Photo courtesy Novel Novice

In one corner: critics who claim YA is nothing more than fluff in a pretty package. Certainly not “real” literature.

In the other corner: critics who gnash their teeth because today’s YA is too grim, too raw and too mature for our reading teens to handle.

In what is possibly the most asinine attack on Young Adult literature to date, Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the “darkness too visible” in today’s YA literature via the Washington Street Journal.

Let’s dissect and refute this bad-boy, shall we?:

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. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

Indeed, because it was not discussed 40 years ago, we should not discuss it now. This is sound reasoning if ever I heard it. Examples: showing pregnant women on TV; couples sleeping in the same bed; anything related to “menstruation.” OH GOD! MAKE IT STOP!

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.

Oh, this is good, this is really 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.” Has the author ever been a teen? Heck, has the author ever ventured outside her front door? All of life is a struggle against those fun-house mirrors that reflect horrible things and distorted images. That’s life. It’s in how we deal with it that makes all the difference.

What better way to work through those issues than in the pages of a book? YA works are always being labeled formulaic morality tales. So … YA is a collection of hideously distorted morality tales? Wow, and I thought fairy tales held the patent on that.  

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not. As elsewhere in American life, the 1960s changed everything. In 1967, S.E. Hinton published “The Outsiders,” a raw and striking novel that dealt directly with class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth. It launched an industry.

Yes, let’s rue the day S.E. Hinton exposed the underbelly of American social struggles to teens! Surely, their underformed minds were irrevocably damaged by the truths revealed therein.

In Jackie Morse Kessler’s gruesome but inventive 2011 take on a girl’s struggle with self-injury, “Rage,” teenage Missy’s secret cutting turns nightmarish after she is the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. “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.” Missy survives, but only after a stint as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Yes, if we ignore cutting, it will go away. I also have a twelve-inch-deep sandbox I’d like to sell you.

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. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife. [my emphasis]

Um, yes. Thank you for making my point for me. Here’s where that “morality tale” thing comes in again. Unlike authors who just write to write and say to hell with their audience, most YA writers are aware of the awesome responsibility they have when writing for young minds. Rarely do YA books have Shakespearean-tragedy endings where everyone dies and no one grows from their experiences. No, the characters eventually overcome their “straits” or at least make great strides in that direction. A teen reading the book will be shown that said obstacle is surmountable. Oh, hey! And here are the steps you can take!

By contrast, the latest novel by “this generation’s Judy Blume,” otherwise known as Lauren Myracle, takes place in a small Southern town in the aftermath of an assault on a gay teenager. The boy has been savagely beaten and left tied up with a gas pump nozzle shoved down his throat, and he may not live.

Matthew Shepard, anyone? Perhaps we should rewrite history, as well.

 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!”

As a relatively conservative parent of young children, I take offense to this. There is a difference between being the gatekeeper for your own children and telling everyone else’s what they can and can’t read. Also, I don’t wear petticoats. Much.

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.

No, silly, it’s parents’ job to bulldoze misery into their children’s lives, not publishers.

All kidding aside, no one forces kids to read a certain book. These things cost money–they’re not being forced on them. Even in most schools, parents have the right to object to materials they consider inappropriate. If enough people agree, there’s usually a compromise. That’s the democratic way.

A better approach, in my opinion, is to let these books open a dialogue among children and parents. Discuss the issues. Read the book along with your teen.

Concerned about content but don’t have time to read the books? There are book blogs dedicated to fulfilling this need.

Actually, almost any YA book blog will mention a book’s content level in its reviews. And there are so many YA book blogs, you’d have to have your head buried in the sandbox I sold you earlier to not find one.