The Kids Are All Right

Oh, look, someone’s clutching their pearls and saying “Won’t anyone think of the children” without actually thinking of the children.

Or even talking to any of the children.

Again.

Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” with a subtitle that tips us off to her bias right away:

Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

I dunno, Mrs. Gurdon.  Maybe it’s because contemporary teens’ real lives are already rife with explicit abuse and violence.  Teens are victims of bullying, rape, physical and emotional abuse.  Some of the ones who are lucky enough not to be victims themselves know victims.  They are shoulders to cry on for friends whose parents hit them.  They attend the funerals of friends who’ve committed suicide because the real world was too much. Teens live these experiences every. single. day.

And “depravity?”  Really?  Let me guess:  Thou shalt not talk about sex, or even acknowledge your naughty bits until marriage.

Guess what, Mrs. Gurdon:  teens have sex.  It’s not icky.  It’s not depraved. It’s not always crisp linens and roses and promises of forever, but neither is it dirty, or shameful, or bad.  You can stick your fingers in your ears and shout LALALA all you want, those kids are going to go right on shucking their clothes and making each other feel good.  If their parents are going to pretend it ain’t happening, if grown-ups aren’t going to sit down and have honest, open non-judgmental conversations with their kids about sex, then YA authors are already being more supportive of teens than the “authority figures” in their lives.

They’re probably explaining things a lot better, too.

Mrs. Gurdon starts off with one mother feeling “thwarted and disheartened” at the selection of YA books. She left the store without buying a book for her 13-year-old daughter.  That’s pretty sad.  Did Ms. Freeman ask anyone at the store for help recommending something that met her criteria?  This is what booksellers do day in and day out:  they help readers find something that fits their tastes.  How about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon? Or some Madeleine L’Engle?

Or how about we ask the 13-year-old what she likes to read?

I notice that Mrs. Gurdon leaves out Ms. Freeman’s daughter’s tastes, and have to wonder if she even asked Ms. Freeman what sort of books her daughter enjoys reading.

I understand — and whole-heartedly encourage — parents being aware of the books their children read.  If Ms. Freeman doesn’t want her daughter reading sexy vampire books, that’s between Ms. Freeman and her daughter.  So one woman doesn’t want her kid exposed to certain themes and situations in books.  That’s okay. It would stop being okay if Ms. Freeman told any other parent that their kids couldn’t read those books, either.

Which is what Mrs. Gurdon seems to be suggesting ought to happen.  She laments that the YA on the shelves now is

So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

What a misleading, dismissive way to put it.  You’d think, from Mrs. Gurdon’s suggestion, that the characters in these books give violence a big ol’ yawn.  “Ho hum, Joe’s dad beat him to within an inch of his life last night. Whatevs.

That’s not how it is.  Not at all.  The characters in these books experience the horrors of violence and are shocked, hurt, devastated by it.  You know what else they do?  They survive it.  They come out the other side. Just like they do outside of those pages, every day.  In real life.

Mrs. Gurdon goes on to say that:

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.

You know why they went undescribed in print?  Why they were “sparingly outlined” twenty years ago?

Because those things were considered shameful. The shame wasn’t directed at the person committing the violence.  The victims were the ones tut-tutted.  Because if your dad hit you, it wasn’t supposed to be anyone else’s business.  Hell, forty, fifty years ago, it was his right to do so. If you were raped, you were a slut, not a victim.  You probably asked for it.  You probably deserved it.

Welcome to the 2010s, Mrs. Gurdon, where victims can say that’s bullshit. Where they can say this was wrong. Where they can say no, and stop, and can be told it wasn’t their fault.  They didn’t have it coming.  That no one should do these things to them.

YA writers help readers find their voices.  They show people it can get better.  Their characters are going through the same things these kids are, and if it helps even one reader get out of a bad situation, or it helps even one victim seek help, then they’ve done more for these kids than anyone else has.

Isn’t that a powerful thing?  Isn’t that a good thing?

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.

