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Young Adult Literature: Too Dark for Our Kids?

written by: Kara Bietz • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 4/5/2012

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon entitled "Darkness Too Visible" sparked outrage across the young adult literature community. Authors, editors and fans of YA across the globe participated in heated discussions regarding the appropriateness of certain YA titles.

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    Dark For Dark's Sake?

    So is YA literature too dark? Are we handing our children books "...rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity" as Cox Gurdon believes? If you browse the young adult section of your local bookstore, you may notice a leaning toward paranormal stories about ghosts, vampires and werewolves. These stories tend to have dark, dramatic covers...and they also tend to be bestsellers among teens. I will not argue that the YA section of the bookstore only holds wonderful works of literature that will be cherished for generations, but I also don't believe, as Cox Gurdon does, that contemporary stories for teens are " dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels children from the ages of 12 to 18."

    Are novels for teens just dark for dark's sake? Or is there a reason for these gritty, sometimes very explicit stories? Supporters of Cox Gurdon's beliefs think that introducing dark themes, such as cutting, in mainstream literature for young teens will make it seem to be a commonplace occurrence; therefore, carrying the message that cutting is normal and introducing the behavior to teens who would not otherwise think of it as an option for dealing with emotional turmoil.

    While I can see where Cox Gurdon is going with that argument, I personally believe that books with dark themes, such as cutting, bulimia, date rape and bullying may do more to help teens than you may first think. A girl who cuts or is starving her body to be thin may find comfort in knowing that she is not alone. In fact, many YA titles with dark themes address these social issues in a realistic way. For example, in Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, we meet Lia, a young bulimic who has just lost her best friend. Lia struggles with food throughout the entire book, as well as her deeper underlying problems. By the end of the book, Lia is on her way to healing with the help of her parents, new friends and an eating disorder clinic.

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    YA Saves

    In a prime example of the tremendous reach of social media networks such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, YA authors around the globe began an initiative to prove the importance of realistic themes in young adult literature called YA Saves. A call was put out to book bloggers, Facebook fans and teens with Twitter accounts inviting them to share their stories of how YA literature changed their lives.

    And that call was answered. In a huge way. The Twitter hashtag #YASaves became a worldwide trending topic almost immediately.

    The battle cry among bloggers was that articles like Cox Gurdon's really do a disservice to readers and their parents. Instead of looking at a very few select books that may or may not glamorize dark themes, these derogatory articles condemn YA literature as a whole. By making sweeping statements about the entire YA section of the bookstore, Cox Gurdon may turn some parents off from allowing their teen to enter that section or even entering themselves with their child.

    Another complaint from young bloggers and Twitterers was that Meghan Cox Gurdon did not give teens enough credit. She alluded in her article that teens may be swayed into trying risky behaviors such as binging and purging, cutting or even sexual behaviors if they read about it in a novel. This is an extremely weak argument, as many will agree. Books are not parenting our children...we are. Books are not setting curfews, discussing family values and setting reasonable boundaries for our teens...we are.

    A simple Google search for YA Saves or #YASaves will direct you to hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts and online journal entries from teens around the world whose lives have been affected positively by YA literature.

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    Authors Fight Back

    As you can imagine, the backlash from many YA authors, especially those whose books were called out in the article for containing questionable material, was immediate. One of the most notable responses was from Sherman Alexie, whose book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a National Book Award in 2007. He came under fire when Cox Gurdon quoted him saying "There's nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet." Upon reading the Wall Street Journal article, Sherman Alexie wrote an article of his own, discussing why he writes about the subject matter he does.

    Blasted for writing about an assault on a gay teenager in a small Southern town in her recent release, Shine, YA author extraordinary Lauren Myracle also wrote a response to the Wall Street Journal article on her blog. Ms. Myracle handled the lashing with grace, I believe, after being blasted by Cox Gurdon for being compared to Judy Blume by the well respected periodical, Publisher's Weekly.

    Narrowly missing Cox Gurdon's mudslinging but no stranger to censorship and book banning, widely respected author Laurie Halse Anderson responded to the article on her blog, a favorite of teen readers and aspiring YA authors alike. In her response, Halse Anderson urged teens to send their responses, outrage or agreement, directly to the Wall Street Journal. Halse Anderson believes that "YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day." And she should know. After writing the book Speak in 1999, about Melinda, a young girl picking up the pieces of her life and attempting to move on after being date raped at a party, Laurie Halse Anderson was inundated with letters from young readers thanking her for approaching the subject matter. In fact, in 2009, Halse Anderson composed a poem largely comprised of snippets and sentiments from letters sent to her from readers who connected with the message of Speak.

    I can't imagine anyone listening to Laurie Halse Anderson's poem Listen and not agreeing that young adult literature can indeed save lives. If you are concerned about what your child is reading, read it first. Know what is happening in your own home. Do not blame young adult authors for writing books you don't agree with. Know what your children are reading. If you don't believe they are ready for a certain subject matter, discuss it with them. Ask them to tell you why they like certain books and subject matter. The maturity your child shows with her answer may surprise you. Talk to your kids.

    This opinion provided is from a teacher, parent and author experience.