Well, while Robin and my little drama was unfolding (thanks again, all, for the outstanding support!), I completely missed the other big news in reading and literature. On June 4th, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon about young adult literature. Her take? That YA lit has over the last few decades become something dark and potentially harmful to teens reading it.
The whole article is worth a read, if you haven’t yet. Try not to knee-jerk about it, as you do: look at it from the perspective that this woman is concerned about our youth, and wants the best for them as best she understands it. I disagree with her on quite a lot of points, but her goal, to keep kids safe and help them grow up sound, is a noble one. There’s some good commentary on it here and here. And honestly, google “yasaves” and you’ll see scads more. It’s a hot topic.
I was a precocious reader. I read “The Hobbit” in kindergarten, and the Rings trilogy in first grade. Needless to say, when the RIF van came around with new books, I had a really hard time finding anything to read! I got special dispensation to go check out the tables set aside for the 7th and 8th graders. The books there (things like the Black Stallion books or the Three Investigators novels) were really below my reading level at that point, but were fun quick reads.
But during that year, I brought home one book about a cat, and got my very first lesson on censorship. My mother spotted the book, read some of it, immediately running into scenes where a vile child puts kittens in a sack and tries to drown them in a river. When several survive, all but one then gets eaten by dogs.
My mom, well meaning soul that she was, threw the book out. I was stunned. I’d never been told I could not read something before. Understand, I grew up in a house where reading was a, if not the, primary form of entertainment. We had thousands of books. I had read, well, lots of them. But I’d never been told not to read something. A very small part of me never completely forgave her for that.
Was she right? Maybe. Somehow, I think if I could handle Sauron, RingWraiths, and giant spiders without nightmares, I could manage an abusive jerk hurting kittens. Maybe not. But it definitely impacted my reading. I began reading things quietly. I stopped talking to my mother so much about what I was reading. When I came across a couple of boxes of my Dad’s old pulp novels in 3rd grade, I tore through them without even asking. Alien. The original Conan stories. Jirel of Jory. Fritz Lieber. Lovecraft. Hundreds of others. I didn’t ask, and just as important, I didn’t tell. I’d learned the lesson that reading was something which could be curtailed without warning or explanation. So I read what I wanted and kept anything I thought might be questionable out of view.
And I handled it pretty well, although it probably contributed to a love of books that has kept me writing stories. So arguably, I was permanently damaged if you see a burning desire to write as damage. 😉
But see, there’s that problem with censoring things. When you censor without great care and caution, you undermine a child’s trust in your judgement. Undermine that trust, and you handicap your ability to help the child to understand and cope with the things they’re bound to run into sooner or later anyway. I have kids of my own now: 5, 5, and 2. And while the older pair (twins) are not as precocious as I was with reading, both can now read. In a year or two, they’ll probably be physically capable of reading pretty much whatever they want. Our house is crammed full of books of all sorts – thousands of them, just like when I was young. Censoring all of that simply isn’t going to be possible. In the internet era (all three kids are internet savvy already, in a totally-parentally-supervised manner), if kids want to access something, they can and will find it.
Parental role, then, shifts toward helping children understand and cope with what they find. And that, in turn, requires that we find ways to ensure our children continue to trust us and see us as a source for help in that coping. I don’t want my kids to linger in silence and confusion about something they read, because they no longer trust me enough to tell me they read it.
There’s another piece to this puzzle, too. The original article said:
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to children’s bookshelves.
But look for a second at other forms of entertainment. Check TV: where instead of fairly black and white (morally) shows of the 80s and 90s, the last few years have churned out drama after drama depicting badly flawed characters and often horrific situations. One only needs to scan the prime time channel guide to see scads of police procedurals, more often than not peering into the darkest parts of our society and culture.
“Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it,” says Gurdon. But this is the language most teens now use among each other. YA novels use the language they do because that’s the language teens use. Trying to remove it would make the books seem unreal, distant. Teens would lose a sense of connection to the characters.
And the other, yes horrible, material? Once upon a time, a teen who became pregnant was removed from school. Now, often, they continue education. Once upon a time a molested child was never rescued, and just grew up “dealing with it”. Now, our culture collectively does battle against this crime, and when we catch an offender it is splashed across newspapers and TV screens as a warning to other predators and a battle cry for everyone else to continue the war. Once upon a time kids didn’t have metal detectors in schools. Once upon a time brutality and evil were not spoken of. They still happened, though. What’s changed is our awareness.
Kids today are growing up in a world where terrorists have slaughtered thousands of people. Where gunmen have attacked schools, have killed doctors. Where Amber Alerts serve to help catch kidnappers – noble, worthy, valuable!- but bringing into constant awareness of these children that they are under threat, under siege, by people who actively want to hurt them.
The age when an eight year old is truly innocent of the idea that some people want to hurt, rape, or kill him/her is gone, if it ever existed. We teach children to stay close to us in crowd so they cannot be taken away from us. We teach children not to get into strangers’ cars. We teach children how to go for help, and to talk to us or teachers if someone touches them in certain ways.
Kids are not stupid. They understand what all this adds up to. The world is a dangerous, sometimes incredibly hostile place. And the literature they choose to read reflects that, and reflects a desire to understand it, to absorb it, and to find ways of dealing with it and moving on.
So I disagree with the article and the points raised. I mourn that our world is not one where children can grow up idyllic and care-free. I would give some of that to my children if I could. I can’t. We don’t live there. And so the very discussions I have with them to keep them safe are a steady education in the darkness and danger that exists in their world. No matter how abstract I get. Like I said, kids are not stupid. They’re often far brighter and far more able to make connections than parents give them credit for. If teens are opting to read books which help them find ways to cope with the bad parts of living in our world through exploring the darkness, I’m thinking it would be unwise to block them.
Rather, I think I will try to be the parent who is there, a trusted friend and confidant, able to give help in dealing with the things they run into when they need it. If we do not give them our trust, though, they will never give us theirs.