Darkness and Light

Darkness and Light in Young Adult Books

By Adam Burgess

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Steven Kloves

Recently, an article was posted by the Wall Street Journal which set the Book Blogging world abuzz, even generating a new Twitter tag “#YASaves.”  As a reader of primarily literature, literary fiction, and the Classics, I little expected to get involved in this debate – until I read the article.

The article, called “Darkness Too Visible,” was written by Meghan Cox Gurdon.  It begins with a clever-cutesy tale of a mother who goes to a bookstore to find a gift for her 13-year-old daughter, only to become overwhelmed by the mass of “dark” and “dangerous” YA books.  This story reminded me of an event from just a few months ago, when I witnessed something similar at my bookstore.  A mom and her 12-year-old son were browsing the Young Adult section.  The boy had chosen  a couple of books, such as Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Infinity.  The mother, looking utterly exhausted, sighed heavily, took the books away from her son, and said aloud, “do they carry nothing but garbage these days?”

I immediately approached her, civilly, and began to rave glowingly about the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series – its literary and historical benefits, its masterful retelling of Greek mythology, and its incredible way of making ancient stories accessible to a new generation and inspiring many of those new readers to seek out the originals.  I could not speak to Infinity, as I hadn’t read it, but I imagine any of its readers could have stood up for it as I did for The Lightning Thief.   I do believe that boy was lucky enough to go home with the Riordan book, at least, in addition to some others (his mother was trying –no joke- to get this 12-year-old boy to be interested in Little Women).

This brings me back to the substance of the article itself, and what it has to say about “dark” YA and its writers, such as Andrew Smith, Lauren Myracle, and Cheryl Rainfield among others.  Even Sherman Alexie and Suzanne Collins do not escape Ms. Cox Gurdon’s rant – which goes so far as to belittle the fight against censorship.  Isn’t censorship something a true journalist would fight tooth-and-nail to reject and destroy?  Instead, the article goes on and on about the seeming self-righteousness of authors who would expose youths to foul language, scary ideas, and haunting episodes, not, apparently, aware that these words are said in real life – even on the school yard, and that these terrible events do take place, even against our children.

Does the author believe that sheltering our children from the bad things – refusing to acknowledge and confront them- will truly aid young people’s growth and development?  And those who must suffer these monstrosities – those kids who do fall into drug use or who are raped, abused, bullied – where else do they learn that this is not their fault, that others have come through it, and that they can be okay too?  Is it the job of parents to help teach these lessons? Yes.  Do most parents manage this job well, or at all?  No.  The reason is the same as the reason to censor or ban “dark” and “dangerous” books – the subject matter is uncomfortable so we avoid it and hope for the best.

Ms. Cox Gurdon makes a valid point near the end of her article, which speaks to the same effect.  It is the parent’s responsibility to monitor and approve of their child’s reading, as with most other aspects of their young lives.  How, though, does that warrant an attack on the genre in general?  Do we not print the realities of dangerous events simply because it takes parents a bit more time at the bookstore to find something they would be more comfortable with?  What about the parents who do believe their children can benefit from books like Go Ask Alice, which warns against drug use and premature sexual acts?  Many parents use such books as teaching examples, as librarian Amanda Hopper stated.  Should we punish the responsible parents who do the right thing by reading books first, then discussing the subject matter with their child to ensure proper understanding and meaning, by eliminating the “dangerous” altogether?  If we pretend it does not exist – have we really done our children any favors?

Many youths live in abusive homes, but every child in that situation feels she is the only one.  Many youths have siblings who are addicted to drugs, sinking further and further into that abyss, but every child feels he is the only one.  Many youths have lost parents, grandparents, best friends and are struggling under the weight of their grief, but every child feels that feeling as if she was the only one.  These books help young adults to realize they are not alone and, most importantly, that it is not their fault.

As I mentioned at the start of this response, I am not an avid Young Adult reader.  I have been made a convert, though, to the benefits of Young Adult literature, and this conversion was largely due to books that Ms. Cox Gurdon might claim are “too dark.”

