In Defense of YA
A round-up of thoughts by readers and writers of young adult literature
The following YA reader and writer voices comment on the Wall Street Journal pieces by Megan Cox Gurdon that lit up the twittersphere with the creation of #YAsaves in June. By now, much has been written in reaction to the question Darkness Too Visible? but here at Hunger Mountain we care not only what we writers think, we care what the readers think. The teen readers. YA is, after all, for young adults. What they think matters. Thank you to the teens who took time out of their summer vacation plans to lend their voices, their intellect, and their wit to join with YA authors everywhere who tackle darkness, light, and everything in between.
Manar Haseeb, 17, Garland, TX
What young adult literature does—and adults often fail to do—is acknowledge the intellect of teenagers. This is why the censorship of YA fiction is offensive to youth everywhere. Teens are not idiots. Teens do not need to be pampered. And most of all, teens do not need to be protected—not when it comes to literature.
Art has a funny tendency to imitate reality, and claiming that teens cannot handle dark literature is to claim that teenagers cannot handle reality. Reality is flawed and broken and pitch-black. Hiding that from the literature young adults read is not going to change it, nor is it going to keep us from discovering it. We know that people die, and that sometimes they do it on purpose, and that sometimes it is because they are robbed of life. We know that “I tripped” sometimes means “I am afraid to tell you the truth about these bruises, because I am a victim of abuse.”
Not only do we know that these things exist, but we often live them. Teen fiction is brutal because the life of a teenager is brutal. Even the most well-adjusted of young adults knows someone who has been through something awful, and pretending otherwise would be not only deceitful but malicious.
Julia Karr, author of XVI
The thing about darkness is, unless you turn on the light, it doesn’t go away. YA authors who tackle the tough themes, the ugly underbellies, the despair, and pain, well, they’re flipping the switch, exposing the dark, and helping readers see the light.
Emma Allison, 14, London, Ontario
Darkness has a habit of entering teen lives with very little help on YA literature’s part. Adolescence is often the first time we teen’s deal with the death of a loved one and the demanding and difficult social and academic aspects of education. Our hormones are certainly not interested in all this innocent rainbow colored romantic affection [Wall Street Journal book reviewer Meghan Cox] Gurdon seems to think we’re having.
No, teens become very acquainted with shadows, intense emotion and the omnipresent “catch-22” of being an almost adult with no power yet to change what we see. But YA literature does not normalize these shadows, like Gurdon seems to think. Instead, these stories have the potential to make us acknowledge the darkness in the corners of us we didn’t know existed—and, if the timing is just right, provide a light that prevents the shadows from consuming us altogether.
Sarah Darer Littman, author of Purge, Life, After and Want to Go Private?
Psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt calls her “the enemy in hiding.” Dictionaries define her as “the refusal to acknowledge the existence or severity of unpleasant external realities or internal thoughts and feelings.” It took me decades of therapy to realize what a destructive person she was, and how her influence stretched beyond the walls of my house into the farthest reaches of society. Even now, forty years later, she’s reared her ugly head in the Wall Street Journal, where Meghan Cox Gurdon wishes that we could go back to the good old days when “pathologies” like sexual abuse, eating disorders, homosexuality and rape weren’t discussed in polite society, much less written about in books for teenagers.
I’m proud to write the kinds of books Gurdon deems too “dark” because I’ve learned that if we’re to choose between denial and being open and honest, it’s infinitely healthier to choose the latter. I write so that teenagers like me don’t have to grow up feeling alone and defective—and so that teenagers who are fortunate enough to escape the kinds of difficulties I experienced gain insight and understanding. I write books that parents can read alongside their teens to kick start discussion—because one thing I’ve learned, as a parent of two teenagers, is that it’s all about the conversations.
That’s just what happened with one of the books Gurdon pilloried in her piece, Lauren Myracle’s Shine. I read it and handed it to my 14 year-old daughter. Shine achieved what all the best books do: It taught my daughter new vocabulary and started a conversation between us about why the characters acted the way they did, which led to a discussion about the socio-economic and political implications of living in a small, economically depressed town in the rural South. Shine challenged the assumptions of a teenager growing up in a privileged town in the Northeast. It opened up her world. My daughter passed it to her best friend, who loves it.
