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The Wall Street Journal Nonsense about YA Literature - if you can't be witty, then at least be bombastic [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
kyle cassidy

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The Wall Street Journal Nonsense about YA Literature [Jun. 5th, 2011|02:51 pm]
kyle cassidy
[mood |a bit annoyed]
[music |walter sickert: ghost busters]

It's kind of like robbing a bank that keeps its cash in an unguarded shoebox in a public park to say "I'm going to take on the Wall Street Journal's commentary on YA Literature, "Darkness Too Visible" penned by Meghan Cox Gurdon" whose inbox, no doubt, like the illustrious Journal's is probably filling up with incredulous and angry comments from people more eloquent and informed than I. But Gurdon provides extremely low hanging fruit that it's really hard not to swat at, beginning with the proposion that Young Adult Literature is: "all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation ... dark, dark stuff"

Which is sort of like standing in a mall parking lot and shouting "ALL CARS ARE RED!" One hardly need point out that Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, the Phantom Tollbooth, The House With the Clock in its Walls, the Chronicles of Narnia, and hundreds of other classics of yesterday are still YA literature, and are still on shelves. It also ignores modern classics like Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda which has neither vampires nor suicides, but a daring young heroine who would be excellent role model material for any daughter I had. On top of that, it ignores the fact that some of the greatest works of YA literature, like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird are ... well, dark at times.

Gurdon goes on to make the bizarre claim that "...40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing", claiming, somewhat incredulously, that it began in 1967 with the publication of The Outsiders, this of course discounts not just Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the two most widely known books written for a young adult audience in the English Language, but also books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island which adolescents were reading for generations before Outsiders author S.E. Hinton was born. On my shelf right now I have a book called Six Girls by Fanny Belle Irving published in 1882 -- I haven't read it, but I can assure you it's audience is teenage girls who might also be reading Little Women or Jane Austen. (In fact, the article's own sidebar recommends the 1943 novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn for kids.) All this serves to suggest that Gurdon doesn't have a clue what she's talking about -- that she hasn't even taken the time to read the Wikipedia page about the topic she's writing on, and that carelessness suggests that we should take everything else she has to say with a grain of salt.

Gurdon then goes on to criticize a series of books individually, she takes time to specifically complain about Jackie Morse Kessler's book "Rage" which involves a girl who turns to self injury after being the victim of "a sadistic sexual prank". When we live in a world where teenage girls cut themselves at prodigious rates (and this is nothing new, it's been happening for hundreds of years) The Wall Street Journal thinks that we shouldn't have books for teens that discuss it. Gurdon takes to task an editor who laments having to cut language from a book in order to get it in schools as though it was a conversation never held between Mark Twain and his editor.

But this is simply the history of books and literature, it is the way things progress and regress and progress again. In the late 1800's Arthur Winfield began an extremely popular series of books for young readers called The Rover Boys. trillian_stars and I scored a complete collection of these a couple of years ago and found them so offensive, so sexist, so racist, so classist, as to be nearly unreadable -- the best-selling morality tales of the late 1800's and early 1900's were all about making fun of the poor & underprivileged, those with accents, or dark skin, or those not able to get into the same prep school. The Rover Boys play vicious pranks on their school mates who are fat or who speak with a lisp, and they succeed and persevere because they're rich and they're entitled to and, hey, it's all in good fun.

I realized while trying to read these that YA literature reflects the times as they are and that they will also, occasionally, attempt to grasp the times that Aren't Yet and pull them closer. If there's a glut of vampire books on the market now there may not be in fifteen years. Of these, many will fade into obscurity and some, the ones that strive, will remain -- Darwin will police the stacks -- and in the meantime, the literature will evolve. Things people look at as taboo in one era (women wearing pants) don't warrant a second glance in another. YA literature is one of the mechanisms by which children learn what types of adults they will become. They likely won't learn to become vampires, but they may learn that they're not the only teenage girls who have a compulsion to cut themselves, or that they're not the only boys who are attracted to other boys, or they may learn how to build a house in a tree if they ever get stranded on an island.

There are many YA books out there -- some of them good, and some of them bad. Some of them I'd be happy to let my (theoretical) children read, and some that I think would be a waste of their time.

I feel compelled to quote Heavy Metal Rocker Dee Snider who, when called before the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Comission) in 1985 by a very clueless Al Gore to testify about the harm rock music caused teens, schooled the Senator in parenting in one of the most one sided smackdowns since Lloyd Benson told Dan Quayle that he was, in fact, "No Jack Kennedy".

Senatore GORE: [Should a parent have] To sit down and listen to every song on the album?

