I imagine by now that many of you have seen this article on YA from the WSJ. It’s been making the rounds, everyone has something to say about it, and I thought I’d chime in with a little story of my own. It’s easy enough to imagine Ms. Gurdon as an elderly woman desperately clutching at a lace neckerchief and crying “Think of The Children” before fainting dead away, but I’m going to try not to. That’s not to say that I agree with her point. At all. I think that parents, teachers and librarians should all be interested and involved in what the kids in their life read. Let me tell you a story.
A year or two back, I was hired to teach a month long creative writing course to a bunch of sixth graders at a progressive private school in Manhattan, where, in fact, I had gone. Without boring you all with the complete lesson plan, I’ll get right to the story that eventually caused the troubles: Kelly Link‘s The Wrong Grave. I hope you are all familiar with Ms. Link’s work, and if you’re not, you should go out and buy something of hers (I’d recommend Pretty Monsters) and read it. She writes beautiful, magical stories. I don’t want to say ‘ghost stories’ because it’s not just ghosts, but they tend to be of the scary type. They are beautiful, beautiful stories. And I wanted to teach the kids about using suspense and foreshadowing and how to keep a plot moving forward – nothing too fancy – and using a scary story seemed the best way to do this. Now, there is some swearing in the story, so I ran it by my boss first, to make sure she thought it was okay for the sixth-graders. She approved, provided I gave them a little talk about handling swear-words as adults. I did, and send them home with the story. Then hell broke loose.
Parents, for the most part, didn’t complain too much about the swearing. No, the use of the word ‘shit’ was not their concern. Their concern was the phrase (and I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the idiom is correct): “He wondered if she would have gone all the way with him.” Yeah. Sex. But described in a fairly innocent way.
So, the parents went crazy. But not all of them. I confess, I was pretty annoyed – not just because I was clearly being scapegoated for something my boss had approved – but because I had thought the school (and by extension, the parents who sent their children there) was liberal, progressive, etc etc etc. So I asked which parents had complained. And my boss told me. And then it made sense. I had been thinking of these loud, outspoken kids who seemed way too smart for their own good. And my classes had plenty of those. But there were also the innocent ones, who seemed more children than tweens, more nine-years-old than twelve-years-old. The ones who turned in short stories about cats and little sisters and playing with dolls. I could see how maybe they weren’t ready for swearing, or going all the way, or even something scary.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to say that those more “innocent” kids are in any way smarter or less than their more mature peers. They just hadn’t really gone over the cusp from child to young adult yet. Everyone matures and gets comfortable with things at their own rate, after all. I assume one day those kids will be comfortable with swearing and sex, but at the time, they didn’t seem ready for it.
Of course, I hadn’t met the kids when I made the lesson plan, and the way those kids were raised must have had something to do with how they were, so one could argue they were already too sheltered. I don’t know. Nor do I think it’s my place to judge one way or the other. But I do understand that yes, some kids might not be ready for the dark and scary books by 12. And that’s fine. But – and here’s where I start to find myself annoyed with Ms. Gurdon – it’s not the responsibility of publishers, editors or writers to give kids “safe” reading material. That’s up to parents, teachers, librarians. Writers should write what they love. Editors should publish what they love. Librarians should share the books they love with people who will also love them. I have never met a librarian on teacher who would give one of the darker YA books to a kid who wasn’t ready for it. Because they know their kids. And, if a kid *is* into dystopia and violence, well, that’s good, too. And here comes the second part of my argument:
Puberty is hell. I’m not sure if y’all remember it. But it’s just awful. I mean, your hormones are going insane, your skin is awful, your body is changing is strange uncomfortable and bad-smelling ways, all you want to do is eat and have sex, but if you do too much of the former you’re afraid you won’t get to do any of the latter. It’s just… a mess. And it goes on forever. And through this hormone-addled lens, when life is changing so dramatically already, the world becomes a dystopian horror show. Sure, most kids know, on some deep intellectual level that the world hasn’t changed that much. But that is not how it feels. It feels brutal, like everyone is watching you and you have to fight for your life…. wait a moment. That sounds familiar. Isn’t that the basic plot of The Hunger Games? I’m not sure, someone will have to tell me. Oh, and remember those first relationships and crushes when puberty hit – my lady friends have told me all about their first boyfriends who seemed to want nothing but their bodies and sex, but then there was that one guy who treated them like a person, but then he also wanted sex, but tried to hold back, because he didn’t want to hurt her… hmmm… Strange. I wonder why it is kids can relate to those books?
My point is, if you’ve missed it, those books are dark and brutal and many kids relate to them not because they’re self-injurers or victims of some horrible cruelty, but because they feel like they are. And I don’t mean disrespect to victims or self-injurers; I know you don’t actually feel like you’re going through puberty all the time. But those going through puberty will read about a victim or a self injurer and from the book, they’ll think they know what that feels like, and they’ll realize they feel a little like that too. Even if they’re not self-injurers themselves. They feel like they are. And so reading books with larger than life characters who are still accessible on an emotional level makes those kids love those characters. And love those books. And having a book you love to read when you’re freaking out about a pimple or sex or whatever is a very very good thing.
But, to bring it all back to me, I remember recently at the BEA signing, several people told me they were middle school librarians and they wondered if the book was appropriate for their kids. I stammered over this the first few times. My wonderful and fantastic publicist Cassie said it was ‘high school and up’ which, I think, if we’re going to generalize, sounds about right. But what I ended up telling the last few people who asked was ‘read it yourself, it could be right for some kids.’
Maybe Ms. Gurdon’s children are perfect little angels, who have rolled through puberty like clouds through a clear blue sky (I’m serious – not trying to be mean. It’s gotta happen for someone now and then, right? How I envy them). In which case the darker fare of the YA market today might not be for them. But Gods know there are plenty of older books without all that darkness. Read them fairy tales (but not the original Grimm’s ones, no no, too dark), or sweet valley high, or any number of the less dark YA novels which are coming out these days – admittedly in fewer numbers, and with less publicity – but which are still most assuredly there. I grew up on Mercedes Lackey and the Xanth books – sexual yes, but at the time, I barely understood it. Go and ask a librarian! Give your kids the books you read at their age! Don’t bemoan the “dark” books on the shelves of the bookstore, when your kids and you can choose to read something else. And trust your kids to know what’s right for them – a few of my students told me they felt uncomfortable finishing the Link story, so I gave them something else. Your kids aren’t puppets waiting to have ideas thrown into them by whatever. They’re intelligent and can figure out what they feel comfortable with and like on their own. But now I’m just rambling. There are so many points to make here. So let me make one last one: Writers aren’t writing for you. They’re writing for themselves. Just like your kids are reading for themselves and have the power to say ‘hey, I don’t like this, I’m going to read something else.’
But the truth of the matter is, those dark scary books appeal, maybe not to all, but they do appeal, and for a good reason. Those books can make a kid feel like maybe the world is the dark scary place they think it is, but maybe, like those characters in the books, they can get through it somehow. Why you’d want to take that away from kids, I don’t know.
So yeah, that got rambly at the end there. Sorry. But I think I’ve said my piece: take an interest in what your kids read, trust your kids, realize that it’s not a writers job to cater to your preferences and understand that these “dark” scary books are relatable to kids for a reason, and it’s a good one. That is all. What do you think?