As I’m sure many people know by now, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by their book critic decrying the graphic portrayal of some very dark corners of the teen experience in some of the current crop of books in YA fiction. The author reminisced about the good old days- the days when there was no YA fiction, meaning teens’ choices for learning about the world were the same as adults’ (Lolita, anyone)?. then about the early days of YA fiction, where the authors just wrote about gang violence, murder, bullying, sex and sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, and religion (these are some of the issues that come up in The Outsiders, Forever, The Chocolate War, Deenie, Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret and Go Ask Alice, all books either mentioned by name or by authors mentioned by the writer of the article) It’s the current crop that’s worrisome to her, though, primarily because it makes explicitly visible the things some “gatekeepers” don’t wish to acknowledge about the interior lives (and exterior activities) of the lives of many teens today.
I think it’s contemporary books about contemporary teens for contemporary teens that really bother her, as she recommended several really excellent books with controversial or dark themes and adult content in a sidebar… but nearly every one of them took place in either the future or the past, and several of them wouldn’t be considered part of contemporary YA literature. Fahrenheit 451 is a great book for teens to read (I read it when a parent tried to have it banned from my middle school’s curriculum) but there’s no reason to turn away from YA books that have similar themes but take place today and involve teenage characters (I do wonder why it”s recommended just as a book for boys- really, it’s a book I hope everyone reads). Angelmonster is a fantastic book, but it’s hard to get darker than the early life of Mary Shelley.
There is a place of darkness in the mind of a teenager. It’s what compels us (as teens- I was one once) to investigate the horror, unfairness, and damage of the world around us. It’s why assassinations and serial killers fascinate some of us, and (I am not trying to trivialize this in any way) why I read everything I could about the Holocaust and immersed myself in research on the Warsaw Ghetto Massacre. It isn’t necessary for every teen to read Robert Cormier to understand that there is hopelessness and evil in the world. But I still will never forget The Chocolate War, because it makes that understanding so personal.
Now, it is incredibly uncomfortable to read some of these books. The emotional impact can be considerable, and really disturbing (I think even more so for some adults). But it also opens doors, ones that lead to understanding by teens with limited experience of the world (and if you think those doors won’t crash down on them once they get to college, you’d be very wrong) and to validation for teens who think they’re alone in the world. The idea that their situation is not unique (and pretty much every teen thinks their situation is unique) may never occur to them if they don’t encounter it in a book, which can lead to some much scarier consequences than a teen who reads the first chapter of The Hunger Games and decides it’s not their style. So many YA authors are flooded with letters from readers that say “You saved me”, or “I need advice” that Maggie Stiefvater (author of Shiver, among other books) wrote an article in Knowledge Quest (the journal of the American Association of School Librarians) discussing the responsibilities of the YA author to the teens who send these letters.
If these books were forced on teens, that would be terrible. We say on this site that if a book is not for you, you should put it down and find another. But when they didn’t exist, it wasn’t because some of these problems didn’t exist. It’s just that people were afraid- nobody wanted to acknowledge them. Annie On My Mind was the first book that exposed me to the difficulties faced by teens who discover that they’re gay; Night Kites was the first mention of AIDS I encountered that showed compassion. I needed those books at that time in my life. a time where an ad for a help line for gay teens was censored from my school’s newspaper because no student there could possibly be gay. That’s not gatekeeping- that’s denial. I can only be glad that there are books now that address these topics, and many others, openly.
Nobody’s making parents give these books to their kids. They aren’t the only books available to teens, by far. I wouldn’t call it censorship for a parent to direct their child’s reading. Censorship is government-enforced. For someone recommending Fahrenheit 451 as a great read for teens, Meghan Cox Gurdon is awfully enthusiastic about controlling access to these materials for ALL kids, not just for the ones whose parents don’t want them reading Wintergirls. And if a kid’s not ready for or interested, it’s unlikely that they’ll read it or, if they do, understand it. Got a problem with the darkness in YA fiction? A lot of women my age first read Clan of the Cave Bear when they were barely teens, and that certainly wasn’t YA.
With so many types of books, so many authors with stories to tell, there’s something for pretty much everyone. That’s good. It means it’s a lot more likely that, one day, someone who needs it will leave the cave and see the light ahead.
The world is wider than the book critic at the Wall Street Journal would like teens to know. I often read the books section of the Journal, and they publish an article at least once a year about how dark YA fiction is, as if that’s news. Writers or readers of dark YA fiction (or the genre of your choice) shouldn’t need to justify themselves to anyone. Certainly not someone who recommends some rather dark fiction herself.