Mr. SNIDER. Well, if they are really concerned about it I think that they have to.

Senator GORE. Do you think it is reasonable to expect parents to do that?

Mr. SNIDER. Being a parent is not a reasonable thing. It is a very hard thing. I am a parent and I know.

I don't know what's more embarrassing, that Congress would waste tax dollars on such a farce, or that the senior Senator from Tennessee got his ass handed to him in a debate by a guy who appeared on his album cover wearing shoulder pads, spandex pants, and pink lace-up boots waving a bloody soup bone.

I'm not sure why the Wall Street Journal would bother to print such nonsense, I can only hope it is a result of laying off so much of the editorial staff over the past few years rather than policy.

In summary:

  • Being a parent is not supposed to be easy.

  • It's not the publishing industry's job to decide what to print based on what you like to read.

  • Not all books are good books.

  • Every single book that you liked as a child you can still get for your own kids, if not from your local bookstore, then from ebay.

  • Good literature stays around, the bad stuff is transient.

  • At some point your child will probably read a book that you don't think is good that will change their lives in a good way.

  • Ranting to the Wall Street Journal that YA literature sucks when you apparently know nothing about YA literature is a sad attempt at making a shortcut to responsible parenting.

  • Ask a librarian, they're there to help.

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[User Picture]From: neile
2011-06-05 07:10 pm (UTC)
This is a brilliant response. Thank you, Kyle.

[and, damn the Flora books are amazing]
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[User Picture]From: sweet_far_thing
2011-06-05 07:13 pm (UTC)
you now, i could talk about censorship until i'm blue in the face but you've already made plenty of points that i agree with, so i won't bother. i'll just say this - it is the parent's duty to PARENT. not anybody else's. that includes not only shielding your child from what you believe is inappropriate but accepting the fact that, first off, they may come into contact with these issues outside of your home and they need to learn how to deal with said issues on their own and, secondly, children though they may be, they are not carbon copies of their parents and will probably develop not only differing opinions but different coping mechanisms. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING.
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[User Picture]From: edenlass
2011-06-05 07:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Kyle! I feel better just from having read this. It is indeed a parent's job to be a parent and not a writer or publisher's job. Their job is to make books and let their readers decide if they like it or not. Also... Anne of Green Gables! The "Little House" books!
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[User Picture]From: sinboy
2011-06-05 07:30 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure why the Wall Street Journal would bother to print such nonsense, I can only hope it is a result of laying off so much of the editorial staff over the past few years rather than policy.

Not policy, per-se, just more that right wing rat-fuckers find a welcoming home there in ways that actual news magazines won't give them.

The thing is, the WSJ is seen as the "brains" end of the Republican party organ that is News Corp. So expect this to get picked up by some vote seeking Republican congress-rodent who's looking for a new take on "WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHIIIIIILDREN???"
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[User Picture]From: zagzagael
2011-06-05 07:30 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm...I am a 47 year old mother who has also stood in the B&N YA section and despaired. Really, really. And yes, it is a bit of an exaggeration insomuch as there is a lot of YA work out there (I hesitate to refer to much of it as Literature with a capital L) but in the YA section of B&N it is a smorgasbord of VERY badly written vampire, suicide, drug/sex addiction crap. All cover out because...well, covers sell books. It is disheartening and discouraging IF one wants to genre-ize an age-group's reading material, however why would one want to do that?! I rail against it. Literature is Literature and can be found quite easily if one is so inclined. I'm not sure, also, if parents need to be called to task on this - how about these houses that are wasting paper on such drivel? What about the disproportionate amount of adult readers of YA explicita?
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[User Picture]From: lastwordy_mcgee
2011-06-05 07:32 pm (UTC)
Well said. When I come down from my current vitriol over the bad writing in the original WSJ article and feeling rather personally offended by the tone of the entire thing, I'm gong to attempt a coherent response. Thanks for giving me more delicious food for thought to combat the bitter and slightly rotten food for thought WSJ supplied.
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[User Picture]From: small_chicken
2011-06-05 07:33 pm (UTC)
Was there ever a time when literature was truly appreciated by its contemporaries? I'm almost certain that Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" got at least one parent riled up because it gave his kids nightmares.

