Sunday, June 5, 2011

YA Saves! (A Response to the WSJ article "Darkness Too Visible")

I thought I should bring attention to a recent issue. I don't normally do this kind of thing, but this time I just couldn't resist.

So, yesterday Wall Street Journal released an article, Darkness Too Visible in which they deemed modern Young Adult fiction "rife with explicit abuse, violence, and depravity". The author goes on to point fingers at books such as The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, and Shine by Lauren Myracle.

The article suggests that you can't go into the YA section of a bookstore without being faced with "lurid and dramatic covers". There's one quote from a 48-year-old mother, who leaves the bookstore empty-handed because apparently the YA section "was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." Well, first of all, not all YA books are about vampires, suicide, and self-mutilation. Secondly, the latter two are a regular conflict in teen life––like it or not. What are you going to do, hide your kids in a box and never let them glimpse reality? Adolescence is a transition between childhood and adulthood––and how can you expect teens to become responsible adults, if they are never exposed to adult material?

"The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. ... Yet 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 ..."
Seriously? The author of this article obviously does not understand the concept or purpose of Young Adult fiction. At least she's right in saying that YA fiction gives voices to the voiceless––but implying that books about self-harm encourage self-harm? What?

Look, Wall Street Journal. Just because something happens in a book does not mean that the author encourages it to happen in real life. In fact, usually it's the opposite. In literature, harmful actions result in consequences. That's what a story is. It needs to have a conflict. Furthermore, the purpose of dark YA literature is not to rape the minds of innocent children. Firstly, teenagers are not children, and they can make decisions for themselves. Secondly, YA fiction is not focused solely on darkness; it's about hope. I know I, for one, don't read YA books because I have some kind of morbid fascination with bloodshed and self-mutilation––no, I read these books so I can discover characters I love, so I can see how their relationships and their strength prevail even in the darkest of conflicts. I walk away from most books feeling inspired, not depressed.

I'm graduating from high school today. Somehow I've managed to survive the past four long years, and a lot of credit goes to reading and writing. Without both these things, it would have been near impossible to cope with stress. Reading has helped me become more knowledgeable about the world, to realize that life can be terrible but that things can always get better. Writing helps me release any of my inner turmoil, and to expose truths and issues that I care passionately about.

Maybe I'm a bit biased, being a teenager, and quite an open-minded one at that. But on the other hand, this Wall Street Journal article is extremely biased as well. Besides the first sentence in the above quote, there is almost no support for dark concepts in YA fiction at all throughout the article. There are no quotes from teens themselves, or even from YA authors––except a brief quote from Sherman Alexie, which the author of the article basically ridicules.

As a writer of YA fiction, this article made me very nervous at first. When my work is published, is it only going to be shot down by a terribly closed-minded world? Luckily, I was given hope by the wonderful Maureen Johnson––who is one of my favorite authors, and also a very awesome person––who immediately started a protest of this article via Twitter. She started a hashtag, #YAsaves, in which people share stories of how YA fiction has helped and inspired them. #YAsaves is currently the #1 tag trending worldwide, and has gained support from YA authors such as Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Laurie Halse Anderson, Malinda Lo, Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, and Shannon Hale ... and many others, I'm sure. I'm only naming ones I've seen thus far.

So in a way, the release of this article is almost a good thing. It started a very important conversation, and it also encouraged readers and writers everywhere to voice their love for YA fiction. I was furious at first, but seeing such a strong backlash against the article has given me so much hope.

Any thoughts? Opinions? Stories? Do you think YA fiction is too dark? And/or has YA fiction helped you any way? Please share! (Or better yet, share on Twitter! #YAsaves!)


  1. If you hated the article don't even glance at the comments. Arrrghhhhhh I am a giant squid of anger.

  2. Good on you, Brigid! I was thinking the same thing reading that article. As a former teenager (not like it was that long ago), I remember how tumultuous the time was. Reading about the 'dark, dark stuff' actually gave me perspective. I didn't decide I had to go out and do all the things the characters did; on the contrary, I realized how good I have it.

  3. If you get tired of writing books (though i doubt you will!) you should totally be a book reviewer or article writer. i cant think of the real name of it right now......

  4. @Acacia - Ugh, I read the comments too. Although I noticed the lady who praised the article most also said she homeschools her kids. So, talk about sheltered lives...

    @Jen - Exactly! Dark aspects of fiction aren't supposed to encourage depression; a lot of the time it puts life into perspective and makes readers realize their lives are not so horrible.

    @Destroyed Binding - A journalist? :) Haha. I don't know. I don't think I will ever get tired of writing books! But I do like reviewing books (although I post my reviews on Goodreads and not on here...). I haven't given real journalism much of a shot, although it might be fun to do. We'll see. :D

  5. I love reading YA for the story. I love the Fantasy and Paranormal, yadah yadah. This mother at the beginning obviously is one of those over-protective mothers that drive me nuts! The covers of these YA books are awesome!

    Yeah, there are some YA that has the f-word and has s.e.x. but I stay away from those. But, to be honest, this stuff is all over TV too. This mom was expecting rainbows and unicorns when she walked in.

    I've been in Barnes and Noble before and immediately went to the teen section. I never saw any books about self-mutilation. Where did that woman even get that idea? Did she even read the summaries of these books? Or did she just "judge the book by it's cover"? Was she even in the right section? Or did she just "assume"?

