the WSJ-YA uproar to which I am late

I had a patron approach me in the library to ask my feelings on this issue.

The background is… more than a month ago, the Wall Street journal published this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which immediately became a huge deal. I would encourage you to go read it, because that’s the best way to know what it says, but in a nutshell, this children’s-book-reviewer lady notes an increase in “darkness” in young adult (YA) literature, and comments that darkness is not good for our young adults. While she has some supporters, there was overwhelming indignation among bookish/literary/librarianlike internet dwellers. They have mostly said, in a dark world, kids can actually benefit from reading about situations that are like those they are facing. Also, you shouldn’t censor. The author of the original, offending article has since published, also in the WSJ, a rebuttal.

I resisted entering the fracas, mostly because I feel my opinion is unnecessary (because I’ve read some other excellent responses) and because I don’t feel terribly well-qualified to have an Important Opinion, not being a YA librarian or really much of a reader of YA. Even when I was a YA. But on the other hand, this blog rather exists for the publication of my Not Very Important Opinions, and so I’ll throw it out there.

So. I had a patron approach me here in my (definitively adult) library and ask for my thoughts. I tried to tell her why I’m not qualified to have one but she pushed. So, I told her I agree with those opinions that say, children in rough positions need to read about said rough positions. The cited instances of “darkness” include stories about rape, prostitution, violence in general, poverty, and cutting (self-mutilation). Young people living these situations are in a position to benefit from having them handled wisely in literature, and I appreciate that such things are available. My patron turned out to be (as I understood her position) arguing that children living in darkness need to read about light – happier, brighter situations – to which I say, sure! Great! Let them read that stuff, too! She proceeded to argue that there is too much dark and not enough light; the proportions are wrong; at which point I have to beg off, because my very limited knowledge of current YA doesn’t allow me to debate this point. I don’t know the proportions, quite frankly. I support the idea of diverse options, for sure – in all things, in fact. (For example, there should be more than two political parties in our electoral system.) Lots of options, please. But if you prefer for your YA to read only happier, lighter books, I don’t think that should necessarily limit others – who might be interested in those “darker” ones – in their access to those choices.

I have to take issue with one of Gurdon’s conceptions (from the original article).

In the book trade, [guiding what young people read] is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.”

I’m afraid she’s confused about “banning.” Or maybe she’s just being imprecise in the phrase, “guiding what young people read.” There are several ways in which parents, guardians, or whoever can guide what young people read. For example, they can pay attention to what their children read, and direct those choices. The Maryland mother whose personal experience begins Gurdon’s article was doing just this. She wasn’t banning anything; she was exhibiting judgment and taste, and guiding her daughter’s reading choices. This is the kind of guidance I recommend; I encourage parents who are concerned about what their children read to pay attention to what their children read, and limit it as they find appropriate. Banning, on the other hand, is what parents and various community members attempt when they submit complaints to public libraries (for example) requesting that certain books be pulled off the shelves. I am in favor of “judgment” and “taste” – I may not agree with yours, but that’s fine as long as your judgment applies only to your child. I am against “banning,” which involves limiting other people‘s access to books. See the difference? Banning is not synonymous with parenting.

I don’t think rape or cutting in books leads to rape or cutting in life. I think it has the potential to offer some relief or catharsis or therapy. Certainly some children don’t need therapy for these traumas; absolutely Gurdon is correct that not all teens are rape victims, thank goodness! But I’m not sure that reading about even those traumas that are outside their experience isn’t necessarily instructive and good, too. (I wasn’t involved in teen violence or gangs, but still found S.E. Hinton’s oft-cited The Outsiders amazing; it was one of my favorite books.) I won’t push these books on your child, certainly, but I fail to see how the availability of these options is a bad thing. Again, I’m all for more options. If I accept my patron’s thesis that there is too much dark and not enough light in YA today, then by all means, let there be more light, in the interest of a multiplicity of options.

But, the vampires I could take or leave, actually.

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