Every so often, there's a news article, or a television program, or a radio talk show in which it is stated that teenagers today are bombarded by too much darkness in the media.
It doesn't matter if it's violent video games, violence in television or movies, rap music, or novels, the argument is the same. Exposure to violence and darkness in the media will prompt teens to act on what they see.
The most recent offering in this vein was a June 4 article in The Wall Street Journal headlined, "Darkness Too Visible," by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who reviews children's books for the paper. In that piece, the author states that Young Adult (YA) fiction has more dark themes than ever.
She uses the example of 46-year-old Amy Freeman, a mother of three, who was searching through her local Barnes & Noble for a book to give her 13-year-old daughter. Freeman, we're told, was unable to find any book she could give her daughter because there was "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."
I find it hard to believe that Freeman was unable to find a book to give her teenage daughter, and what's most troubling is that it appears Freeman only looked at covers and not content.
"Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her," Gurdon writes, which brought her to that conclusion.
Had Freeman looked at those books, she would've found stories by authors like Meg Cabot, Scott Westerfeld, Lois Lowry, Sarah Dessen or other storytellers who really do tell uplifting YA tales. I wonder as well what sort of books Freeman was looking at that revealed "hundreds" of lurid covers.
The cover of the book "Matched" by Ally Condie is quite tame: A girl in a green dress, sitting inside a bubble. What's lurid about that?
Gurdon uses Freeman's example as a lead-in to wring her hands over the state of YA fiction today. All the darkness in YA, Gurdon says, which includes incest, pederasty, brutal beatings, rape, self-harm and other dark story lines means "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."
The truth of the matter is that teens are confronted by these very issues each day, a point that Gurdon readily admits, and yet somehow uses to claim that fiction shouldn't reflect these realities. She holds up the "tenderness of heart" that teenagers apparently possess, as something to be preserved. I don't know what teenagers Gurdon knows, but I can guarantee that tenderness of heart isn't something she needs to be concerned about.
A friend and I were talking about the article, and she revealed that her youngest son said it's common to stumble across students performing sex acts in the unsupervised sections of his high school. The building is large and not well-staffed, so there are lots of hidden places students can go to engage in activities that their parents don't approve of. So to say those teens have a "tenderness of heart" that needs to be preserved, smacks of moralizing.
This wish that Gurdon has to expunge dark topics from YA is damaging in the worst way. The national conversation over "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson, a story about a girl overcoming the trauma of being raped, has, I'm sure, helped thousands of girls deal with the same thing. Gurdon would decry the publication of novels such as "Speak", whose heroic characters overcome the darkness in their own lives to become functioning members of society.
She'd disallow the publication of Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," or Cheryl Rainsfield's "Scars," or any dark and difficult story, maintaining that teens are too sensitive to deal well with these topics, and we should preserve their young and fragile minds.
If we follow Gurdon's path, we risk raising a generation of teenagers unable to process the darkness that exists in the real world. Oh, and by the way? Stories like "Scars," wherein a girl cuts herself to deal with being raped by her father, reflect what actually happens to some people. Author Cheryl Rainsfield wrote "Scars" based on her own life experiences. Books allowed her to survive her ordeals, yet Gurdon would deny that same chance to others.
Books are not something to shield teens from. Reading a violent story won't make your son or daughter a murderer, or make them cheat on a test, or even somehow make them believe that raping one of their classmates is OK.
Reading that book will instead force them to think for themselves and grow as people.
So I say keep the darkness in YA fiction, because it prepares teens for the world ahead. And that is the best gift you can give.
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Matthew Delman is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Beverly.