Man, I want to live in the world Mrs. Gurdon inhabits.  It seems like it’s all sunshine and fluffy bunnies over there.  In this world — the real, every day world — teens experience violence and brutality every goddamned day.  They don’t just read about it; they live it.  Fun-house mirrors?  There are kids out there whose lives are worse than what’s in the books.  Remember how I said up above that the characters (usually) survive it?  That they come out the other side?

Some kids here in the real world never do.

You tell me who’s guilty of hideous distortion here, Mrs. Gurdon.  Because I’m thinking it might be you.

It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart.

Okay, now I know Mrs. Gurdon’s living in a world filled with fluffy bunnies and rainbows.   Ma’am, bad things happen.  It’s called life. Watch the six o’clock news.  Read a newspaper.  Even better, talk to an actual teenager.  You can hide all the dirty books, but it’s not going to stop reality from rolling right along.

Mrs. Gurdon reminisces about the good old days of S.E. Hinton and Go Ask Alice (except, not really.  She turns her nose up at them, pointing them out as the start of this whole shameful mess.)  Then goes on to discuss two modern-day examples, Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Jackie Kessler’s Rage. While I’ve not read either of these (yet), I did read Kessler’s Hunger, and found it a raw, wonderful, brilliant book.  You’d think, from Mrs. Gurdon’s account, that Kessler’s glamorizing eating disorders and cutting, but if she’d actually, y’know, read for comprehension rather than digging around for shocking quotes, she’d have realized the care and compassion Ms. Kessler has for her characters.

For the briefest of heartbeats, Mrs. Gurdon seems to twig to what’s going on here:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting.

DING DING DING.  GIVE THIS WOMAN A COOKIE.

Oh, wait.  Don’t.  She kept writing:

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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.

Right.  Of course.  We should instead point at the kids who are hurting themselves — because they’re already hurting — and tell them how ashamed they should be.  How their eating disorders make them strange.  How their cutting makes them freaks. As though they’re not already feeling that way.  As though they’re not already feeling alone.  Keep those kids hidden.  Keep them hiding.  They’re only doing it because everyone else is, because all the cool kids are doing it.

Has Mrs. Gurdon ever even met a teenager?  How about one that lives in this reality?

That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.

Psst.  Mrs. Gurdon.  Right there?  You’ve just done a whole lot of discounting.  Pro tip:  when you start a sentence with “that is not to discount X,” you’re either winding up to discount X or have just done so.  It’s kind of like when you preface something with “I don’t mean to sound like an asshole but,” you’re about to be an asshole.

She mentions Judy Blume, of course, and how when Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret was published it was “then-daring.”  Yep.  In the 1970s, talking candidly about a girl getting her period was a big deal.  We’re forty-one years past that, Mrs. Gurdon, and you can’t even bring yourself to write the word “period” here, can you?  That’s pretty clear from her condemnation of Lauren Myracle’s writing use of “language that can’t be reprinted in a newspaper.” (She also fails to mention that Ms. Myracle has several books for middle-grade readers that are probably what earned her the Judy Blume comparison more than Shine, which Mrs. Gurdon focused on.  Quality reporting, that.)

It is also extremely telling that, out of the eleven “recommended reading” books on the sidebar (conveniently separated into books for young men and books for young women because you know, sugar and spice vs snails and pails), all but three of them were written or are set before 1975.  The three set post-1960 are all on the young men’s list.  Two of them are set in dystopian futures (the truly excellent Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. (which really can appeal to teens of either gender, thanks) and Fahrenheit 451. About, y’know, burning books.)  I’m not sure why the third, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can’t be for young women, too.  Is it the male protagonists that put them there?

Mrs. Gurdon then descends into one of my favorite subjects:  book banning.  (And I have to wonder:  has she actually read Fahrenheit 451? Does she know what it’s ultimately about?)

Why, yes, I’m rubbing my hands together.  Why do you ask?

She pits the book industry against parents, because they are one another’s natural enemies.  It’s like Superman vs Lex Luthor, Batman vs the Joker, God vs Satan.

The book industry vs. parents.

But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question. Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books. In a letter excerpted by the industry magazine, the Horn Book, several years ago, an editor bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, “Inexcusable,” which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. “I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,” the editor grumbled, “I don’t want to compromise on how kids really talk. I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.”

