat kids like that? This idea becomes even more absurd when you look at the serious adult books we expect kids to read. Or maybe this journalist thinks those are bad, too?

      Plus, the idea that publishers have some ulterior agenda is insane. Beyond profit, that is.

    • Melissa says:

      One of the most telling assertions, I thought, was this one: “The writer Robert Cormier is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to teen narratives. His 1977 novel, “I Am the Cheese,” relates the delirium of a traumatized youth who witnessed his parents’ murder, and it does not (to say the least) have a happy ending.” The idea that no one under the age of twenty has ever confronted hopelessness is not only insulting to teens, it’s insanely elitist, as is the writer’s disgust at teen novels not having happy endings.

    • Brett says:

      The WSJ is just embarrassing on so many levels.

  • Geneva says:

    My favorite response to the WSJ piece was this (just a blurb, but the full thing, found here:, is great) – “I also took an entire class in high school were we read books about killing your family, double suicide, drowning, being murdered in your bed … it was called “Shakespeare,” I believe.”

  • Seth Marlin says:

    I could barely contain my contempt for this article and its author. I mean, really? If she’s that concerned, she should do her job as a parent or educator and discuss these things with her kids or students. Either that or bring it up with her local PTA or Friends of the Library panel. Simply clutching one’s pearls and calling for the salts accomplishes nothing (though it does seem to be the Journal’s stock-in-trade these days).

    Look, I grew up in the age of books like “The Giver,” “Go Ask Alice,” and “Maniac Magee,” books which addressed, among other issues, drug use, racism, and suicide. My teacher had us reading “Alive” in seventh grade, a book where human cannibalism was discussed. These books were thought-provoking and resonant even by today’s standards; I don’t recall any of them bringing “misery” into my young life. In fact, if memory serves, there was more than enough of that to go around in the first place. Books like these, while dark, allowed kids like me to dream of something better. At worst they told us we weren’t alone, and at best they reminded us that others might have it much worse off.

    Then again, the author doesn’t appear to be a teacher or reader of any discernment, so of course she wouldn’t think about any of this. Instead, she writes for the Journal, a publication that knows as much about education and literature as “Home and Garden” knows about Keynesian economics. Hope the readership gave her a proper dose.

    • Kathryn says:

      Exactly. These books show kids (and adults) that they aren’t alone, that there are ways out. That there are others going through the same thing, or that other types of problems exist. That the world is a big, varied place.

    • Marcus says:

      For about the last five years I’ve been trying to remember the title of that book, Maniac Magee. I couldn’t remember who wrote it, or what the characters’ names were, only that it was impactful on me when I was 8 or 9. And I remember the cover. And now I know what it’s called. Thanks.

      Also, I have little to add to the rest of the discussion, since everything I want to say has been said. Kids aren’t stupid unless you make them that way, which is what we’re trying to do as a culture. Yay for progress. Ugh.

  • Sarah Hulse says:

    Wow, talk about not giving young people much credit. It’s unfortunate that the author of the WSJ article seems to assume that identification with characters in YA literature will have some sort of “monkey-see-monkey-do” effect on readers, rather than considering that such identification might instead foster empathy and understanding among young people (and adults, for that matter) for those whose experiences and circumstances are different than one’s own.

    Also, why split the recommendations in the WSJ sidebar into “Books for Young Men” and “Books for Young Women”? For every young person who finds a book thanks to this kind of categorization, a dozen more are going to be discouraged from reading a book they might have enjoyed. Sure, some titles might be more likely to appeal to one group than to another, but young people (and, one can hope, parents) know their own (or their child’s) tastes. Let them read the back cover copy or the first few pages and decide for themselves. Labels like this don’t do anyone any good.

    • Kathryn says:

      I totally agree that those labels are limiting, and discouraging. That they segragate life into male and female experience, putting more or less value on certain writing based solely on your gender That said, I have to admit that I read more YA that is geared toward girls, or that features girls. And now I want to explore a wider variety.

    • Melissa says:

      I’m so glad you pointed this out, Sarah, my eyes are so trained to ignore sidebars as ads that I didn’t even notice there was real text there. That sort of thing drives me crazy- let’s reinforce archaic and usually demeaning gender stereotypes by encouraging parents to tell their boys to read boy books and their girls to read girl books. I’m generalizing here, but most of their suggestions for ‘young men’ are war novels or stories in which the young man discovers himself,while most of the suggestions for ‘young women’ are about how the girl finally meets the guy who makes her complete. Which isn’t to say that the books they’ve suggested don’t have merit, but good grief. It’s adding another layer of insult on top of the columnists’ insinuation: kids are too dumb to handle reality, and they’re so dumb that parents should not only decide what they can & can’t read, but also determine what they “should” be interested in according to the parents’ ideas of what boys like or girls like. Blech.

  • brian mandabach says:

    Barry Lyga’s response cracked me up and was so right on.

    I couldn’t even read the whole WSJ thing, either I’m to tired, or it’s too boring. Hating on YA is like the conspiracy theories my high school students talk about: why waste synaptic activity on this stuff when there are real problems.

  • MelinaCR says:

    And what about the thirteen year olds who are actually living this “dark, dark stuff”? Or should I say “coarse aesthetic”? What are they supposed to read?
    Anyway, isn’t this so American?

  • Tiffany says:

    “By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!””

    Since when is “guiding” what young people read the purview of the library or the public bookstore? I call it banning when the guiding is not being left to parents. I call it banning when only one ideal of “taste” is accepted. And if the woman couldn’t find an appropriate book for her child in B&N I would suggest she either should have asked for assistance, or more likely she should have been shopping at her local Christian bookstore. I’ll even allow that there are a lot of crap books in the YA section and while I wouldn’t have them taken off the shelves, neither would I buy them for my niece or nephew. Still there are soooo many good books too.

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