    When I read that, it didn't make sense to me. All I read is YA and my mom reads the books after me! She just read the Hunger Games yesterday. All of it! In one day! And she talked about how good it was. I just read the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

    I don't know, some people are just closed-minded and keep their kids in a box. I bet that 13 year old still watches Dora. I was watching the news and Presidential Debates when I was 13. That's when I grew up. I think that's when a lot of kids need to start growing up.

    When I was 13/14, my mom and dad let me watch Tru Tv with shows like Most Shocking where they show videos of robberies and car chases and this show called World's Dumbest where they show the same thing but make fun of it. This mother wouldn't let her kid watch this. But, she just might be hurting her kid by NOT letting her watch it. Since watching shows like that, I was able to see the ACTUAL acts of people under the influence and high on drugs. That's when My parents talked with me about that stuff and told me, "You see what happens when you do (Insert this drug or drink here)" They weren't corrupting me, they were helping me so when I got to be 16, I would know not to do anything that will harm me because I know what the outcome will be.

    In response to that, some parents would say that they want their kids to be kids for as long as they can. But, I'm still a kid. I still like to watch Spongebob once in a while. But, I know what the world is like, so when I go out on my own, I know what to avoid.

    Sorry, ranting. But I needed to get that off my chest :)

  6. I may or may not think that YA fiction can be too dark at times. But other times it so happy and hopeful! You can't just give books a generalization like that. Just like in any genre, books can be happy or sad. So I find this article quite ridiculous.

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, especially as you're in this "susceptible" age group. Congrats on graduating, even with all that YA smut surrounding you!

  8. Thanks for writing this response, Brigid. I agree with you and found the WSJ article one-sided. Some of the examples the author gives do seem kind of extreme, but they're from books I haven't read, and so I don't know their context. Given that she cites The Hunger Games and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian without giving examples and that I have read those books, I would guess she's not giving the full picture about the other books she mentions. I love these kinds of YA books because, while they can portray horrific situations, they're really about resilience and the amazing capacities of the human spirit. I especially think Alexie's YA novel is an extremely important book that's very moving and sheds light on an American experience most people ignore. Thinking back to it, I more easily remembered that the end celebrated hope and friendship than that violent and tragic things had happened to the protagonist's family. And even those things were very important, not elements that could or should have been jettisoned. The violence, deaths, and alcoholism didn't promote these behaviors but were heartbreaking. Plus, they reflect reality. Young people need to know about the American Indian experience (and this could lead into a whole discussion of minorities and YA lit, but that's probably for another time). Anyway, that was specific to Alexie, but the idea can be extended to all kinds of YA books.

    Last point, which is kind of tangential, but bothered me too. The article includes a list of "Books We Can Recommend for Young Adult Readers" (whoever we is!), and it's divided into young men and young women! Why on earth would they do that? It's like they're implying boys and girls should be/are reading different books, which is just kind of ridiculous. I've only read one of the "boy" books and one of the "girl" books, and the only one that made a deep impression on me was the former, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

    Wow, that was a bit lengthy.

  9. Wow, so many responses. Thanks everyone ... usually I get like 1 comment per post, so this seems like a lot. lol. :P

    @Nelle Horne - Exactly. Issues exposed by the media––be it in books, TV, or movies––is supposed to start conversations. It's not encouraging anyone to be a criminal. I have read a lot of books that involved self-mutilation ... books like Cut, Willow, Winter Girls, etc. although those books definitely don't /encourage/ self-harm; in fact, they expose the horrors of such self-harm which will hopefully prevent them from taking place.

    @Seth - Agreed. :) Regardless of genre, books are both hopeful and sad. As the article points out, YA fiction is pretty new, anyway. A few decades ago, kids had to go straight from children's books to adult books, so I don't see how YA fiction is any "worse" for them.

    @Elena - No problem! I think a teen's point of view on this subject is very important; especially since, as I said, the article didn't give teens a voice on the matter at all. And thank you! Just got back from graduation––got my diploma and everything! :) Woot!

    @Eleanor - Oh my god, the "recommended reading" section pissed me off so much, too! I didn't even notice it the first time I read the article; I thought it was an ad or something so I ignored it, and besides I was too busy fuming over the article itself. :P But then I saw that, and oh man ... It just tipped the scale. Assigning reading by GENDER? Are they SERIOUS? Also, I found their choices kind of ironic. Mostly Farenheit 451 since a) it's not even a YA book, and b) it has a strong ANTI-CENSORSHIP message––not to mention it deals with subjects like suicide, violence, and war. What I Saw and How I Lied is also a somewhat surprising choice, since it revolves around a murder case and involves a girl choosing to lie in court––so I guess that will make teens less morally corrupt? By their logic, it would seem they think these were bad reading choices, but ... Huh. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a wonderful book, but once again ... I don't see why it's any less "bad" than other YA books; it also deals with a lot of issues. So, I don't know. Makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  10. That article is so ridiculous. I could voice all the reasons why, but everyone else already stole mine, so I'll just say: I agree.

    Oh, and this is Tink (Paige) by the way. I realized all of a sudden that my Google account is different because it's old. :P

  11. that was such a dumb article......................

  12. Well, I wouldn't say it was "dumb" necessarily. I understood her view point, it's just that she failed to back it up with solid evidence; also she didn't seem familiar at all with the material she was referencing.


    Books about self harm do not cause harm. They are for help only!!


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