Darkness Too Visible: My Take on Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ Editorial

Okay, so I don’t always weigh in on these attacks on YA novels as too dark, too grim, but the talk around the Internet and the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter caught my attention, and I clicked over and read the article. Which, obviously, is the first thing to do. So here’s the link for you, if you want to check it out.

Darkness Too Visible

I don’t always weigh in, because I don’t feel like I have been “saved” by young-adult lit. I had a safe, sheltered, happy childhood. I had safe, sheltered, basically content teen years, marred only by my struggle with shyness. I did not go through any of the experiences that, yes, the authors Gurdon cites do write about. So I don’t, as others have, recognize myself or my circumstances in these books–not in that big, important, life-saving way.

I thank my parents and my luck for that, pretty much every day of my life.

I actually read Gurdon’s editorial a couple of times, going back and giving a few paragraphs a third pass, because I was struggling to figure out her point. I wasn’t sure what she wanted.  I felt a bit like when I’m critiquing, and I ask the author what their MC’s goal is, what they’re after. Because, while Gurdon criticizes the things being written, complains about the covers on those books; honestly, the article felt like a book review. A non-complimentary book review, but still. What’s her purpose in all these put-downs?

I think, ultimately, she is saying we shouldn’t share information about what really happens in life with our kids, at least not through novels. She doesn’t deny that the world YA often (not always, for pete’s sake!) depicts exists. She doesn’t deny that there are nasty people out there doing nasty things to kids. She even uses the example of a Lauren Myracle book that depicts “the aftermath of an assault on a gay teenager.” Well, unless we’ve been living as ostriches, we all know this kind of assault is happening to gay teens all too often. Guess what: my son knows it’s happening. And, again, I am thankful for that–because it’s important. He should know. Do I force him to read about it? No. It’s his choice.

Choice, people. This is where I get confused about the whole editorial. Because Gurdon’s last line is this: “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.”

Duh. No family is obliged. So…um, let it go.  I don’t buy pink-covered books with sparkly hearts all over them for my 15-year-old son, just because someone wrote that book, someone published it, and someone put that cover on it. I buy him books I think he’ll like and respond to. And, guess what, I let him pick out his own books, too. Because…he’s a teenager. And, much as I might wish I did, I don’t know everything that’s going on in his life and his head, and I can’t take care of and solve his every need. Not. Going. To. Happen.

And, really, I haven’t seen any publisher trying to bulldoze a reader, anyway. I think they’re smarter than that. Cuz, really, what happens when you try to bulldoze a teen? You lose. The covers Gurdon is complaining about? The ones she worries are tempting kids to read things they “shouldn’t?” I think those are probably about marketing, sure, but I’ll take marketing if it means a kid who is in trouble doesn’t have to hunt and dig to find something she needs, something that can help her do what I didn’t need to: recognize that she isn’t alone, recognize that maybe she could talk to someone. I’ll take anything that stops this stuff being buried and kept secret, that stops the victims from feeling like they have to stay hidden. If it was my son–please, no–who had something like this to deal with and didn’t feel like he could share it with me, I’d want him to find that book. I’d want him to get help.

For me, YA isn’t all about the bad stuff. I read and write YA, because for me, it’s about a time in life that is and should be amazing. It’s a time of opportunities and choices and freedom to figure out who you are and do something about it. It’s a stage in life that, for me, came later-because of that shyness I talked about above. I read YA with awe at the teens who have a strength and power I could have only wished for at that age. Does Gurdon not SEE the strength in those characters? Does she not SEE how those teens take on the worst that can possibly happen to a person (and that does happen) and how they survive? I guess not. Which, ultimately, makes me feel sorry for her.

But still mad. Oh, yeah, still mad. Mostly, I think, because of that book-review feel the editorial has. Gurdon is a good writer; she knows how to organize her thoughts, how to analyze a book and pull examples out of it, how to write a clear sentence. But I feel like she’s used this writing, this review structure, to pretty up what is still a nasty, narrow vision of who our kids are and what they have the right to read…to choose. Basically, I don’t like how she’s wrapped up her views. I don’t like her cover. And I don’t much like what’s inside it.

But guess what? I didn’t tell her not to write it. And I made my own choice about whether or not to read it. Because that is how it’s supposed to work.

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12 thoughts on “Darkness Too Visible: My Take on Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ Editorial

  1. Totally agree with you. The only one of my 3 sons to read was my youngest. He reat the cat series (can’t remember the name of the author). He devoured those books. They were about battles, betrayal, and surviving against the odds. I didn’t choose those books for him. He did. I checked them out, didn’t see anything wrong and bought them for him. Why? Cause he was reading, that’s why. If these young people need an escape from the torment of their every day ordeals and they chose one of the books mentioned in Gurdon’s review and it helps them, then how is that wrong. You’re so right, her column read like a review. I looked at this and saw where she said several libraries (probably school ones) accept these books, gave them favorable reviews, yet these same people have banned Harry Potter series from school, which is perfect for kids.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Were the cat books The Warrior series? I read a lot of those & had fun with them.

      And how is reading ever wrong? 🙂

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  2. Very nicely put, Becky. I, too, thought the article (editorial?) was poorly written. Interesting that the title has the word “darkness” in it, cause that’s what it seems the writer would have us keep our nearly-adults in.

    I do wonder, however, whether the Barnes and Noble in question was stocking enough of the lighter reading available to the age group. Perhaps it doesn’t sell quickly enough. That shopper might have had better luck at the library.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know–that title? How can darkness ever be TOO visible?

      I have walked out of B&N’s YA section without finding a book for my son–I do think they’re probably weighted a certain way. But I don’t only shop at B&N, and I don’t rely on them to be the place I find out about books. I read online, I read blogs, I check the shelves at my library, and–yeah–I ask my son! 🙂

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  3. Lovely article, Becky. I had an idyllic childhood marred by depression and self-abuse. So I see both sides and felt I was saved by the books I read that told me I was not alone.

    This is why I write for teens today. Thanks for your sage words.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Janet, I’m so glad you found something in books to really give you help. And I’m glad you’ve turned that into writing for teens yourself.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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    • beckylevine says:

      There is, and I read a lot of it. And then I push myself to read the harder stuff, because it’s wonderful and amazing, too. 🙂

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  4. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I usually ignore these essays, too, but more and more lately I’m feeling that if we don’t talk back, the hysteria and fear will prevail. I don’t want an essay like Gurdon’s to stand unchallenged, as if it is the definitive word on the subject.

    I also found it ironic that she cited Judy Blume as an example of less offensive material–does she not know that Judy Blume was on the cutting edge, that Blume suffered censorship herself? That Blume is only considered more mainstream now because she and others fought hard for that recognition and acceptance?

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know, it starts to feel like overkill or extra recognition for someone like this writer when everyone responds, but on the other hand, silence is the worse. So I do jump in sometimes.

      Her examples and her explanations just all felt incredibly muddled to me, as if she couldn’t get past a need to analyze, to get to whatever her purpose is.

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