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Tuesday, August 27 2013

The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books

By Meghan Cox Gurdon Notify me when this author publishesComment on Article
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MEGHAN COX GURDON has been the children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal since 2005. Her work has also appeared in numerous other publications, including the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, National Review, and the Weekly Standard. In the 1990s, she worked as an overseas correspondent in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and London, and traveled and reported from Cambodia, Somalia, China, Israel, South Korea, and Northern Ireland. She graduated magna cum laude from Bowdoin College in 1986 and lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and their five children.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, sponsored by the College’s Dow Journalism Program.

young books

ON JUNE 4, 2011, the number one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number two topic on Twitter that day—almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous—had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature . . . by me. Entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person present tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal prison, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open.

Bringing Judgment

The late critic Hilton Kramer was seated once at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen. Allen asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he’d savaged in print. “No,” Kramer said, “they’re the ones who made the bad art. I just described it.” As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.

I don’t presume to have a nose as sensitive as Hilton Kramer’s—but I do know that criticism is pointless if it’s only boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children’s books, is to engage the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct, “discrimination.” Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher’s Weekly warned of a “danger” that my arguments “encourage a culture of fear around YA literature.” But I do not, in fact, wish to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are naïve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”

What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples—but with a warning that some of what you’re about to hear is not appropriate for younger listeners.

A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears… ”

That’s from Andrew Smith’s 2010 Young Adult novel, The Marbury Lens.

A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her “cutterslut.” In response, “she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

That’s from Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 Young Adult novel, Rage.

I won’t read you the most offensive excerpts from my third example, which consist of explicit and obscene descriptions by a 17-year-old female narrator…following a breakup. Yet School Library Journal praised Daria Snadowsky’s 2008 Young Adult novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, for dealing “in modern terms with the real issues of discovering sex for the first time.” And Random House, its publisher, gushed about the narrator’s “heartbreakingly honest voice” as she recounts the “exquisite ups and dramatic downs of teenage love and heartbreak.”

The book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read whatever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.

I appeared on National Public Radio to discuss these issues with the Young Adult book author Lauren Myracle, who has been hailed as a person “on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression”—as if any controversy over whether a book is appropriate for children turns on the question of the author’s freedom to express herself. Myracle made clear that she doesn’t believe there should be any line between adult literature and literature for young people.

In saying this, she was echoing the view that prevails in many progressive, secular circles—that young people should encounter material that jolts them out of their comfort zone; that the world is a tough place; and that there’s no point shielding children from reality. I took the less progressive, less secular view that parents should take a more interventionist approach, steering their children away from books about sex and horror and degradation, and towards books that make aesthetic and moral claims.


