Friday, June 10, 2011

YA Saves, But...

Unless you've been buried in the stacks doing inventory for the past week, you have no doubt read and possibly even joined in on, the current backlash over Meghan Cox Gurdon's 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 GamesSpeak, 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!


  1. I think Gurdon is very much like Tipper Gore was in the 1980's and like so many right-wingers after Columbine, who blamed Marilyn Manson for the two shooters' attack. Although she has gone on record denying it, her article DOES use a broad brush when discussing YA fiction. She IS seeking to lump YA lit together as one entity. What a doofus, and clearly she doesn't know entirely what she's talking about. YA has been around for a lot longer than 40 years. This is an old argument. Nothing is new about what she says. The only thing new, and I think what is central to the the uproar over her article, is the times in which it comes. Libraries, librarians and teachers are under attack in the US. Librarians and teachers are feeling it. This woman is using an attitude and atmosphere of fear and tension about what kids and communities need to further her own values. She's making it seem as if authors, librarians and teachers who teach real issues in books don't know what they are talking about and indeed, are actively damaging kids...while in LA, armed guards patrol the basement room where school librarians are being interrogated. I think people's passionate response to her dumb article has a lot to do with that. When somebody stands up and yells FIRE in an already panicked and crowded room, as this lady is, that person garners a visceral response.

    I lend out Lauren Myracle's Pretty Little Liars series (gag me, but many girls are insatiable about it)and a TON of Sarah Dessen. My kids read all kinds of lighter fare. The audience for really deep, dark books at my school is (to my mind) depressingly small. However, some kids really like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Part Time Indian and 13 Reasons Why, etc. I don't think we should take this lady's idea-- that ALL YA fiction is dark-- as a truth. There's a lot of fluff out there too and kids are reading it like mad.

  2. No, I don't think it's a Truth, but I think it's true that the bulk of YA is hardly whimsical. Even light reads like gossip girls and PLL have a grim values system. Of course, the sMe can be said for adult books, too. Humor is hard.

    I agree a lot of the 'hysteria' came because we are already under attack on so many levels--th e LAUSD debacle being only the most egregious-- but a) that's no excuse and b) this kind of reaction only adds fuel to the flame. Then public looks in and sees it S an example of our insularity and unwillingnessnto entertain alternative points of view.

    Don't get me wrong. I think the article was tin- eared at best, dogmatic, condescending and smug in its own self-righteousness at worst; I'm just saying as a profession, we could have done better in our response.

  3. Sheila May-SteinJune 10, 2011 at 5:40 PM

    I hear ya, but I think the response has been heartening. It feels great to have authors, librarians and regular folk thinking about and talking about YA lit, you know? I agree that a lot of YA lit isn't whimsical. Great word choice! Makes me laugh, because you are so right. However, as you said, whimsy in adult books is about as rare as hen's teeth. Why don't you and I reach out to folks and try to make a list of books that are not so heavy that we like? It would be interesting to see if there are books out there that, while doing some of the work of YA-- which as I see it, is to grapple with "real world" issues, shed light on dark situations, bring the little-known to the fore, reflect teenagers' search for self, etc...don't hit the darkest and the deepest issues. So, our list would NOT have Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson-- one of my fav YA titles ever-- or How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff-- also a favorite-- because those books deal specifically with cutting, anorexia, death, etc. Our list might include Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah-- great book about a Muslim-Australian girl's decision to wear a hijab in a secular society. Issues, yes, cutting, no.