I am reminded of an episode of Dr. Phil that blew my mind: women, 27 or 28 years old, who didn't even know how to fold clothes. By keeping such "dark" things from our kids, I think we're raising the intellectual equivalent of these coddled brats. Teaching them that the world is sunshine and puppies and kittens will do them an immense disservice when they're caught out in the rain.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2011-06-05 07:49 pm (UTC)
please do! -- i forgot to add the "repost this" text. i'll do that too.
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[User Picture]From: katbcoll
2011-06-05 07:54 pm (UTC)
Brilliant response!
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[User Picture]From: opium
2011-06-05 08:03 pm (UTC)
Great post! I agree with all of it. Hell, I'm 33 and can enjoy good YA literature, no problem. There IS a lot of bad literature out there, marketed at ALL ages. My favourite book as a 12 year old was Lord of the Flies, and that is pretty dark.
Anyway, I love those quotes from Dee Snider. Is the rest of this exchange up anywhere?
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2011-06-05 08:06 pm (UTC)
VH1 has Dee Snider's testimony here.
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[User Picture]From: moon_chylde
2011-06-05 08:12 pm (UTC)
I regularly read YA. I just finished The Hunger Games, and still have the Little House books that I had as a kid. And yes, I still take them down and read them once in a while.

Note: I never knew Island of the Blue Dolphins was a book. Need to find a copy. I remember going to the drive in when I was *very* young and watching the movie. My entire family loved it so we went back several times to watch.

Edited at 2011-06-05 08:13 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: harvestar
2011-06-06 12:36 am (UTC)
huh, I never knew it was a movie! ;)
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[User Picture]From: tabor330
2011-06-05 09:03 pm (UTC)
The problem described in the anecdote that begins the WSJ article doesn't seem to be with the books available, but the bookstores that market them. I can think of so many authors that might end up with a YA label whose books have nothing to do with swearing, cutting, suicide, or vampires. And then some that do. I am thinking of SciFi/Fantasy authors like Cherie Priest or Scott Westerfield or China Miéville or Patricia Wrede or Robin McKinley or Anne McCaffrey or Diana Wynne Jones or Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Stroud ... And then authors who write about characters that my students can recognize with love and a sense of humor when they look in the mirror or around themselves in the world like John Green or Libba Bray or Judy Blume or Phyllis Naylor or Sarah Dessen or E. Lockhart or David Levithan or.... And stories that let them escape to a place where young people have power to change their worlds like Ally Carter or Eoin Colfer or J.K. Rowling or Alexander Horowitz or D. J. McHale or Rick Riordan or... these lists are long!

But those stories of vampires and survival against horrible circumstances sell. I have always had a certain set of (mostly) girls who love to read about girls (mostly) whose lives suck more than theirs. They have been drawn to Go Ask Alice or The Burn Journals or Perfect and the billion (it seems) books in this survival genre.

I argue that the books in my classroom need some maturity to read. No one will say that a book is "inappropriate." As a reader, their responsibility is only to themselves - if they are uncomfortable with the subject matter or how it is presented, they should close the book. I will also contend that I will not be sitting next to my daughter when she needs to make a decision about kissing a boy, or taking her clothes off, or saying something, or drinking something - and if she gets to see how a fictional character handles that situation and responds to the consequences of his or her actions, then that is fine by me. It gives us a place to start talking.
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[User Picture]From: stsisyphus
2011-06-05 09:35 pm (UTC)
Damn, why isn't that Dee Snider quote on his greatest hits album?

Great post, makes me regret that I'm not having better conversations with my kid.
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[User Picture]From: fivecats
2011-06-05 09:53 pm (UTC)
Maureen Johnson thinks the YA writers/readers community has crashed the WSJ servers by trying to leave comments to this article. quite amusing.

it should also be noted that while you are correct when you write "It's not the publishing industry's job to decide what to print based on what you like to read." it is also true that the publishing industry decides what to print based on a carefully controlled guesstimate record on what they think will be profitable. as a part of this profitability comes a few innovators willing to take a chance on something new/different that then gets copied quickly by other publishing houses and then spawns any number of variations. again, quality is not so much the issue as profitability.

and, with that idea, fads come and go. dystopian YA is big right now, as are vampires and other creatures of the night. i think of dystopian YA as the Film Noir of its day--it mirrors the sense of insecurity teens have about growing up and fitting into a world they don't understand and aren't happy with.

why is this such a difficult concept for adults to see/remember?

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From: (Anonymous)
2011-06-06 03:27 pm (UTC)
"dystopian YA as the Film Noir of its day--it mirrors the sense of insecurity teens have about growing up and fitting into a world they don't understand and aren't happy with."

This is brilliance.
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[User Picture]From: lentower
2011-06-05 10:34 pm (UTC)
ebay is only one source of out-of-print books.


searches all the well known new & used book sites.
the interface and results format leave a bit to be desired.
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