What Gurdon deems darkness, I call shining the light.
K.A. Holt, author of Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel and Brains for Lunch
As an author, one of most interesting things I find about YA is how easily the public misunderstands—or can be mislead about—what young adult books really encompass. One of the more alarming aspects of the Wall Street Journal articles is that the author treats YA books as all of one genre, as if “young adult” means dark and scary and sexy and nothing else.
In reality, young adult fiction is a perspective, a point of view, that contains many different genres of books. There is YA humor. YA mystery. YA non-fiction. YA science fiction. YA fantasy. YA contemporary. YA urban fantasy. I could go on and on. Are some of these books dark and scary and sexy? Sure. Are all of them? Nope. To use a blanket statement like “depraved” is mistaken on so many levels, but what really gets my goat is the fundamental misunderstanding that leads to this belief.
Young adult literature contains infinite possibilities of plots and characters. There is a book out there for every person, whether they want to laugh, cry, seek solace or find help. Young adult literature is not a black hole of depravity sucking in our children. It is a universe of words waiting to be discovered.
Stephanie Kuehnert, author of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia
When I was a teenager in the early ‘90s, YA wasn’t what it is now. After reading Judy Blume, I skipped straight to the adult section of the library, and at the time in my life when I most desperately needed answers and characters that I could relate to, I couldn’t find any. I struggled with depression, low self-esteem, and the aftermath of an emotionally abusive relationship. Many of my friends were dealing with these kinds of issues along with neglect and violence. We came from a middle-class community that refused to acknowledge that teenagers had “adult” problems. In the darkness our wounds festered. We self-medicated with drugs, alcohol, and razor blades. Not everyone lived to tell, but I did, so now telling is exactly what I do.
Karen Sandler, author of Tankborn
Why should our children read today’s young adult novels? Because so many YA books are tremendously thought-provoking. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series raises the issues of beauty and obsession with fame. The Hunger Games examines not only oppression and insurrection but our fascination with reality TV. Neal Shusterman’s Unwind handles the dichotomy between pro-life and pro-choice viewpoints and where that conflict could lead. These books are the Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 of our day. Who wouldn’t want their teens considering these issues, critically analyzing these metaphoric stories?
Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars and Hunted (forthcoming)
When painful issues become secrets—become something we can’t talk about or think we’re the only one who’s had that experience—our pain, shame, and sense of isolation grows, and so does our desperation. Sometimes the pain can get so bad that we truly don’t want to be here anymore. I’ve been there.
That’s a big part of why I wrote Scars—to help others dealing with self-harm, sexual abuse, or being queer to know that they’re not alone, that healing is possible—that it can and does get better. But I also wrote Scars to reach people who don’t have those experiences, to encourage greater compassion and understanding. Many readers who are have not used self-harm, aren’t survivors of sexual abuse, aren’t queer have said it feels like I’ve written about them, or that in reading Scars it was the first time they didn’t feel alone or the first time they knew someone else who had cut. Others have told me they’ve been able to stop cutting because of Scars or that they’ve found the courage to talk to someone. Books are powerful tools that can encourage healing and greater compassion, all the while entertaining. I am proud to have added my voice to YA literature that breaks silence and helps heal.
Jo Knowles, author of Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Pearl
Today’s YA books do what they’ve always done: reflect the real world. Nothing has changed. We’ve needed stories since time began. All of us. Children, teens and adults. They make us feel. They make us think. They make us cry, laugh, cheer, cower, cringe, tremble in fear, mourn, love and SEE the world from a new perspective. They entertain us, but they also help us grow. They make us more thoughtful and compassionate. That’s what stories have always done and that’s what they will always do. As people become more willing to talk about the evils that exist in this world, stories about them emerge. To some, these evils may seem unbearably dark—especially for children and teens. But authors don’t invent the darkness. Authors shed light on it. That’s what storytelling does—for all ages, but especially for children and teens. Books show us that we aren’t alone. They show us that life—no matter how dark—is navigable. And if we read carefully enough, they can show us a way through. Teens need these stories. Stories that were written for them. We all do.
Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are and Fall for Anything
Something I’ve never managed to forget about being a teen was my inability to communicate the tougher things I was going through to others for fear of judgment. I felt isolated by my thoughts and experiences and it was, at a times, an incredibly lonely place to be. Books changed everything for me, particularly books that weren’t afraid to explore those harder, darker topics. Being able to see the things I was going through reflected on the page—without judgment—was so powerful. It instantly made me feel less alone and more understood, which made me less afraid to speak up and more willing to reach out to others. This is something that is always at the front of my mind when I sit down to write my novels, which explore harsh realities. I want to be as honest as possible for the teenager that I was, and the teenagers that are out there looking for some point of connection. As a result, I’ve been fortunate to have been contacted by many readers who tell me my books have given them the motivation to find their way out of self-destructive situations. If that’s the price of writing dangerously dark YA… I think I’ll keep doing it.
Beth Fehlbaum, author of Courage in Patience and Hope in Patience
I was in junior high when I started trying to find the words for what was happening to me at home. I combed our library but did not know that the words I was looking for were incest, molestation, sexual abuse…. I learned their definitions by snooping through the counselor’s books when I was an aide in the 7th grade. He’d be in his office talking some kid off the ledge and I’d be out in his waiting area, trying to find relief from the feeling that I was hanging by my fingernails, too.
I was an adult, in therapy, and looking for something to read while I walked on the treadmill when I found Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes on my daughter’s bookshelf. I devoured that book, then all of Chris Crutcher’s books, finding at last stories that spoke to the person inside me who needed to know she was not alone.
I’ve always written, but writing my first book, Courage in Patience, was the most healing experience of my entire life. It started out as a therapeutic assignment and ended up as something I looked at and thought, “Ya know, just like Crutcher’s books gave me solace, maybe this book could help others too.” And it has.
Just recently I read a review of my second book, Hope in Patience, on Goodreads:
“This book absolutely blew my mind. Ashley and I share a lot in common, not just a name, but also a past that involves being sexually abused by a step-family member. I read this book from beginning to end in a matter of hours, and just could not put it down. I only wish that I had had the support system that Ashley had, when I was in my initial recovery. This book will remain etched in my mind, forever.”
Sometimes people ask me why I write about the tough stuff. I do it because I know the healing power of a story; I know what it is to feel all alone before finding myself in a story; and I know what it is to touch others through the telling of such stories.
S.J. Adams, author of Sparks
(also known as Adam Selzer, author of How to Get Suspended and Influence People, The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History, and I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, among others)
That the YA section at big chains has gotten pretty bad can hardly be denied: What sort of book they’ll take without a huge marketing plan behind it has gotten narrower and narrower, and I feel a LOT of pressure to have every book narrated by a bland girl who loves her first boyfriend forever despite a terrible secret (all in first person, present tense, with a one or two word title and either an “iconic image” or a girl’s face on the cover). I am dying for more variety, and scared that soon chain stores will have a selection like the book section at Target—just a few current hits, movie tie-ins and selected backlist. But the author of the Wall Street Journal article is out for more restrictions. More rules. More lines. And what happens to me? The author? More trying to write a book with a hand tied behind my back.
The key phrase in the article is the part about how, like so much else in the world, everything changed in the 1960s. This tells me right away what sort of mindset we’re dealing with. Every time I’ve been involved in a battle over banning a book, either one of mine or someone else’s, the people on the other side of the argument have been motivated by the same thing: a desire to live in a world where no one swears, no one has premarital sex, no one is gay, everyone is either a devout Christian or the town atheist, and everyone goes to church on Sunday and the high school football game on Friday. And they fully believe that not only is this what God and the Founding Fathers intended, but that the world really WAS that way until February, 1964, when the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that they’re fooling themselves, and that if it were true, it would just be another dystopia. People who didn’t fit their worldview would find themselves on trial for communism, witchcraft, or whatever they’re turning us weirdos into for that year. I’m never (well, almost never) out to offend anyone with my work, but if these people have a problem with me, my answer today is the same it was when I was 15: “Get stuffed.”