17 Comments

  1. I could not possibly agree more with what the author of this article says.
  2. Thank you for sharing this important article. One of the challenges of mothering a teenaged voracious reader is that she has much more time to read than I do. If I cannot trust the School Library Journal or other such publications to give me a heads up about the content of the novels her friends are urging her to read, how on earth can I hope to shield her from inappropriate content? That is a serious challenge for concerned parents--the books recommended by the high school librarian are often far more violent or sexual than most adults would choose to read (well, maybe not, considering the success of 50 Shades . . . ). Any reasonable suggestions? Again, even though I am a very fast reader, there is no way I can find enough time in my life to keep up with her!
  3. BRAVO! Meghan Gurdon's article hits the nail exactly and precisely on the head. When I was a Beehive advisor for 12 and 13-year-old girls, The Hunger Game books were being passed around among them. I decided I should read them so I could keep abreast of what they perceived as noble in children's literature. When I plunged into the opening chapters, I couldn't believe what I was reading. I was almost sickened by them, yet I went from page to page until I was caught up in the story of Katnis and her "adventures." I am a writer of children's literature, but have yet to see anything published. I took a children's writing course and one of the books my instructor gushed about was the Marbury Lens. I got to the fourth chapter and was sickened by what I read and I thought with horror that my Beehives and other children might read this book. I never finished it. I have picked up other books recommended by those who travel in book circles and find myself just as horrified by what is depicted as right and acceptable. Thank you for including Meghan's article in your newsletter. It is my hope that more parents will read or understand what kinds of books their children are reading. That's why I read The Hunger Games books and other books that my girls were reading.....I wanted to know not only what was out there, but also the affect that these books would have on them and on their thinking. Bravo to you and to Meghan Gurdon.
  4. Thank you for this timely article. It is right on. As an avid reader of whatever I could get my hands on as a teenager, I know the books I read affected me and the way I thought about and dealt with life. Thankfully there were many beautiful books in the mix to counter the ugly.
  5. I am an LDS writer and i saw the need to write gentle books with interesting subject. I think that keeping books with good and needful and helpful subject to help children understand some basic God like actions. in my children's book "A Week Of Bunnies" children learn kindness, love, hard work and sharing. In my other books , they show unity, love and working together with good goals and just enough humor to be good reading.
  6. Have I got a YA book for you: Crayton House by Heidi Whatcott. It's on authonomy.com and was just posted a day or two ago. It is not only a great read, but has the highest standards. If enough people vote for it, Harper-Collins will look at it.
  7. How refreshing this is! Thank you for shedding light on a subject that has bothered me as a mother and grandmother. I truly hope that the "right will prevail." Great article.
  8. My daughter is 12 and began Junior High last week. I have been thinking a lot lately about what books are good for her to read. Is there an online reference for good young adult books?
  9. thank you for speaking out on this issue. I was astonished to see an entire section devoted to (something like) YA Vampires at Barnes & Noble recently. And then my 13-year-old's recent library receipt: City of the Dead, Dark Companion, Ashes, Super Human, etc. I hate to judge a book by it's cover (or title), but with the shift to the YA section, I will have to step up in a big way to guide my child's reading. Tough, when any proposal from mom is immediately suspect. . . . just like clothes, she wants to pick her own . . . We will start with the "self policing' talk for now. Anyways, thank you so much for raising my awareness of the content of many of these books, and keep speaking out for quality literature.
  10. I agree with Ms. Gurdon. In the first place, poor taste is also the equivalent of irresponsibility. Secondly, young adults who have been sexually abused or been too close to murder don't generally want to immerse themselves in books that don't offer some kind of hope, help or resolution to their psyche. It's more like rubbing salt into an open wound to seek it out and read about it. Anyone parading the "rights of minors" to read trashy books are more likely using young people for their own greed. Minors have limitations in every other facet of life--they can't vote, get married without parental permission, drive a car before a certain age in most states, enter into a legal and binding contract, or even apply for a job before a certain age. Young children exposed to sexually explicit material are traumatized by it. Young adults often don't realize they have the right to say "NO!" to someone who wants to use them and take advantage of them. The media -- especially music -- has lost all semblance of good taste and a local radio station claims to be "proper" enough to be used in the workplace and even as the "hold" music on the phone system and yet they have songs with foul language and verbal erotica emphasized by a very pronounced beat. I'm so sick of the glut of tastelessness, I haven't watched television in years. I've put my time to better use and have written four novels suitable for young adults that also appeals to adults--nothing explicit, but the romance, chemistry, love, and respect are off the scale. Are there murders? Yes, there's even a war, but no graphic violence or torture and so far the reviews are excellent. This proves that books don't have to be tasteless garbage to appeal to the masses.
  11. This is an awesome commentary about why we need to read good books!
  12. Excellent article. You validate many of the concerns I have had for some time now. Years back I refused to get caught up in the popular series about a young wizard. It is not an easy path to stand alone as the fierce winds blow at you in the form of criticism (from your ward family even). Not long ago I took a similar stand against another popular series where in a supposed "highly advanced" nation 12-18 year olds fight to the death. To quote the commonly asked question; "really " Is there a shortage of wisdom?
  13. Thank you for expressing these ideas so well. I remember the wonderful books that I read as a child and YA; the ones that allowed me to see how honorable, dedicated, talented, average people worked through their challenges and overcame them. I learned that bad things happen, but good people get through them without being degraded themselves. Books (and movies) are too powerful to be allowed to sink into depravity without a fight.
  14. Loved this article! Without a doubt we are influenced by the things we read. Young adults and children are particularly susceptible to this influence. Thank you Ms. Gurdon
  15. Thanks for the great article and insight. As a mother, grandmother and also a professional who has worked in high school libraries for 20 years...I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Gurdon. Just as music television, and other forms of 'entertainment' have become more vulgar and crass over the last few decades, so has literature. I shouldn't be surprised that so many YA authors think all kids use profanity, are having sex, experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol and bemoaning the fact that their young lives suck. Too many adults don't want to censor their own lives let alone protect our children's...case in point the MTV awards show where an older man, who is also a husband & father, was gyrating on stage while singing a disgusting song to a scantily dressed woman young enough to be his daughter. He obviously has no respect for women. My experience is that kids are just like the rest of us...they have struggles and want solutions; believe in love but don't always know how/when it will happen; understand life is hard, but want to know it can and will get better. When it comes to books, whether for fun or serious reading, kids just want a great story they can either sink their teeth into or one that helps their imaginations run wild. Classic stories are timeless because they do not cater to whims or fads of the moment. That is why Austen, S.E. Hinton, C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, Rawlings, Lowry, Paulson and others like them will still be popular another 25 yrs. from now while other, more 'cutting edge' writers, will simply fade away. Good writers lift and inspire, energize us into action, or give us hope in the face of daunting troubles. Their stories help us see that beauty can be found all around...especially within. There are really good YA authors out there...we just have to look a little harder to find them and let them know how we feel.
  16. As a mom of a 16 year old daughter who loves to read (yay) where can I find the books that will elevate and encourage her? Is there a list or website to help me help her choose thoughtful uplifting literature?
  17. Right on! A couple days ago, I looked at a display at my local library, indignantly featuring a list of censured books. Almost every book had been banned from lower grade schools due to parent concerns about explicit sexuality, violence, etc. Oh the injustice! My mother sent me a hard copy of this article, which was published by Imprimis (Hillsdale College), and I agree absolutely. Books belong in the library. Trash belongs in the trash.

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