It’s Pretty Dark in a Closed Mind

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that is making its way around the Young Adult (YA) and librarian Twittersphere right now, even invoking its own hashtag #YAsaves. The gist of the article is that current YA literature is too dark, too violent, too graphic, and address topics far too dark for teen literature. It starts off with an anecdote about a mother who went to a bookstore and found nothing in the YA area that she felt was appropriate for her daughter; it was the equivalent of turning on the TV, flipping through a dozen channels out of the hundreds offered, and then declaring that there was nothing on worth watching. It certainly falls into the “isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time” critique of young adult literature (or any literature, for that matter).

For all the emphasis on the books and the subjects that they cover, there is little mention as to what is driving authors to write books that cover topics such as rape, self-mutilation, incest, homosexuality, drug abuse, and sex. From the article, it would sound as if the YA authors, publishers, and librarians of the world had formed a triad in order to promote these topics, parents and moralists be damned. The blame is placed on these groups for writing, publishing, and promoting it, even though it is the teens themselves or their parents who are purchasing or borrowing the content. If readers did not care for books like “Shine”, “Rage”, or “Speak”, then those books would live out their lives on the shelves in bookstores and libraries untouched and unnoticed. The almighty dollar dictates what kinds of books are going to be produced; even the Wall Street Journal should understand that the demand drives the market, not the supply, especially when it comes to literature.

I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed at the feeling of a need to rush to the defense of this literature by my fellow librarians. Too often I think it provides unnecessary validation to the opposing argument and frames the issue as a matter of what librarians consider appropriate or important. It should not be about us; it should be about the (mythical) standards that objectors wish to impose. To me, this is a time for some argument jujitsu and it starts with a question: so, what do you think is inappropriate and why? From there, just start objectively breaking down their answers. Is there a book they would consider to be appropriate? How much is too much sex, violence, drug use, etc.? Because if they want book selection to follow a criterion, let them attempt to define it. It’s really a trick question; there is no way they can define it in a meaningful and objective way. Let their words destroy their own arguments; they don’t need our help.

As it appears in others articles regarding objections to literature, there is the standard lament about how those objections are not readily sympathetic. As if it wasn’t enough in their own minds to be right, but they want their viewpoint to be popular as well. It’s a strange brew of arrogance and ignorance that goes into that sentiment. The arrogance of attempting to define standards based on personal subjective viewpoints, an “I know best for everyone else” idea that is neither original nor surprising in the long scope of history. But to never ask oneself why such objections are not popular, why they don’t receive wide support, and why people react to them negatively is just breathtaking. There is no examination or analysis of the counterpoint, a willful continuation of ignorance that just further perpetuates the vilification of the opposing party. (Don’t worry, I’m not excluding my fellow librarians from this either. It annoys the hell out of me when it happens.) Perhaps, upon some reflection, those who object to books or art might realize why there is strenuous opposition to their objections; for a society that values freedom of expression, it might be unpopular when it is felt to be curtailed.

The topics that these YA books address may be dark, but not as dark as adopting a worldview that doesn’t extend beyond oneself.


[Another good take is this post by Liz Burns, “There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!”]

5 thoughts on “It’s Pretty Dark in a Closed Mind

  1. Pretty much agree with you on everything here. Mostly what amazes me is this idea that childhood in this day in age is in any way shrouded in innocence and ignorance. Study after study shows that kids are dealing with issues concerning sex, drugs, poverty, and violence as young at 12 years old. Hell they can see that on HBO, much less the school yard.

    No, I don’t think that’s necessarily a *good* thing but I think it’s ridiculous to point to YA books that deal with those issues as part of the problem; they are, in many ways, being read by kids as a way to *deal* with those issues. Kids are smart; it’s the ignorance of adults that always surprises me.

  2. Pingback: Librarians and Books In the News « A Case for Books

  3. There is variety in Children’s Lit. Anyone who can’t find variety is not looking in the right places.
    A good bookstore or library carries every kind of fiction choice for teen readers and younger. I write for children and I know many other writers. Each of us creates the kinds of books we’d like to read. Some stories are wacky/funny, some are sentimental, some are mysterious, historical, time travel books, and others are about living with alcoholic parents or out on the street. Also, I don’t know any writer who writes on one topic only.
    Just as readers of all ages don’t usually just read one type of book, writers don’t write just one type of book. There’s room for it all.

  4. In the past whenever I tried to get someone to break down why they object to something, the person immediately starts going with “protect the children!”/religion/moral authority/I don’t like it.

    I had a long chat last night with a friend who is studying to be a children’s librarian. She told me of classmates who boldly demand censorship and relish the thought of being the “final boss” gatekeeper of knowledge. She felt very distressed over the state of things knowing that these people who’ll soon be out in the workforce…

    • That’s very amusing being the final gatekeeper of knowledge. It’s like guarding an open border; people will go around them. I wouldn’t be too worried about it.

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