WSJ article decrying the darkness in YA fiction (and the somewhat ridiculous selection of books she did recommend. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"? Really?)
I even took another librarian to task on LM-Net myself, as she also criticized the genre, accusing her of going too far when she asked whether an anti-American or terrorist would be suitable protagonists. (I admit, those words, in the same sentence, are hot buttons for me.)
Words have power. That is the essence of why most of us do what we do. When I was eight, discovering Mary Poppins for the first time, I remember reading about flying with her umbrella and thinking: Of course! That's how you fly! then running to grab my father's umbrella. My mom caught me halfway up to the roof of the house, preparing to jump off. More significantly, I've told the story here a couple of times of how reading Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples directly lead to me taking my first overseas position. I bow to none in my belief in the power of words.
But here's the thing: if words have power, that power can have both positive and negative effects, and we're putting an awful lot of faith in writers to think they never do harm. There are not many books I wish I hadn't read, but Silence of the Lambs would be one of them. I felt physically, mentally and emotionally dirty after reading that book; those were images I just did not need floating in my head.
While I disagree with how these two expressed themselves (especially the moralistic, holier-than-thou tenor of Gurdon's article), they have a point in stating that YA fiction is disturbingly dark, violent and sexual. I am hard-pressed to come up with comic titles when kids ask for them. Dystopias, though? I can rattle off entire lists.
I believe Chris Crutcher and Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Andersen when they repeat countless stories of the profound effect their books have on children's lives, and would defend any of their books loudly and vociferously were they challenged in my library.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be having the conversation about what a steady diet of The Gossip Girls might do to a student's values, or whether we really want to be promoting Bella as a role model-- a girl who loves her boyfriend so much she wants to die. I find both of these series appalling. They are on my shelves (the former not by my choice, I'll add), but I don't do much to promote them, and I always encourage students who read them to branch out and try other things.
What I find especially disturbing in the conversations swirling around these articles, is that apparently a whole lot of us think it's not ok to question the almighty holiness of YA fiction. Read the comments section to Gurdon's article, and you'd think she had suggested we sacrifice children at the next full moon. People savaged her for daring to suggest that there just might be some negatives to a reading life filled with cutting, slaughter, and rape. That is appalling in any society, it is all but unforgivable in librarians.
We are the ones self-defined as defenders of free speech, the guardians of the one space where anyone can go to find a safe haven, the respecter of all points of view. Even if someone attacks something we hold sacred, it is demanded of us that we respond thoughtfully and openly, avoiding a knee-jerk "how dare you?" type of response. We need to honestly listen to parents when they voice concerns over what their children read, and not just hunker down, go into defense mood, and summon the troops on LM-Net for moral support.
I remember well when our 11th graders were reading Kiss of the Spiderwoman for class. I thought that was questionable selection myself, and wasn't surprised when a parent complained, wanting a different option for her son to read. She didn't try to ban the book, or keep the rest of the class from reading it, but the other teachers in the department mocked her endlessly for daring to question their choice, as if they were the bastion of intellectual endeavor, above reproach. There is more than a hint of that in some of the responses to Gurdon.
I adore The Hunger Games, Speak, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and many more. But that doesn't mean I don't wish there were a wider variety of reading available to students. As a profession we NEED to have this conversation, and we need to listen honestly and openly to the dissenting voices.
Of course, that goes for the dissenting voices, too. Gurdon, for example, needs to recognize there is value in the very books she condemns (Well, maybe not Gossip Girls...can you tell I really, really despise those books?) , and that Alexie makes an excellent point when he claims the values she's trying to protect are those of a privileged white class.
On the bright side, it's obvious when you read them that the comments weren't coming just from librarians, but also from students and the general public, with sometimes passionate defense of the books, and their significance. With all the problems facing libraries (and the published word) today, there are still devoted readers. Hooray!