I speak, for instance, of books such as I am the Cheese and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.  The former, I read as a youth and devoured because I had very real experiences with mental depression, anxiety, and loss – and I felt I had no one to talk to about it.  The latter I read as an adult – while I was a bit shocked at how dark the book was, I was also well-aware of the realities exposed by that book: hatred, fear, bullying.  These things exist in school systems across America and the world, and kids should have a safe place to learn that they are not to blame and that they can find help – even if that “safe” place is a “dangerous” book.

I speak, too, of Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy, which recounts a horrifying teenage-boy-on-teenage-boy rape episode.  I read this book multiple times as a high school student, not because of the dark themes, but because the book also spoke of redemption, recovery, and forgiveness.  It helped me to put my own “problems” into perspective and to realize that, no, the world does not revolve around me and, yes, I can do better – and I can help make sure others are never feeling as alone and confused as I am.

I speak of Tricks by Ellen Hopkins and Stick by Andrew Smith.  These books speak to dysfunctional families, dangerous situations, and survival against all odds.  They are masterfully crafted so as to expose real situations – things that actually exist, no matter how some may try to deny or avoid them- and they teach their readers lessons about courage, love, and truth in the face of the most unthinkable circumstances.

Finally, I speak of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Looking for Alaska by John Green.  These are the first two Young Adult books that I read as an adult, but when I still needed the messages they bring.  They deal with coming-of-age in unusual places and under unusual circumstances.  They expose the tragic effects of the death of loved ones on our minds and souls.  They speak to the strength of friendship, the power of self-worth, and the beauty of discovering what is most important to us, be it music, art, or another individual.  And, most importantly, they let us know – though there are dark times- it is okay to talk about those times, it is okay to think and feel about those times, and it is okay to begin to recover and even forget those times, though it sometimes means letting go of someone dear to you.

I cannot express enough my gratitude to these Young Adult authors – the chroniclers of real life.  You are courageous and talented, fearless and needed.  You are inspirations to those of us who read for a living and to those of us who strive to write the stories residing within our own marrow.

Thank you, Robert Cormier, Jim Grimsley, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Melvin Burgess, Andrew Smith, Ellen Hopkins, Stephen Chbosky, John Green, David Levithan, Lois Lowry, and so many others.

I stand by you.


Related Posts:

Censorship: What’s With the Expurgation, Mr. Bogus?

Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

Darkness Exists (Smash Attack Ash)

Elevating the Status of YA (Indie Reader Houston)

Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood (Sherman Alexie)

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51 thoughts on “Darkness and Light

  1. Well said, my friend. It brought a tear to my eye. I seriously commend you for approaching the mother with her son in the bookstore. This is not an easy thing to do, as most parents do not appreciate being challenged in front of their child. Thank you for using your love for the written word to educate others on its beauty and importance in society. ♥

    • Oh, sure – you never know how someone will react. Of course, I would never be “confrontational” toward someone in front of their child, unless they were physically or emotionally harming the child. I just approached it as a discussion: “Oh, have you read the series, and did you know that…” etc. She came across as intellectually snobbish, and mentioned that she was a school teacher who would prefer her children read such-and-such “important” works as opposed to “fluff,” at which point I dropped the fact that I had my graduate degree in American Lit and found the series compelling and accurate, etc. I think that helped flip the switch. I couldn’t let it go, either way, though – whenever I see someone dismiss a book, particularly a great one, without ever having read it – nothing ruffles my feathers more!

      • Agreed! How can you talk shit about something you’ve never read? Those types don’t think for themselves, and that is the real issue!

  2. Adam,

    This is so articulate and well-stated. What you have written here isn’t even a rebuttal to the Wall Street Journal article, but more a testament to the power of books, the power of subject matter, and the power that so many seemingly inane words can have on an individual. You said you don’t primarily read Young Adult literature, yet you defend it to no ends. That right there shows just how important a book, if it’s the right book, can be to someone.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thank you for your comment – and you are welcome. I am obviously passionate about reading and particularly about developing strong, positive reading habits at a young age. It irks me that there’s still this common belief that any book which contains “bad” elements must be itself “bad” or dangerous.

