Young Adult fiction unfiltered

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In a recent article in the Bookshelf section of the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon deplores the increasingly violent and sexually explicit content of Young Adult books. Self-mutilation, rape, murder, drug addictions, and profanity are common material, more than in the past, she states. She acknowledges that such topics can validate the experiences of teens who would otherwise be voiceless. But, practicing a little armchair psychology, she adds:

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.

She makes the point that parents need not consider protecting their children from disturbing material to be censorship in the same manner that the literary community does.

Sherman Alexie, whose prize-winning YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is mentioned in Gurdon’s article, responds in Speakeasy, a blog of the Wall Street Journal. He talks about his experiences with youth who’ve read his novel:

I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.

He notes that children from all walks of life will have experienced crime and abuse and their own torments by the time they pick up a YA book. He concludes:

I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

I’m sure all of us recall the solace of a book that struck a chord during the pains of adolescence. If we didn’t like the content of a book, either its platitudes or its portrayals of depravity, we put it down and picked up another one. We still do.