The recent fracas….

In case you aren’t following the world of YA Lit, I need to begin by saying there’s been a big brouhaha of late.    It all started like this, when the Wall Street Journal published an essay about the “darkness” in YA Lit. Of course, a lot of YA writers and readers found this upsetting, and they blogged and wrote about it.  Then today, there was a radio dialogue, between Meghan Cox Gurdon, the author of the essay, and Maureen Johnson, a well-known YA writer. Some smart things were said, and some dumb things were said (mostly by the last caller to the show).    The word “pity” was used in a problematic way, and lots of YA fans called in to support Maureen.  Pretty much what you’d expect.

Now, some of you may remember that I also wrote something about the darkness trend, for a newspaper, a little while back.  My essay was, perhaps, less upsetting to the YA World.  Certainly, nobody was as interested in discussing it on Twitter.  But although I didn’t get anyone terribly upset, many of Gurdon’s concerns are my own concerns.  And in a world where the sides of the debate tend to pull to extremes, I find myself sitting in the middle on this one.  Which feels funny.  I’m watching the sparks fly, and wondering if Gurdon and I might not agree on  a lot, if we sat down over coffee. Off the air. As moms and readers.

Of course, I support my fellow authors. I understand why they felt attacked and misunderstood.  I support their belief that we NEED books about all kinds of things, even scary things (and in some cases, especially scary things). I support their creative projects and tastes. I support any author’s right to write any book they want. As my wise friend Terra once said to me, “There’s a book for every reader and a reader for every book.”

But on some level, I agree with what I think was Gurdon’s initial impulse– the feeling that  when we look around the world of books for kids, we see an overwhelming number of SCARY books.  I get where she’s coming from.  It’s the same corner I find myself in when my five year old starts talking about suicide, because he’s watched an older boy playing a video game at someone’s house.

And Gurdon has NOT, to my knowledge, suggested any form of censorship.  Has she?  Because that’s black&white with me, but I don’t think she’s taken any kind of book banning position at all. She just doesn’t like some books. Okay.  She’s allowed.  She’s even allowed to do a disrespectful job of explaining it.   She’s even allowed to speak with unearned authority.

Just like we’re allowed to rant about it.

But I wanted to take a moment to point out what seem to be a few blurry areas in the conversation. A few things that I think are derailing the debate:

1. This conversation is REALLY about marketing, not writing.  The problem (for me, anyway) isn’t about people writing whatever books they want, but about the fact that when something sells, the stores push it. The more it sells, the more it gets pushed.  Hence, we now have an entire paranormal section in the BIG bookstore.  We do NOT have a wacky-arty-classic-feeling-book section in the BIG bookstore. We do not have a “reminds you of your favorite out-of-print-books” section.  We are lucky if we can find such a book buried under the pile on the shelf, though I know for a fact that Gurdon is aware of such books, because she’s reviewed mine, and quite favorably. This is not an issue that relates to what authors what to write, or even what editors want to publish. This is about stores wanting to stay in business.  About publishers riding the gravy train to stay out of bankruptcy.  Or–in some cases– about newspapers wanting to sell ad space. Ahem.  This is about capitalism.  Which always goes so well with art.  It’s an interesting thing to talk about. MAYBE WE SHOULD TRY IT!  Anyone want to do a radio show on that?  On the wealth of books that don’t get airtime because they aren’t already trending?  On the pressure exerted by the sales channels to produce failsafe products. Children’s books are not just products!  Children’s books are the future of the planet, IMHO.

2. Not unrelated, this conversation is about so-called gatekeepers. Librarians and bookstore people most of all. If a person walks into a bookstore, these are the people who will lead them through the labyrinth of vampires and zombies.  Somewhere on a low shelf, there is the RIGHT book for every child, in any bookstore or library. EVERY bookstore or library.  If we don’t support these venerable institutions, who on earth is going to lead you through the maze? You think a website can really help you find just the book you want, for that kid who isn’t just reading the hot new thing?  No, ma’am.  Let’s see a radio show about how the overwhelming trends are supported in great part by the size of our “stores” and a devaluation of the people we trust to help us find the books we so badly need.

3. Imprecise language drives me bonkers.  What the hell do we mean by “dark?”  What do we think we’re doing lumping the book with serious “issues” in it alongside a dystopian landscape full of glowing were-monkeys?  Really, people? REALLY?  I find this hugely upsetting.  Books you buy for a kid who has just lost a parent to cancer are “dark” and vampire novels are “dark” and Hunger Games is “dark” and cutting is dark and what about Vonnegut? Is he dark?  Truman Capote?  Dickens?  How about Beowulf?  Blake is dark as hell. Let’s find a better way to decide what we object to, and then let’s be clear about what that is when we attempt to complain about it.  Cool? Cool.  I’ll take a sad kid trying to find faith in humanity any day, but you can keep your fallen angels.  Define your terms. Let’s see a radio show about what scares different people?  Across a wide spectrum?

