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Teen Blog

Helping everyone who loves young adult fiction find their next favourite book

Books are Dangerous

The title is a reference to Libba Bray's response to the article that prompted this post.

Alas, once again, someone was wrong on the internet about young adult fiction. Nearly once a week, someone is wrong on the internet about YA fiction, but this particular incident is an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon entitled Darkness Too Visible in the Wall Street Journal, which basically calls for an intervention against the dark books of YA for the sake of the children (interesting to note is that the article now contains a poll asking if dark themes in youth fiction are helpful or harmful and when I checked the results on Tuesday afternoon they were 82% in favor of helpful).

Since this happened, there have been some incredible responses defending dark books and the right of teens to read them. You can search #YAsaves on twitter—and the hilarious #YAkills—for bite-sized responses. Blogs have been posting rebuttals since Sunday, and one of my favourites is from Emma, a Canadian teen book blogger, who wrote an open letter to Gurdon entitled There Are Whole Lives In These Bookshelves.

YA Saves - Cheryl Rainfield speaks out is the response from the author of Scars, which includes an extensive collection of URLs to many more wonderful, passionate rebuttals.

I’ll also direct you to Jackie Morse Kessler’s response to the article defending her novel Rage, which is called Making the Darkness Visible.

It makes me sick to my stomach to read of a friend's novel—which donates proceeds to charity to help self-injurers recover—be suggested as a means of glamorizing cutting. But could there be a valid point buried in all of the Gurdon's bias? Does the theory that reading dark books is detrimental to a teen reader hold any water?

I am not an investigative journalist of the fine calibre that the Wall Street Journal employs, but I'll give answering that question a shot:

No, it's not detrimental. I base this mostly on my personal opinion that I've become a well-adjusted member of society because of all the dark books I read as a teenager. My dark came from fiction. My dark plays itself out in the fiction I write. Healthy expression that harms no one, except maybe that one friend who had the phobia about birds—but that was pre-existing (Ok, and there's that other friend who is a tad more wary of mirrors now, but adults scare way easier than teenagers).

When I was a teenager, I read Stephen King’s It and ever since I have had this intense distrust of clowns. Not because I believe they are child-stealing shape-shifters who live in the sewers. I mean, even as an impressionable teenager I could tell the difference between fiction and reality, but there is something unsettling about all that facepaint messing with my brain’s ability to immediately categorize a clown as a person.

Maybe clowns have always been a little unsettling and Mr. King just played into that when he wrote his novel. I realize it’s a radical notion that authors who Make Stuff Up play on existing fears instead of creating new ones, but it’s pretty tame compared to the suggestion that no one should read The Hunger Games because it’s violent.

Of course, it’s violent; it’s an anti-war trilogy. If you read The Hunger Games and all you think is how cool it would be to fight people to the death, then you’ve missed the point of the book. When you can miss a point that obvious, what books you’re reading aren’t the real issue that needs to be addressed.

Of the many teens I’ve spoke to who have read The Hunger Games, I can’t recall a single one who honestly wants to be put in the Games. They’re happy to discuss the hypothetical situation, but they don’t want that to be their reality.

Seriously, though, teen lit makes adults who don’t read it nervous. They hear these things about what’s in some of these books they don’t read, and they worry. Many of them are worried because they’re parents and they have the natural instinct to protect their children. That's biology at work, and it's cool and I totally respect it. I'm relieved to know parents are involved in their teenager's lives.

My point is that the world can be a scary place. It’s a lot easier to blame Lauren Myracle’s Shine for that than to discuss why it is we feel so threatened by the content of a book.

Also, terrorism and war and poverty and natural disasters and that strange hold Justin Bieber has on the tweens makes most of us adults feel helpless. Feeling helpless can make us grasp at the most ridiculous reasons to provide an answer as to why our world isn’t as awesome as the nostalgia for our childhood insists it used to be.

So, yes, it’s easy to cry for censorship of youth fiction in the name of protection, because there are so many real and scary things that we can’t protect young people from. But that doesn’t make it right.

I agree with the WSJ article on this: What you read as a teenager has a major role in shaping your adult worldview. However, where I disagree is that we as adults should actively control the shaping of worldviews by refusing to allow exposure to certain ideas. I will not join the thoughtpolice just because I’m no longer in high school.

When you work in the teen section like I do, you talk to both parents and teens. Often it’s once a shift that a parent bemoans the darkness of all the books on the shelves and their vampire love triangles. If they have time, I do my best to help this adult understand that not every book in the section has a vampire love triangle in it (for example, some have fallen angel love triangles).

But for every parent I assist who longs for books that are “not so dark,” there are five who are just thrilled their son or daughter wants to read. Would those parents like it if it was something not so scary or not so dark or wasn’t fantasy or didn’t feature sex/drugs/alcohol/profanity? Possibly, but it’s more important to them that their young reader loves books.

I like those parents a lot, because they're the ones who come looking for a good book and trust that I can find them one. But my favorite parental visitors are the ones who show me a Stephen King title and confess that they read it when they were a teen, too.

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