Annnd, we're back. It seems that every year or two, someone launches a discussion of the 'degeneration' of books for children and teens -- especially teens. In the June 4 Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an "article"(my apologies for the sarcastic quotes; you'll see why in a moment) entitled "Darkness Too Visible," bemoaning the "damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds." Seriously? An op-ed, I can see, but the WSJ actually seems to depict this piece as a news article. Nice, objective descriptors, Ms. Gurdon. Despite my biases regarding censorship or anything that smacks of it, the article has any number of flaws, not the least of which being that neither the author nor the mother portrayed in the lede anecdote appears to have spent any time in the young adult section of a bookstore or with teenagers, for that matter.
Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three, stood recently in the young-adult section of her local Barnes & Noble, in Bethesda, Md., feeling thwarted and disheartened.
She had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." She left the store empty-handed.
Nothing? Really? If I get out of a bookstore having spent less than $50 on books for my 12-year-old daughter, I count myself fortunate. Now, I'll grant you that Caitlin's tastes run more toward middle-grade fantasy right now than to YA, but I've spent a fair amount of time in the YA shelves myself, and while, yes, there are any number of "dark" novels (and a fair amount of cotton-candy tripe), there are also books I can't wait to buy for her, or for myself.
Regarding the topic of "darkness" in literature: it's always been there, always will be. But, besides the persistence of this debate, modern parents need to pull our collective heads out of the sand. (I was going to say that we need to pull our heads out of somewhere else, but this is a family blog.) Anyone who thinks that sheltering a teen from topics such as drug use, suicide, cutting, or rape will somehow prevent these things from ever touching the child's world wins the Ostrich of the Year award. Ms. Gurdon claims that teen literature delves deeper into these topics than the books of 30 or 40 years ago. I'm sure she's correct. And, I say GOOD.
"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. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds." As the mother of a pending teen, and with two more children trailing in her wake, I hate to face this, but adolescence is a "hideously distorted [portrayal] of what life is."
25 years ago, I shied away from the darker books. I read The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies in school, but at home I gravitated toward Anne of Green Gables, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Whimsey, and a rather deplorable series of historical romances. At school, there were gang fights, drug use, teen pregnancy, bomb threats, and bullying. My junior year, one of my best friends attempted suicide. She called me immediately after swallowing the pills. A year or two later, the brother of another friend succeded in his suicide attempt -- bullets are more decisive. My point? Exposure or lack thereof to "dark" topics didn't change my adolescent interactions with the real world. But, reading about misfits and loners made me feel less alone.
While the WSJ piece shies away from actually advocating censorship (though some of the wording terrifyingly echoes 1950s purity standards), it seems to suggest that a movement should be made by parents to push for the writing of enlightening work. Ok, here is my message to every author, editor, bookseller, and librarian. Give my children the truth. Give them words that speak to their hopes and to their fears. Give them fodder for their minds and their imaginations. Give them insight into lives completely foreign to their experiences and give them insight into their own hearts. Give them books that comfort them, and give them books that terrify them, opening the dark places of their hearts and letting out the decay. I don't care what words you write, just write the truth and let them decide what to do with it.
Regarding censorship, and for those who wonder whether I really am ready to put my money where my mouth is, the piece below was written by me in 2010 and originally posted at http://www.blogcritics.org:
Sexual situations involving minors, vulgar language, murder, violence, drug use, rebellion against parental authority, suicide. What sort of rating would this work garner, and how can parents protect their children from such obscenity?
In case I slurred around the tongue firmly adhered to the lining of my cheek, the work in question is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I have recently read several online discussions regarding a trend toward a purportedly excessive use of realism in children’s and young adult literature. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1101971/Childrens-books-violent-need-health- warning.html http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/specials/edinburgh/article6808533.ece
Imagine a world with content advisories or ratings listed on the backs of middle grade and YA books.
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton – gang violence, language
A Ring of Endless Light, Madeline L’Engle – death, discussions of sexual situations, partial nudity
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg -- runaway children, theft, nudity
The list could continue ad infinitum. I recognize the concerns involved in the exposure of children to the grittier side of reality. I recognize that a time and place exists for discussions of death, sex, violence, substance abuse, etc. However, as a mother of three, I am painfully aware that we do not always get to choose the time and place for such discussions.
Our children dwell in an imperfect world. We cannot and should not protect them from the knowledge of the darker sides of life. Death and violence will confront them regardless of whether they have been prepared. As they enter adolescence, sexual feelings and confusion will swamp them despite our careful censorship of their media exposure. The drug dealer on the corner or in the schoolyard does not care that we prohibited the book depicting substance abuse.
My oldest child is a frighteningly precocious ten-year old. She reads at the level of a high school sophomore. Discussions of appropriate content are not an abstract argument in our household. At the deepest levels of maternal terror and concern, I want my children to never have to face the darkness of violence, loss, or addiction. I’d prefer also for them to exist in a sexual vacuum until they are well gone from my house. However, this choice is not mine. My husband and I have instead made the decision to discuss rather than censor content with our children.
Have media ratings http://www.mpaa.org/FlmRat lessened the problems of sexual promiscuity, violence, and substance abuse in children and teens? I have been unable to find any data that suggests that these instances have declined since 1968. Personally, I would prefer my children to watch a movie depicting intelligent themes that spark meaningful discussion, even if that film contains scenes of sex or violence, than to have them watch some of the blather that passes for children’s programming. Given the choice between showing them Joss Whedon’s Serenity and Sponge Bob Square Pants, I’m going to stick with Joss. There may be moments in which I experience discomfort, but at least I won’t have to watch the grey matter ooze from my children’s ears.
In a world that has become increasingly sanitized, polarized, and consequently unreal, books are one of the last havens of intelligent discourse and truly free speech. To have children’s authors constrained by arbitrary standards of “decency” would be a travesty. Should an author shy away from writing a book that deals with difficult topics such as drug use, rape, depression, or discrimination in a meaningful way for fear of being saddled with a “Mature” rating and thus becoming unmarketable for a publisher?
Discussions of book censorship are far from new. http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/Speech/libraries/topic.aspx?topic=banned_books Notions of content censorship date back to the ancient Greeks. From the advent of the printing press, various groups have attempted to control the spread and content of the written word. In my opinion, placing content warnings or ratings on books would facilitate the descent into censorship.
It has become far too easy, and tragically common for parents to relinquish the responsibility of rearing their children. Warnings, Ratings, Parental Control devices and software have enabled parents to avoid looking critically at the exposure of their children to outside influences. Rather than look to outside sources to tell us what our children “should” or “shouldn’t” read, as parents, we need to accept responsibility. Books can be incredible jumping-off points for frank and necessary discussions. Classic literature is rife with examples of phrases and scenarios which many would consider unacceptable in modern society. Rather than avoiding a book or skimming over an inappropriate slur when reading to children, why not use the opportunity to discuss the changes in social ideals? A YA novel may contain discussions of sexuality or sexual situations that a parent considers inappropriate. Rather than forbidding the novel (which the child will then read in secret), the parent could have a frank discussion with the child about their family’s sexual mores.
The value of the written word lies in its ability to stimulate imagination and critical thought. If we seek to shelter our children from the richness of literature, we do them a grave disservice. Life the predator is not tamed simply because we choose to ignore the fangs. Let us send our children into the arena armed with the wisdom of storytellers.