Darkness Too Visible

Darkness Too Visible

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

Authors and publishers are all atwitter about this article that appeared over the weekend in the online edition of The Wall Street Journal. Meghan Cox Gurdon, who writes regularly about children’s books for the WSJ, asks:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: 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.

She attributes this trend to the 1967 publication of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

And I don’t know quite what to think about Gurdon’s argument because I can see both sides of the issue.

On the one hand, as a writer, I’m against all forms of attempted censorship. Every year I blog here about Banned Books Week, and during that week I wear my red button that proclaims “I read banned books.” In my opinion, censorship has no place in American society.

On the other hand, I have a 12-year-old niece and 10-year-old nephew for whom I have always enjoyed buying books as birthday and holiday gifts. But just recently, for my niece’s 12th birthday, I resorted to the cop-out of a book store gift card because I don’t want to give a book I know nothing about and I haven’t had time to keep up with what’s current in children’s and young adult (YA) literature.

But is censorship at the library, school, or bookstore level the answer to the problem of graphic YA literature about incest, pedophilia, eating disorders, and other mental health issues? Gurdon seems to support those who would stop access to such books:

everyone does not share the same objectives. 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.

Yet the issue isn’t quite this simple. Gurdon is correct that availability of violence and depravity on the Internet and in videogames does not justify their appearance in YA literature, but she completely ignores the fact that most adult objection to the content of children’s literature involves not the subject matter itself, but concern by the religious right over what they consider to be unchristian–for example, condemnation of the Harry Potter series because it deals with witchcraft. When this type of concern enters the equation, it’s not so easy to tolerate censorship in public schools or public libraries. While parents certainly have the right to try to prevent their children from reading works that they consider sacrilegious, those parents do not have the right to decide which works are available for my children to read.

That decision is my right–and my responsibility.

And I guess that’s why I find Gurdon’s article so frustrating: She does not offer a single practical suggestion for how I can fulfill that responsibility. Sure, she seems to favor censorship, but her argument is so facile as to be meaningless. And yes, it would be nice if authors and publishers of YA literature would censor themselves and stay away from such dark themes. But does she really think that is going to happen? In the meantime, all parents can do is pay attention to what their kids are reading and talk with them about the issues those books contain.