This is a good one.
Thanks to the magic that is Twitter, this article from The Wall Street Journal came to my attention last night. Entitled Darkness Too Visible, it tries to breathe new life into the tired old argument that there's too much violence and depravity in young adult fiction. Apparently sex is left out of the ring this time, possibly because we just got done with the whole reading romance novels is as addictive as pornography and will ruin all of your adult relationships if you're not careful situation. (That link goes to Smart Bitches for a more complete shakedown of that debacle.)
The CliffNotes version of the latest drama-fest is this: why must YA novels be so graphic? Violence, depravity and abuse are everywhere! Ever since the crazy 1960s there have not only been books actually marketed to young adults (if you can believe that) but they actually deal with nasty things like abuse, self-injury, and other equally dark topics. Examples of scandalous books of yesteryear are present as examples of how this sort of content has (if this article is to believed) absolutely weaseled its way into the consciousness of young people. The Outsiders. Go Ask Alice. I Am the Cheese. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I debated the merits of posting about this for a couple of minutes, mostly because this is ground that has been covered time and again (even by me- remember my post from awhile ago, The Fever, The Cure?) There are a couple of new elements here that do need to be addressed, however.
First of all, I feel compelled to say that in the resulting hullaballoo surrounding this article, a key and, in my opinion, valid point was completely lost. The closing remark of the article is this:
So it may be that the book industry's ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. 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.While I probably wouldn't have been quite so smug and condescending in stating it, I do agree that it's up to parents and the important adults in children and teens' lives to provide moral guidance according to the belief system that's important to that family. People are not obligated to buy things that have messages they don't agree with, and parents are not obligated to let their children have access to materials that the parents find objectionable.
I can get with that- parents need to parent their children and not assume that some nebulous third party will do it for them. Parents also know their children's maturity and comprehension levels and can contribute a lot in helping pick books that are a good fit in that arena as well. What I'm not on board with is the idea that serious and yes, dark issues that carry a huge stigma in our society need to remain stigmatized for the good of the children:
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.Call me crazy, but I think it's a mark of a civilized society that things like mental illness, self-injurious behavior, having a history of abuse or being a survivor of sexual abuse are not hushed up and that people who are struggling with these issues are not made to feel less or that they are unworthy of help or that what has happened to them is somehow their fault. People who struggle with these issues in real life have enough to deal with without having to face the added criticism that their history is somehow damaging to other people. And as this whole article seems to want to discount the suffering that some young people endure, I feel like that last sentence was an add-on to avoid ruffling feathers on the internet. Oops.
The response to this, besides the initial face palm, is tons of examples of how books that deal with serious social issues have actually helped people in those situations find hope, help, and a way to a better life. I'm as inspired as anyone when I read those stories (seriously, check out the #YAsaves hashtag. If you weren't a believer in the power of books and stories before, you will be soon,) but I think an added benefit of a no holds barred approach to serious topics is that, for a moment, the reader is forced to confront what reality might be like for another human being. I personally have never been abused, physically, sexually or otherwise. I have never been bullied. I have never been the victim of violence. I have never been raped. I have, however, been forced to confront the presence of those situations for other people. I have been forced to look beyond the relative safety of my own life and the inherent limitations of my own experiences. Do I "know what it's like?" Hell no. Did I learn that hasty judgement leads to hurt, that many people suffer in silence, and that a little understanding goes a long way? Yes.
As a final thought, and then I promise I am off this soap box for a little while, our character is determined by what we say and do when nobody is looking and when we will not get caught. The best thing that we can do for children and young people is to teach them to be critical thinkers, to gather facts and to separate facts from opinions, to take multiple viewpoints into consideration and to make informed decisions. We are all consumers of media and we will be consumers of media for our whole lives. We will not always have people cherry picking "appropriate" material for us to consume; ultimately we have to do that for ourselves. We are surrounded by horrible and dark things every day. My parents' generation saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on TV. I was in 11th grade when the Twin Towers came down. We as people have to be able to make sense of the world around us; reading books and considering the ideas therein is one way to do this.