Young Adult Fiction Is Not All Doom and Gloom

Josie Leavitt -- June 6th, 2011

This weekend the Internet, specifically Twitter and Facebook, have been seriously abuzz about an article in the Wall Street Journal Saturday written by Meghan Cox Gurdon. In the article “Darkness Too Visible,” the writer has focused on a few admittedly dark novels and classified the whole genre as bleak and fairly unredemptive.

As a bookseller, I was struck immediately by the first two paragraphs:

Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.

She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

Well, if Amy Freeman had shopped at an independent bookstore someone would have asked her if she needed help. The staffer would have offered help and most likely, the indie would have been well stocked in other types of YA, say Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, or David Levithan, to name just a few.  There is never a reason for someone to leave a bookstore empty-handed, especially when they’re on a mission as broad as wanting a book for a 13-year-old.

On one hand, I agree with one point the author is making: there is a glut of gory, dark and somewhat gloomy YA literature out there. But, to some extent it reflects the times we’re in. Teens are committing suicide because of bullying, eating disorders are common, even kids in “nice” neighborhoods have drug problems, and kids sometimes get pregnant. And sadly, some kids grow up in abused households with alcoholic parents. Reading about kids with alcoholic parents can make a kid feel better. Kids reading about cutting will not make them cutters. It might, however, make them recognize when one of their friends is cutting and could use help.

“Issue” books have always been popular with teens. They’re popular because they discuss things kids feel or talk about. While I didn’t have a drug problem and was not a runaway, I loved Go Ask Alice. And if I were a teen now, I’d be reading Crank, Wintergirls, and Empress of the World. Teens seek out issues that are applicable to their lives or just to learn more. When I sell these books, I tell the parent, or the teen, what the book is about and how honestly it deals with its topic. Wintergirls is a tough read, but oh so powerful. I understood anorexia so much better for having read it. Imagine how a teen would feel reading it if they had a friend they were worried about, or they were worried about themselves. To read someone else’s intense struggle with an eating disorder, and the redemptive ending, can give someone hope.

There’s a Twitter group right now called #YASaves and its focus is on the good that young adult books can do. They can save lives by exposing kids to things. We had a young man walk six miles round trip to our store once a week several summers ago. Why was he walking to our store? Because he felt safe at our store, and he was exploring his sexuality through our book recommendations. We suggested some Alex Sanchez books, and suddenly this kid didn’t feel so alone, so hopeless. Several years later his mother called us and tearfully told us that we had saved his life because he was feeling suicidal until he started reading those books. We didn’t save his life; reading about other gay teens saved his life.

The article ends with this: The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.

Where are the booksellers, the librarians in this woman’s argument? Experts exist for a reason. If parents, or teens for that matter (who actually do a pretty damn good job of self-selecting what they’re comfortable reading), are feeling besieged by what they think are the only books out there, then talk to a bookseller about what you feel is appropriate for your child to be reading. Any bookseller or librarian worth his or her salt can recommend a list of books as long as your arm to counter the gloom that can be found in the YA section, that both parent and teen will be happy to read. The author spoke scathingly of Lauren Myracle’s Shine, a tough book to be sure about gay bashing, but hardly fitting for the 13-year-old whose mom wanted to get her a book. Why not get her Myracle’s other YA book, Peace, Love and Baby Ducks, instead? There is balance to everything, and it’s just so unfortunate that Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article had none.

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