Friday, June 10, 2011

YA and the WSJ

Ah, so much has been written in the last week since the June 4th Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon asked the question: Is Darkness Too Visible? There has been the outcry on twitter and the creation of #yasaves thanks to author Maureen Johnson. There have been the blog posts of Laurie Halse Anderson, Struck Between Rage and Compassion:

“Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.”

Read Roger, the Horn Book Editor who advised: 

"If you're a teen who is running your reading choices by your parents, grow up. If you're a parent who feels compelled to approve your child's reading, shut up. The books and the kids are all right."

and Barry Lyga's triumphant declaration:
          "I refuse to justify my art." 

There have been the parodies, the funniest by Sarah Ockler in her post All This Darkness! What to Buy the Grown Up Reader? (A Parody):

“I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.” responded with their own online article: Has Young Adult Fiction Become Too Dark?  in which the Mary Elizabeth Williams who spoke for many parents born and raised as readers in the 1970’s and 80’s:

“I grew up on Judy Blume too. I also loved V. C. Andrews. Believe me when I say that the latter's books, with their themes of brutal family abuse and incestuous rape, are trashy as hell -- and there was not a girl around for 3,000 miles who could keep her hands off them. And let me further assure you, an entire generation of women managed to devour the "Flowers in the Attic" series without having sex with their brothers.”

There have been YA history lessons, there has been debate—mostly heated—some of it respectful, some of it not. (My own local listserve posted comments to one another of varying opinions and despite the passion of both sides we were able to keep it civil.) As Editor of the Young Adult & Children’s section of Hunger Mountain, my new Assistant Editor, E. Kristin Anderson and I got started on a Hunger Mountain Round-Up of voices In Defense of YA. Within twenty minutes or so of putting out the call to YA authors and readers had a list of twenty plus authors who were willing contributors to the Hunger Mountain article which will be published in early August. 

Why is Hunger Mountain chiming in so late when this is the week to let our voices be heard? Because the story is still going on. Meghan Cox Gurdon, with the WSJ, says she has more to say and though we may not want to hear it, we do want to report on it. To consider it. 

And, then there was yesterday’s WSJ Speakeasy post by Sherman Alexie, author of The True Diary of the Part Time Indian, that was attacked in the WSJ “editorial” along with several other books. Alexie’s response Why The Best Books Are Written in Blood which brought new relevance to the conversation—just when we thought no more on the issue could be said.

“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.
As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life…And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. 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.”

Alexie’s response brought my teen self to the surface. I am writing an older YA—one where there is darkness and violence, mental illness, suicide, blood but no gore. There are lots of questions and no easy answers, which is exactly how I felt as a teen. 

I remember going into the school library before classes and at lunch periods—sometimes with a book—other times with only my pen and paper. I wrote poems—thousands of bad poems. I remember writing with one thought: “One day, I will be heard.” The girl I was had a voice and the woman I am today has the strength to let that voice be heard. She also has the strength to listen to the conversations that swirl around her. No one had to tell me that the world was dark. I didn’t read that in a book or see it for myself on TV. I saw it in my everyday life. But I did learn about hope from stories. I learned about it in fiction—I learned about it in sharing our mutual brokenness. I learn about light each time I read a book where “darkness is visible,” and each time I encourage myself to write so that “one day, I will be heard.” 

I’ve come to the conclusion, that if YA is too dark, it is because our world is too dark. It is also because no one is looking at the light that is there. The hope, courage, and truth that comes from writing and reading books that have us bleed. Though we may live in the dark when we write and read a little bit of light always finds us. Always.  

Maybe that is why long before this brouhaha started, over at Hunger Mountain, the theme of May through Sept. issue was dubbed The Varying Shade of Shadows. I wrote in the original Welcome Letter to the issue: "We writers love dichotomy—for it is in the exploring of seeming polar opposites that we find the “good stuff”—the betwixt, between-ness of our natures." So with all this talk of darkness, what we are really doing is exposing the light. And I, for one, thank Meghan Cox Gurdon for that.

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