Sara Megibow, Associate Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency
2010—I read 46 young adult novels for pleasure. I sold 4 young adult novels to major NY publishing houses (3 by debut authors). I reviewed over 35,000 query submissions from writers wanting to be published.
Literature is art. Literature—like painting, theater, opera—is filled with conflict and I honestly believe conflict is good for art. If there were no debates about books it would mean no one is reading and that would be a true loss. However, I feel frustrated when our book debate focuses on “dark” content. Shouldn’t we rather be debating quality or literacy? Difficult and dark imagery is nothing new to art. I feel that authors who confront challenging issues are promoting life (and literature!) as powerfully as authors who present beautiful, happy, peaceful stories.
1992—the year I graduated from high school. 2 teens lost to suicide, 1 accidental death, 2 hospitalized for bulimia, 4 (that I know of) abortions, 1 (that I know of) cutter, more alcoholic families than can be counted. That being said, my teenage years were idyllic. I enjoyed a loving family, exceptional teachers, soul-humbling good friends, outstanding grades, travel, and security. Both sides of the coin are true. Both aspects of my life are valuable to me. Young adult authors tell all kinds of stories because lives are filled with all kinds of experiences.
As a literary agent and as a reader, I stand by young adult authors. These men and women are artists working hard to bring meaningful stories to readers. If the debate in literature is about content – let it be known that I value young adult authors BECAUSE they have the courage and talent to tell dark stories!
Maggie Desmond-O’Brien, 16, Remer, MN
Call me selfish in the face of all of the horrific and inspiring stories that hit the Twitterverse and blogosphere for #YAsaves, but my first thoughts after reading Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” piece was not how dark YA helps us out of equally dark places, but how it helps us out of seemingly “light” ones. Nose ring and hippie-ish tendencies aside, I imagine I’m the kind of kid Gurdon would deem a “young woman,” white, smart, from a middle-class home—the kind of kid that needs to be protected from things like cutting, sexual abuse, and hyper-violence a la The Hunger Games. I’ve never had to deal with any of these things, after all, so why bother reading about them?
Because “light” sometimes comes with as many problems as “dark.” Like I wrote in my response to #YASaves at my blog, I struggled with near-daily panic attacks between the ages of 12 and 14 (with severe anxiety problems for many years before that). The tiniest step outside my comfort zone sent me into a tailspin that could last for days, and sometimes I felt like the loneliest and unluckiest kid in the world—until I started reading books like Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, and realized how loved and lucky I was. Dark YA didn’t desensitize me to the problems of the outside world; it connected me to them in so many positive and constructive ways, panic-attack free.
Claire Haskins, 16, Middletown, Virginia
I’ve read vampire novels, modern experimental-type novels, novels in verse, fantasy, realistic fiction… you name it, I’ve read it. When I read the books that are described in Mrs. Gurdon’s essay, “Darkness Too Visible,” as “questionable material,” I don’t get the uncontrollable urge to go out on the street and buy crack or turn to self-harm.
Personally, I don’t read the so-called “dark” novels because they’re dark. I read them to get new views of the world, views I can’t see or experience myself. Yes, there may not have been novels forty years ago like the ones we see now, but can you say, definitely, that the issues that we are discussing happened any less then than they do now?
Please remember: The pain is just as much a part of being a young adult as the beauty and discovery.
Miranda Kenneally, author of Catching Jordan
To me, YA is all about hope. Kids can read about characters in dire situations and see how they struggle, working hard to take care of themselves and make the world a better place, thus (I hope) providing real-life teens the courage they need to confront bad situations in their own lives. One thing’s for sure: Dark YA brings hope that things can get better.