  3. This is, perhaps, one of the best responses I’ve seen so far. I think it is more powerful because it comes from someone who is not already a devoted YA follower. I’m not either, but I know that it makes a big impact, and I enjoy all that I’ve read. In fact, I think I’m going to pick up Shine by Lauren Myracle this week. I have it sitting right here…

    • Well, thank you so much! I definitely took my time in thinking it out before presenting it – it’s an important issue to me. Censorship/book banning or “quick judgment” based on superficial arguments automatically sets me on edge – this is why I have a whole meme devoted to the subject (Saturdays, Uncensored!).

  4. Very well put Adam. It’s shocking to think the WSJ would write something so negative and one-sided. What are teens supposed to read? There was a time in the not too distant past when the government was seriously worried about the declining literacy levels in young adults. I’d rather they read all the titles you mentioned rather than the Katie Price or Justin Bieber autobiography. Now THATS trash. God forbid the younger generation might actually develop their imagination by reading ‘Artemis Fowl’!

    • Whenever a “journalist” or member of the literary community supports censorship in any way, shape, or form – I immediately become suspicious. I’m having nightmarish flashbacks of the Mark Twain/Huck Finn issue from the beginning of this year. This isn’t blatant censorship, per se, except that her argument seems to be that the books shouldn’t be there, rather than parents should simply help make the right choices.

  5. So eloquent and thoughtful, Adam. You said what I think many people have been trying to express, but in a constructive way, without striking out blindly at the article’s author. Your argument is strengthened by the fact that you are largely not a YA reader but that you value it nonetheless. Bravo! I’m sending people your way if they ask you what I think! 🙂

    • Thank you – I do try hard not to get personal. I had to take my time and think back on how I presented my “Censoring Mark Twain” post back at the start of the year. I prefer to disagree with one’s argument than with the person him/herself.

  6. A wonderful post that brought a tear to my eye as I read it. The fact that you are not a devoted YA follower makes the post stand out to me. I admire you for approaching the mother and son in the bookstore this could not of been an easy thing to do and shows you love for the written word.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

    • Thank you very much – I tend to be outspoken about these things, but not confrontational. If she had given me the brush-off, I would have just let it go, but she was open to hearing what I had to say about the series and, ultimately, her son was allowed to get the book – so that’s what matters!

  7. One good thing has come out of this, it’s united the book community. Your proof, you’re not an avid YA reader and still you wrote this awesome post defending the importance of teen literature. In the last 24 hrs I have been overwhelmed by the feeling of camaraderie and love among readers, writers, and bloggers. Great article Adam!! #YAsaves

    • Yes, indeed – this happened with the “Speak Loudly” campaign and with the censorship of Huckleberry Finn at the start of 2011. No community comes together so quickly or strongly as the book community, in my opinion.

  8. Fabulous article,Adam! I’m proud of you! I think in your article you brilliantly expressed everything we,YA readers, think about this whole situation. Thank you for that!

  9. Wow. I am both stunned and amazed at your words. They are so very true in many ways. Every thought I have been thinking and feeling about this whole unfortunate circumstance is said perfectly, to a tee right here in your post. Absolutely wonderful!
    -Katelyn

    • Thanks so much – I spent hours thinking about it and re-reading that article so I could be sure to say what I meant to say, and not just what I was feeling (which was disgust, let’s be honest). I try to be constructive whenever possible, as opposed to abrasive.

  10. What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing this. It literally amazing me that this article was even posted. Had this person done the slightest bit of research into YA & MG books and their impact on their readers they would have written a much different article.

    • I always try to have a conversation about the books themselves, in situations like that. Had I not known anything about the book, I might have just “huffed” and walked on – but I felt it was my responsibility to offer some insight and encouragement. That’s what all us book bloggers are here for, isn’t it!? 🙂

  11. Adam,

    Thank you so much for writing this post. I’ve (perhaps understandably) read a LOT of responses to this piece, but yours is probably the most thoughtful and effectively worded.

