Monday, June 13, 2011

The dark side of teen literature

Last week's Wall Street Journal presents a debate about the current state of young adult literature, which means books directed at ages 12-18. In an opinion piece called "Darkness Too Visible," Meghan Cox Gurdon laments today's fashion for dark, lurid, violent tales for teen readers. Gurdon worries that too much of current literature, driven by fashion and a desire for profit, may actually invite kids to wallow in degradation and misery. Novels about self-mutilation may encourage self-mutilation; novels about sexual abuse or incest may re-traumatize those who have experienced it.

National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, answers in a piece of his own called "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood." (Grumpy aside: I guess the Wall Street Journal believes in controversy but not in apostrophes.) Alexie's argument can be paraphrased as follows: "Come on, adult world, you're kidding yourselves. Bad things are happening to kids all the time. If you think you're protecting them from the harsh realities of life, you're way too late. They need someone who is willing to talk about their experience, someone to accompany them and give them a sense of hope."

I haven't read enough of the cited books to judge the justice of Gurdon's arguments. I can say that I seem to be one of very few people in the world who was turned off by what I felt was gratuitous violence in Suzanne Collins's otherwise masterful Hunger Games. I didn't like the part where the two protagonists rest safely atop a rock while listening to their rival being slowly eaten by mutant wild dogs all night long. (As an aside, one editor at a writing conference stated his belief is that the reason dystopias are so popular with young readers is that their chaos and cruelty is a direct reflection of readers' experience in the typical American high school.)

On the other hand, I loved Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which deal with a 14-year-old girl's reaction to date rape. The daughters in our mother-daughter book club were probably twelve when we read it, and it gave us mothers an opportunity to make an impassioned plea for them to come to us if they ever met such trouble.

Still, the books I'm talking about are all award winners, and it's quite possible that other books out there are much more exploitative and much less helpful to readers. I'll have to keep reading before I can make any blanket judgment. And while I applaud young adult writers who have the courage to write about life the way it is, I hope the tide of dark vision won't submerge everything. There are more subtle and even more innocent tales worth telling as well.

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