Jackie Morse Kessler, author of Hunger, Rage, and Loss
Why do I write dark YA novels? Because the world isn’t always bathed in light. Self-injury, eating disorders, bullying…these things are real, and teenagers are coping with them every day. Ignoring ugly truths doesn’t make those truths go away. The only things that go away if you ignore them are your teeth.
There may be those who will always advocate censorship rather than frank discussion. But the more that people insist on limiting the books we read, the more those books need to be read.
Learn about the world. Read a book.
Laurel Snyder, author of Every Which Wall, Penny Dreadful, and Bigger than a Breadbox
When my four year old refuses to go to sleep, because he’s afraid of the darkness, what do I say? Do I turn on the lights for him? Of course not. “Go to sleep,” I tell him. ”There’s nothing to be afraid of. Dream bright dreams.”
What does he say to that? “Stay with me. It isn’t scary when you’re here.”
And because I’m a huge sucker, I do stay. I sit beside him in the dark room. In about thirty-seven seconds, he’s snoring. Of course he is. Because the scary thing isn’t the darkness at all. The scary thing is that it makes him feel alone.
Kids are people, and people are messed up sometimes. Not just kids who’ve been traumatized, but all kids end up a mess of one sort or another. Don’t you remember high school?
Dark books can be a mirror in that mess. They can decode and demystify. They can undercut the aloneness. Sometimes, I suppose, they can also amplify it. But puzzling out what the dark mess means (or doesn’t) is important. Figuring out how to be a person even when there’s darkness within or around you—that takes a willingness to stare the shadows down. Leaving the lights on won’t teach a kid to handle the shadows.
We don’t need to do away with dark books. We need to write better ones. And we also need to be honest with ourselves about our children. We need to believe that in the end, they’ll be okay. Naturally, we need to pay attention when they’re not, but we need to accept that if there’s a real problem, it’s not a book that caused it.
And when there is darkness (which there will be), I think it is a good thing to keep our kids company. To sit with them, keeping the aloneness at bay, so that they can learn to sleep. So that they can be ready when we trust ourselves to slip quietly down the stairs.
So that we can be ready too.
Georgia McBride, president of yalitchat.org, a non-profit organization focused on the advancement of young adult literature and culture worldwide
It seems the flavor and context of young adult books is a reflection of the times, and not necessarily some conspiracy to ruin the minds and souls of teenagers. As a parent, I am often concerned about the content being fed to my seven and three year olds. When you look at the content of classic Disney (oh God, please don’t ban me from the Park) films, like Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King (one of my all-time faves), just to name a few—what message do they send to little children, barely old enough to read? That looks are important, and you need be a beautiful thing before anyone will want to marry you—or love you at all? What about kidnapping or murder for hire? And let’s not forget sorcery and witchcraft or imprisonment and impersonation. How about lying, stealing, cheating, assault, deprivation and of course, death? Do these stories have happy endings? Sure, but the heroine must get through the aforementioned first. And they all begin with an unhappy teenaged girl, who has lost her parents in some way or another, is at war with step parents/step siblings and must find true love through it all; because only a boy or man can save her from a miserable life. Sounds a lot like some of the YAs on the shelves today—some of the “dark YA” that has been so negatively portrayed of late. Only these stories are intended for a much younger audience than typical YA books and even the alleged thirteen-year-old potential book recipient who was the supposed inspiration for the now infamous Wall Street Journal piece.
Look, do I believe that there are some unstable people out there who may be pushed to the edge when they read a novel about cutting and imitate the act as a means of escape? Yes. I do. HOWEVER, I do not believe this is true for the vast majority of people. Someone who would do that has already been considering it and simply needed an excuse to begin, an out. In the same way that Marilyn Manson or The Matrix cannot be blamed for a student shooting up a school (I blame the parents), or Eminem cannot be blamed for—whatever it is they blame Eminem for—books are not and cannot be blamed for a person’s behavior. To do so, is to underestimate the intelligence of not only the reader but the writer.