You may or may not have seen the WSJ article that had Twitter buzzing last night and today, nor the responses from thousands of readers and writers alike offering their heartfelt thoughts and reasons on why YA fiction saves, trending third in the US under the #YAsaves hash tag. You can read the article here:- Darkness too Visible by Meghan Cox Gurdon.
While I weighed in myself on Twitter last night and this morning as I was unable to log in to my WSJ online account, I feel compelled to write a little more than the 140 Twitter character limit, especially to explain my thoughts more clearly in this whole debate.
First of all, what’s wrong with vampires? I’m a YA author AND a parent, and I’ve written a novel about witches and vampires (Bloodspell). It’s not full of gratuitous blood and gore and sex and foul language. The characters in my novel encounter obstacles similar to those teens face today – with or without fangs and powers, struggling with issues like fitting in while staying true to themselves, falling in love for the first time, bullying, losing people close to them and finding the strength to fight for what they believe in. The core message of my novel is that being different sucks sometimes, but it’s not always going to suck—one day, you’re going to be psyched you’re the exception and not the rule. So what if it’s gift-wrapped in an urban fantasy “paranormal” cloak? If teens are reading it and getting that message, I’m thrilled!
Second, I am in awe of writers like Jackie Morse Kessler (author of RAGE) and Cheryl Rainfield (author of SCARS), both targeted in the article, and many others who are courageous enough to put themselves and their stories out there with love and compassion. I know that these books must have been excruciating for them to write but they did it, and so many people, so many TEENAGE READERS, will be better for it. The WSJ article claims that “Darkness [is] too Visible” … well it’s only by making darkness visible that you can bring light into it. And when you bring darkness into the light, it can’t hide. Nor can feelings of shame or unworthiness or ugliness. You just have HOPE and LOVE. What other kind of message can you hope for if it’s not one of optimism in a world fraught with darkness?
Third, Amy Freeman, the mother cited in the article claims that she could not find a book to give as a gift to her thirteen-year-old daughter because there was “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” Mrs. Freeman, I kinda think that maybe you were in the wrong section. There are many many books on the market that aren’t “dark,” which are still in bookstores, like Anne of Green Gables (one of my favorites) by L.M. Montgomery or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Forewarned is forearmed – I’d advise doing the research online before you go into a bookstore and then asking for specific books that you’ve researched. You can find great lists of “wholesome” teen reads from the popular Goodreads or ALA.org websites.
Fourth, when I was a teen myself, I can remember the exact book that changed my life – it was “The Best Little Girl in the World” by Steven Levenkron, a disturbing book about teenage anorexia. When my best friend died in an unexpected car accident, my life flipped onto itself. I stopped eating … and started to diet compulsively, feeling that weight was the only thing I could control. My life veered into the danger zone as the months slipped by. Finally, when a psychiatrist in France (where I was living at the time), threatened to hospitalize me, I remembered that book. I remembered what I’d read about this little girl walking laps in the hospital while connected to an IV tube force-feeding her liquids just so she could burn calories, and I decided … I KNEW that I didn’t want to be her. When I got back to the US, I voluntarily checked myself into therapy to get the help I needed. All because of one little book.
Lastly, my parents were both teachers, and let me read anything I could get my hands on. In fact, at sixteen, I stole a copy of one of Erica Jong’s novel from my mother’s library and was completely horrified. Let’s just say, I didn’t do that again … way too adult for me at that age! My point is, my parents let me use my own judgment on the books I read. And to tell you the honest truth, reading books like “Go Ask Alice” made me freaking terrified to experiment with drugs. Books about teen pregnancies made me a little glad that I didn’t have a boyfriend to worry about sex. Books about date-rape allowed me to not put myself in compromising situations. The point is – I LEARNED valuable messages from these books … whether it was Anne Rice or V.C. Andrews or C.S. Lewis or Bram Stoker or Archie Comics!
All I can say in response to the last line of the article, that publishers only seek “to bulldoze coarseness or misery into [...] children’s lives,” is that I’d rather have some kind of idea of what’s really out there in the world via YA fiction, than to be sheltered and coddled, and then be thrust into the real world and expected to thrive. Books prepare young minds. And as I’ve said before, teens are sophisticated creatures. Trust me, they know that they won’t want to drink blood just because they’ve read a book about vampires, or they’re not going to self-injure because they’ve read a book about someone’s disorder and it’s as the author suggested “the vogue” thing to do. As a parent, you’d be lucky if they learn something from it, and become equipped with the tools to recognize any of these many pitfalls in life (in themselves, in loved ones, and in friends). All it does is make them better people and more socially conscious. At the end of the day, what’s wrong with that?