    I am honored.

    Andrew

  12. What a wonderful response to such a touch subject. As a mother, I do agree that parents need to monitor what their kids read-by reading it themselves and discussing it with their child. To often we rely on others to police our children-teachers, authors, bookstore employees, ect… that we insulate ourselves in little bubbles then proclaim ‘shock’ and “dismay” when something happens. We can’t protect or children 24/7 but we can give them a valuable gift of knowledge to help them travel this dangerous world we live in.

    • Thank you – I completely agree. The responsibility can and should be shared. Parents have the responsibility of knowing what their kids will be reading and knowing enough to read ahead, monitor as needed, and prepare conversation to discuss more sensitive/mature subject matter. Publishers and book sellers also have the responsibility of marketing appropriately and displaying books according to appropriate age/maturity levels (this is rather fluid, but there are certainly the MG, YA, Adult, etc. options that work generally well).

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  14. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am perfectly fine with parents wanting to choose what their children are reading, but it saddens me how many parents judge a book by its cover. Some of the books mentioned in that article are books I can’t wait to read and discuss with my own children when they are at that reading level. And if those books were banned because a few other parents deemed them as “too dark”, wouldn’t that be taking away my rights as a parent if I wasn’t able to read those books with my children?

    Thank you so much for sharing this post. I love how you shared with that mother how great the Percy Jackson series is!

    • You’re a hero. Really. I’m so glad to hear that there are parents like you out there who aren’t afraid to help guide their children through the darkness and toward the greater purpose, which is understanding reality, truth, and perseverance. Kudos to you, and thank you for your comment!

  15. Well, I had totally forgotten about Go Ask Alice until just now. Now I totally remember sneaking to read it.

    I think if parents would take the time to read the books their kids are interested in, then maybe they’d see that they aren’t so dark and scary. I also think you have gauge your child’s emotional age, not their number age when choosing books.

    • I will never forget about Go Ask Alice! Partially because it was a great book – one of the first I ever picked out on my own- and partially because of the Jefferson Airplane song. 🙂

      I agree – I think reading together is a good idea anyway, for parents and their children, but especially material like this, which might really force young adults to start to think more deeply and reflect on life – it’s important that they have some guidance and the necessary resources to help them through those questions.

  16. Once again, you prove why you’re such a great “book blogger.” This is a fantastic piece that deserves wider readership.

    I saw the #yasaves hashtag on Twitter Sunday, but didn’t really know where it was coming from until I read this. It disturbs me that a journalist would take that stand.

    • Thanks, Anthony – you’re very kind. I wasn’t going to get into the debate at all, but after reading the article and re-examining the reason why I do what I do, I found it impossible to avoid.

  17. This is such a perfect response to the WSJ article. I’m going to hope more people read it and post links on my blog fan page. I lost a sister 2 months before I graduated high school.. I sure wish I had found a YA book to help me get through the loneliness I felt.. feeling so much grief while everyone else was celebrating was one of the most difficult things I have ever gone through.. not just losing her, but feeling so alone in the midst of that loss.

    Sometimes the only hope one needs is KNOWING they aren’t alone. I know books have the power to do that, esp on subjects that YA”s aren’t willing or able to go to their parents or peers about.

    April @ My Shelf Confessions

    • Thanks, April – and I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad that you had something to turn too, though. When I was struggling to find myself in high school, it truly was books that came to my rescue – it sounds cliche, but you never can tell where you might just find that needed connection. I’m glad to hear that you came through the dark times!

    • Thank you very much – I’m glad to hear that my thoughts are coming across as I intended. I’m sure there are people out there who disagree with my stance and just haven’t said anything (or haven’t read my post) – but, you’re right, there’s a reason for the darkness in certain books, particularly those that are well-educated, and the reason is usually to show that there can be hope.

  18. wow. excellently written, and of course I agree. our kids today deal with a much darker world than we did. It’s natural that the newer young adult literature reflect that. I use the darker stuff to start dialogue, and it’s to the point now where my son comes to me to start talking about such things.

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