By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

Dear Mrs. Gurdon,

If a parent doesn’t want their kids to read certain books, it is that parent’s right not to allow their own children to read them.

It is NOT any parent’s right to tell other parents what books the other parents’ children can and cannot read.

That’s not “guiding what young people read.”

That’s book banning.  That’s censorship.  It’s not judgement or taste; it’s sticking your nose into another family’s business and imposing your values on them, whether they want it or not.

I’m not pulling up my petticoats there.  I don’t wear petticoats.  I wear jeans, thank you, because this is 2011 and women haven’t had to wear petticoats for quite some time now.  You seem to have missed that fashion change.  I will, however, put on my stompin’ boots and shout — not shriek, though I see what you did there — I will shout “censorship,” and point at you and shout it some more, because it is censorship.

In seventh grade, my mom worried I’d get in trouble if my teachers saw me reading Stephen King.  My freshman year of high school, she worried I’d get booted out of my Catholic high school for reading Anne Rice.

She worried about those things, but ultimately, my parents let me read those books because they knew I was smart enough and mature enough to handle all the swearing, sex and violence that were contained within those pages.

Mrs. Gurdon quotes a children’s bookseller at Politics & Prose, stating that out of 18 recently visiting high school juniors, only 3 read YA.  I’m not sure that 18 juniors count as a relative scientific sample of all the teens in the US.  Still, 3 out of 18 is 16%.  When you consider the reports from the last couple of years that one in four people don’t read any books at all, I’ll take a handful of kids in Washington DC saying that they do. I’m also not even sure what point Mrs. Gurdon was trying to support with that comment.  That no one’s reading YA because 15 kids in Washington DC didn’t?  Did they ask those kids how many actually read at all?  I think that’s pretty relevant to the overall question.  If out of those 18, only four were regular readers, your whole conversation just changed, now, didn’t it?

The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. 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

Sweet zombie Jesus, talk about pigeonholing and oversimplification.

Yes, the book industry sells books.

This statement is ridiculous.  It’s like saying the auto industry exists to sell cars, or the food industry exists to sell food.

The book industry sells books to readers.  Readers are people who think and feel and experience.  Sometimes those experiences are unpleasant.  Sometimes it’s good to know that there is someone else out there in the universe who is going through what you are.  Teens need to know they’re not alone, even when they feel like they are.  That what they’re going through is normal — and who defines what’s normal, anyway?  You, Mrs. Gurdon?  I certainly hope not.

Mrs. Gurdon, people in the book industry — writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, librarians — are not parents’ enemies. You know who is a parent’s worst enemy?

Closed-minded, head-in-the-sand, I-know-what’s-good-for-you-better-than-you-do people like you.

Because you don’t know what’s good for me, for teens, for readers.  You don’t get to tell people what to read or what not to read.  Pretending that bad things don’t happen doesn’t make them go away. Actually, pretending it doesn’t happen enables the abusers to keep doing what they’re doing.  Shaming the victims makes them remain victims.  It keeps people who need help from seeking it because you’re telling them they’ve done something wrong.

Teens are smart.  They’re capable of making their own decisions.  Suggesting they’re not responsible enough to think about what they’re reading, feeling, experiencing doesn’t give them anywhere near the credit they deserve.  They’re human beings, not fragile dolls in danger of shattering.

And most of them are smarter than you and me.  I’ll trust them to make their own decisions, and have informed conversations with their parents about the choices they make.

How about you try doing the same?

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2 Responses to The Kids Are All Right

  1. Will Duncan says:

    excellent writing and you are right to boot.

  2. Man, this has to be one of the best of all the awesome columns I’ve read on this subject today. WOW but you blew my socks off. Thank you!

    Beth Fehlbaum, YA author (and survivor of childhood sexual abuse who drew on her own experiences as a survivor to write…)

    Courage in Patience (and)Hope in Patience (because I know that there are literally millions of others out there in the world still suffering and I thought they could use a survival story)..

    http://www.bethfehlbaumya.com (check out chapter previews if you dare…)

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