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The Monsters in Us All: In Defense of YA Literature

by Ilsa J. Bick, MD

Oh, my.  As both a child psychiatrist and a writer, I find much of Ms. Cox Gurdon’s essays (here and here), well, not wrong so much as skewed.  Really, the whole thing reminds me of the furor over Elvis Presley’s hips.

The thing is I can appreciate and understand Ms. Cox Gurdon’s point of view.  She actually gets one or two things right.  Contagious behaviors, for example: copycat-ism is well-known and why schools are concerned when, say, a kid commits suicide.  The divide between thought and action narrows once one troubled child has shown the way.  It’s why mob violence is so frightening and snowballs so quickly.  Once that inhibition is removed, people on the brink may act.  The same is true of copycat violence—say, a rash of school shootings.

Where Ms. Cox Gurdon errs, however, is in believing that a work of fiction “normalizes” such behavior.  Believe me when I say that I have yet to meet one kid who turned to a book for pointers or said something like, well, you know, Sylvia Plath did it . . .  Really, kids aren’t psychological lemmings.

Now, I’ve wandered into more than a few airport bookstores lately—and, yes, the YA sections have been pretty limited.  (The adult section, too: all that murder and crime and terrorism . . . honestly.)  None in the teen section have been those nasty cutting or rape or abuse books.  Probably the TSA is just so vigilant, what with making sure no one carries sharps on board, all those greedy publishers and distributors figure, well, why bother.  There was quite a crop of vampire books, though, and a bunch of fantasy.  Some science fiction.  A romance or two.  But I’m not sure I’d look to an airport for variety.  Similarly, I find it tough to believe that any reasonably well-stocked bookstore wouldn’t have a nice selection of well-written offerings from different YA subgenres.  If that store doesn’t, that’s more the fault of the book buyer than the industry or authors.  I mean, really, of the nearly three hundred thousand books published in the US last year, there ought to be something for everyone—and if there isn’t, then that mother Ms. Cox Gurdon mentions ought to complain not slink away in defeat.

That was an interesting story, too—because where’s the kid?  Yes, I know the book was to be a gift, but doesn’t that story talk more about the mom?  Don’t you wonder what that daughter might have chosen?  Wouldn’t allowing choice open up discussion?  If that child had picked up a book on, say, cutting behavior, wouldn’t it have been nice for the mom to . . . oh, I don’t know . . . talk to her kid about why?  Not in an accusatory way, mind you.  Just pave the way and let the kid know that talking is good; talking is fine.

In her second essay, Ms. Cox Gurdon mentions an Idaho librarian who frets that making these kinds of books available condones the behaviors in them.  Oh, really?  Does that same librarian stay awake at nights worrying about Lord of the FliesHuckleberry Finn?  Ribsy?  (I’m serious; that poor dog’s not treated very well by some very nasty adults.  If memory serves, I think one actually throws a stone.)  That’s a specious argument if I ever heard one, and librarians aren’t thought-police.

Oh, and for all those folks hung up on “good” YA literature versus “bad” or “well-written” versus  . . . well, whatever: remember that the popular literature of the day can become tomorrow’s classic.  The anointed classics can be deadly dull.  Furthermore, no matter the credentials, all criticism is merely private taste made public.  What I respond to and remember as “good” may not be the same as what I’ve been told I ought to like or consider “great” literature.  But that shouldn’t matter.  I like what I like, period.  In addition, I don’t recall anyone holding the entire adult lit industry accountable for peddling the moral equivalent of penny dreadfuls—and check out those lurid covers, too.  Some people like them, though.  Not me.  But that’s fine.  There are plenty of appealing books out there to choose from.

Ms. Cox Gurdon errs if she believes that “dark” books shape taste.  Hand a kid a novel that doesn’t speak to him and he won’t read it unless required for school—and sometimes not even then.  It’s a little like okra, I guess.  You can put it on my plate, but unless I’m absolutely starving and there’s NOTHING else, no amount of repetition can make me touch the stuff or “shape” my taste once I’m allowed broccoli.

And Ms. Cox Gurdon is quite mistaken about another thing, too: many, many children do live in hell.  According to a study by the Foundation for Child Development (and as reported by CNN), more than twenty percent of children in the U.S. lived below the poverty line in 2010.  That’s one kid out of every five.  As documented in this companion study, the number of impoverished American kids hasn’t been this high in twenty years.  Over five hundred thousand are homeless—and that number doesn’t begin to take into account impoverished children around the globe or those who struggle to survive in incredibly violent settings under desperate circumstances.

So . . . that’s a lot of kids in hell.  We just don’t see them because they’re not our neighbors.

Now, if you do want to know about some kids like that, talk to a very wise librarian I met a few weeks ago at ALA.  She works in Anaheim, and the population she serves lives with violence, gangs, drugs, rape, incest . . . you name it.  Know what those kids like to read?  They devour contemporary novels that accurately depict their reality.  And you know why?  Because, in those novels, the kids triumph.  They find a way out of hell. These books are quite hopeful because the teens in them do succeed where their parents and society have failed.  These novels are journeys of growth from and through darkness toward the light.

And that is the task of adolescence, too: to break out, break free, carve out a life, change the world.  Home is a place to eventually leave; a parent’s job is to become obsolete, which is not the same as being forgotten, mind you.  Parents, not books, shape and model behaviors.  As Ms. Cox Gurdon correctly points out, adults’ “meta”-messages are very powerful.  No book can wound so completely or cut as deeply as a parent’s single, thoughtless remark.  No one but a parent retains that kind of power—and it is for life.

Can a book save a kid?  Beats me.  Certainly, there are clergy who believe differently.  Although don’t get me started on that: isn’t it astounding how many parents don’t think twice about foisting something replete with incest, rape, murder, torture, mass murder on a kid—and at such a young age?  What can they be thinking?

Stress and desperation can make monsters of us all. As a physician, I’ve listened to, struggled with, and tried to help many, many children and parents who behaved in ways that boggled the mind.  Yet when I write, am I condoning those behaviors?  Well, now, that would be rather odd for a doctor sworn never to harm, don’t you think?

When I write about people in their pain, I hope I do so with compassion and respect.  Yet when I do address journeys through rage and despair toward joy or acceptance or redemption, I do not write the dark.

I write what it is to be human.


To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kellye Crocker July 11, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Brava, Ilsa! TERRIFIC! And thank you.

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Stephanie July 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Yes. I write about the darkness to show the triumph of the light. Does that mean I should tiptoe about how dark the darkness is? If I do that, the light’s victory won’t mean as much.

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