Wednesday, June 08, 2011


This weekend a WSJ journalist wrote an opinion piece about young adult books that, well, most writers and fans of young adult fiction really took exception to. The basic assertion was that the content in YA books was too dark, or too graphic, or too real. That if teens read this stuff, they'd think, "Wow, if the girl in this book is a cutter, I guess that's cool and I should be a cutter, too," or "Wow, the kid in this book was raped. I should find someone to rape me, so I can have that experience, too!" or "Wow, if these kids are fighting to the death on a reality TV show in the future, maybe I should kill my friend at school tomorrow."

Now, I'm definitely taking license with the woman's article, but it annoyed me, as it did many others. And she used words like "depravity" and "grueling" to describe the content of great books, so I don't feel too bad about a little exaggeration.

Tons of people have responded to the WSJ article way earlier and way better than I could, but I thought I'd summarize a few thoughts here and recap the excitement for those of you who missed it.

What went down:

I'm honestly not certain when writers first took notice of the article, probably when some of the authors mentioned, like Jackie Keesler and Judy Blume and Cheryl Rainfield got google alerts, or who first started the hashtag, (hashtags are basically a way to label tweets so they can be viewed all together) but I first became aware when Cheryl (who's a local author and a friend) sent me an e-mail asking me to help spread the word. In a nutshell, using the #YASAVES hashtag, the twitterverse was challenged to speak up if reading YA books helped them cope with their adolescence.

Then over the next days, many, many authors and readers and editors responded, pointing out the weak logic in this woman's argument. Here are some of the "top tweets" using this hashtag.

And the hashtag is still active. Very active. Clearly this article/issue has people worked up. And look at the list of people weighing in: Beth Revis, Neil Gaiman and Judy Freaking Blume!

Following this hashtag for a while, I discovered this fabulous poem/reading by Laurie Halse Anderson that she wrote to summarize all the letters she's received from teens talking about how her book Speak helped them cope with their own traumatic experiences.

Linda Holmes at NPR wrote an excellent response, as have many others... The reaction clearly demonstrated the power of social networking tools to rally people behind a cause...

There were many, many good points made, but I think the one tweet I read that made me laugh and nod my head all at once was something to the effect of:

So, it's the kids who are reading we're worrying about?

I think that sums it up for me. Reading fiction builds empathy, helps us see things from someone else's perspective and/or think about issues in ways we wouldn't have otherwise. (There have been studies; this isn't just my opinion.) How can helping kids see the world in a broader way and/or gain empathy for other kids in difficult (sometimes horrendous) situations be bad? How can reading and using their imaginations and expanding their minds be bad?

I do get that parents might wish that their teens were still reading the tame sweet books of their childhoods, but kids grow up, and regardless of the content and nature of YA fiction, teens who love reading will be sampling darker fare. Why? Because if the only available teen fiction is too sweet and passes all the "suitable for young teens" censors, then kids won't read those books. They'll move straight to adult fiction.

And let me tell you, I read some pretty inappropriate books for my age as a teen, books with elements I couldn't relate to and/or didn't understand. But there weren't any books aimed at teens worth reading when I was one. Or at least not enough of them to keep a voracious reader occupied. (And yet, I still grew up to be a (fairly) productive member of society and didn't try to emulate any of the characters in the books by Sidney Sheldon, or Judith Krantz or Jacqueline Susann or Mario Puzo or Erica Jong or VC Andrews -- all authors I read in my teens. And that's just off the top of my head.)

And adult books have only become more, um, adult in the past few decades. Isn't it better that teens now have a great selection of books that speak to them directly and that they actually want to read???

All over the world, kids are shouting, "Finally! Books with characters I can relate to in stories that don't treat me like a baby."

I hear them. Don't you?



Molly O'Keefe said...

oh my god - starting my day off crying...does not bode well. Both the poem and the NPR article were amazing rebuttals to such a stupid arguement - I particularly like the Shakespeare dig.

Another amazing amazing gift of the current YA gold mine is that these are books parents and kids can read TOGETHER! Half the books I read as a teenager I kept a secret from my parents - VC Andrews incest books would not have gone over well, neither would all of the romance under my bed at such a young age. But I can't wait to have my children experience some of these great books that have been published in the last ten years so I can re-experience them alongside.
We all know reading creates empathy and in that vein I wonder how that WSJ writer is feeling these days...

Maureen McGowan said...

I wish I knew more about that WSJ writer. Her own newspaper has set up a poll because of the controversy and let's just say that not many people are on her side. But that might be partially because the "against" side is better organized. ;)

Her article reminded me of the chick lit bashing posts which claimed that the books were for air heads and the only topics in them were shopping and shoes. I know the criticism is kind of the opposite, too light vs. too dark, but it seems like yet another opinion piece by someone who hasn't read much (and/or simply dislikes) a genre.

Maureen McGowan said...


That Laurie Halse Anderson poem made me cry, too. She posted it again on Sunday to support Cheryl Rainfield who gets a lot of letters from young girls who've suffered like Cheryl's character did, and in fact Cheryl herself did...

Sinead M said...

I recommend YA novels all the time. To think in this day and age, with teen movies darker and more violent than ever before, and the body count in most video games off the charts, that books are the issue.
That teens are reading again needs to be celebrated, not sanitized.

Eileen said...

It's one of the reasons I'm interesting in seeing what happens with the Hunger Games movie. If they make the movie anywhere near as violent and disturbing as the book was, will they still be able to get a PG rating?

I think it's a mistake to dumb-down books for teens. It makes everything we offer them suspect.

And for my final random observation . . . some of the most interesting and thought-provoking things I've read recently were YA novels.

Maureen McGowan said...

Do the movie rating people even care about violence? Seems like they care more about profanity, nudity and sex. None of those things in Hunger Games.

Eileen said...

True that, Maureen! You can watch someone's head explode in slow motion brain spatter, but show a nipple and the world stops!

Maureen McGowan said...

#YaSaves #NipplesKill

We'll start a new trending topic on twitter.

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