This weekend, Meghan Cox Gurdon opined in The Wall Street Journal that the current generation of young adult fiction is ‘too dark’ for readers; ‘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.’ This naturally set off an explosion of controversy and accompanying meteoric pageviews for the Journal, which published a tepid rebuttal on Sunday morning.
Young adult authors like Laurie Halse Anderson, Libba Bray, and Maureen Johnson spoke out in support of ‘dark’ YA fiction, as did agents like Janet Reid, and many others, including readers, librarians, teachers, and parents. Johnson even created a hashtag, #YAsaves, for people to discuss the profound impact that young adult literature has had on their lives. It quickly became the third highest trending topic in the United States and spawned a slew of blog posts from passionate readers and writers talking about what young adult literature had done for them.
Gurdon’s patronising and offensive article came complete with a sidebar that included gendered book recommendations of a more ‘acceptable’ nature than Go Ask Alice, Speak, and Scars, apparently. The underlying assumptions behind Gurdon’s piece seem to be rooted in the idea that children read books with heavy content and ‘go bad,’ when in fact the opposite is true. Some children lead dark lives and they read books with intense themes to find protagonists they identify with in an often hostile world. Some young adults read about rape and bullying and violence, eating disorders and self harm and mental illness, because these are things they experience.
Alas, the belief that bad things do not happen to children and young adults is not limited to naïve Wall Street Journal columnists, and it does far more damage than mere dubiously-sourced articles that attract a storm of commentary. The belief that childhood is a happy place, where bad things don’t happen, where you don’t need rose-tinted spectacles because everything is already rose-tinted, has direct and harmful impacts on children and young adults in danger.
Over one in five children in the United States live in poverty. One in three teens reports relationship violence. Homelessness is a very real risk for queer and trans youth. 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18. Youth incarceration rates are extremely high, most especially for Black, Latino, and Native American youth. Our prisons are used as warehousing facilities for mentally ill youth.
These are terrible, terrible things and they are happening to young adults, the very people that Gurdon believes needs to be ‘protected’ from reading about these things in a fictional setting. Gurdon is not alone in believing that bad things don’t happen to children. Often, people in power, like teachers and law enforcement officers, share this view, and work like the Journal article simply reinforces it. The results can be extremely dangerous.
Youth showing clear signs of abuse fail to receive appropriate interventions because adults don’t believe they are in danger. This can have fatal consequences; in 2009, Aaron Vargas shot his abuser after years of denial on the part of the community in Fort Bragg, the small town where I live and work. A small town where, we are assured, nothing bad ever happens, and thus things like persistent child molestation spanning multiple generations cannot be happening. Rape, incest, and beatings happen to children just like they do to adults, and sweeping the knowledge of these things under the carpet does not make them go away.
Teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other personnel who interact with children on a regular basis as part of their work are mandated reporters; they have a legal obligation to report cases of suspected child abuse to protective services, which must in turn mount an investigation. This is not, in practice, how it works. Many cases of abuse go unremarked; perhaps the perpetrator is powerful, perhaps lies about falling down the stairs are taken at face value, perhaps the youth is queer, or Black, and teachers don’t see any problem with the bullying. Failure to report child abuse can result in criminal penalties, but that’s only when the failure is identified, and it often isn’t.
Even when abuse is reported, child services may ignore it and fail to take action. Law enforcement may not investigate. Children who are brave enough to accuse their attackers may be accused of lying, especially if they are mentally ill teens and are viewed as ‘unreliable witnesses.’ Rape victims who dare to file a complaint may find that justice is predicated by the social status of their attackers; if you are raped by a member of the football team in a small town, don’t expect to see that case go to trial.
The persistent belief that childhood is a rosy, happy time where nothing bad ever happens is directly damaging to children who are, in fact, not having a rosy and happy time. The rise in dark YA isn’t about feeding the depraved tastes of children who enjoy violent videogames. It is about addressing the very real pain and marginalisation experienced by children across the United States who find that the ‘responsible adults’ in their lives fail to act, and it is through young adult fiction that they may find the words to express themselves, to describe their experiences, and the courage to keep going even though no one around them offers support.
Furthermore, many children also grow up with the idea that they are wrong in some way; because their gender doesn’t match the one assigned to them, because they are disabled and surrounded by nondisabled people, because their skin is the wrong colour. Gurdon claims that YA is damaging because it ‘normalises.’ On the contrary, that normalisation is one of the greatest gifts young adult authors can give to their readers, to tell children that, no, they are not freaks for being who they are. That there is nothing wrong with being a gay teen, that you are not irreparably damaged if you are mentally ill. If YA celebrating diverse identities is ‘dark’ and ‘depraved,’ what does that say about the lives of young adults who actually inhabit those identities, and experience constant social pressure to be ‘normal’?
Gurdon defends censorship of young adult fiction on the grounds that ‘In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.”‘ She is wrong. She is very, very wrong. Banning books that provide children and young adults with the tools to survive is an act of extreme violence perpetrated by the dominant members of society. For children who experience depraved things and marginalised identities in their real lives, not just on the pages of the book, the deliberate attempt to muzzle their voices is a constant reminder that they are abnormal, they are freaks, they are wrong, they must have deserved what happened to them. It is a reminder that the adults who are supposed to be helping them have absolutely no interest in doing so. Silence is the problem, not the solution.