4. Not all YA books are good.  Seriously.  We produce bad adult novels and bad picture books and bad YA novels too.  I love my community, but when we circle the wagons, WOW, do we circle the wagons.  I think everyone has aright to write any book they want, but I’ll be damned if I want to read/buy/review/support them all.   And I think that when we insist on shouting in support of everything in our little “club” that gets attacked, every single time, we end up looking like we have no standards in general.  I’m not talking about the initial article here, but the twitterverse has been driving me nuts this way.  Call me a snob, fine.   I’m a snob.  A lot of books suck, and a lot of YA books suck, and a lot of “dark” YA novels suck, and I wish the bad ones just disappeared into the mist.  I won’t hashtag/blog-tour every book out there just because someone didn’t like it, and it happens to be YA.   This said, you might think *my* books suck, and I will defend your right to say so, forever.  But until I’m riding the trending-book-gravy-train, nobody is going to talk about it in the mainstream media. So I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.  Let’s see a radio show where YA and Children’s authors review books critically and honestly.

I’ll probably think of more things to object to. I usually do. But I wanted to get this out.  And  I would ask that other people do the same– define your terms, explain your distress and frustration, but try not to jump on the bandwagon.  Everyone has something to learn, just like everyone has something to teach.

I learned that from the Streatfield novel, Ballet Shoes.  Which has poverty and orphans and stuff in it, but is not dark.

“N’oubliez jamais qu-une actrice continue a apprendre  jusqu’ a son dernier jour.”



18 Responses to “The recent fracas….”

  1. Kerry Clare Says:

    Well said. You are awesome. And doesn’t fence-sitting allow one an expansive view?

  2. Angie O Says:

    WELL SAID, actually. I mean … I got all mad when I first read her article. How dare she say such stuff. But she’s entitled to her opinion. She just happens to have an opinion lots of people can hear. So really what the rest of us have to do is just talk more and more about ALL of the kinds of books out there. And while my voice doesn’t have nearly the reach of a WSJ article … some people will hear it.

  3. Kelly Barnhill Says:

    My dear, dear lady, I love you forever for writing this. This is EXACTLY how I feel about this issue – both as a mom and as a writer.

    Particularly as a mom. My eleven year old reads at the college level (hell, the kid reads better than me) and is lightning fast. She reads about a book a day, and sometimes more. There is absolutely no way that I’d be able to pre-read her books for her, but there are ABSOLUTELY some books in the YA section that are simply not appropriate for her. She reads books in the general lit section, but many many more of those are not appropriate for her either. As a result I DEPEND on the gatekeepers. The librarians at our public library have been a godsend to my family, and so have the folks who work at the two indie kids bookstores in my community.

    The thing is, as parents, we help our kids make all kinds of choices. The world is complex! There are shows that my kid isn’t allowed to watch and websites that she’s not allowed to visit and places that she’s not allowed to go. Reading is a little bit trickier because when a kid reads only a fraction of their experience comes from the book itself, and rather is a construct built by their own imaginations in response to the the book. This is why, when I taught THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN to a bunch of high school sophomores, very few of them caught the sex scene. It just blew right over their heads. Because kids live in a world of their own making, you know? In any case, kids need maps and guides and interpreters as they navigate the world of books. And they find those in me, in librarians, in review sites that are aimed at them, and from other books. And no amount of WSJ hyperbole and pearl-clutching is going to change that.

  4. david e Says:

    marketing is only half the problem here, the other half is that we have lost our ability to have any discourse in the country without it becoming a divisive no-holds-barred death match where there needs to be one clear winner. even within the circled wagons of kidlit there are those who feel negative reviews of books serve no purpose, those who feel ALL YA books require redemption as part of their narrative, and that these (and other) various lines are firm enough to declare war on those who cross them.

    yes, “dark” is a ridiculous term, but what is truly dark is a society that doesn’t see that it’s insatiable need for violent entertainment is more deadly than any book attempting to reach out to a reader. i tell people i have a story where a kid accidentally burns down part of his school (a project gone wrong) and people are horrified that i would present kids with an image of a “real” school burning; these same people don’t see any problem with the kill-or-be-killed stories that appear in certain “dark” YA because they can write them off as fantasy.

    and i agree, there are a lot of sucky books out there. i finished one the other day so reprehensible in subject matter (and third in a trilogy!) that i had a hard time imagining the ideal reader for it. the problem is that i don’t play first-person weapons-based video games, so clearly it isn’t to my tastes. which is not to lay the blame on video games or movies, because these things sell for a reason. but the reason is a society that throws its energies toward straw problems wile ignoring the very real ones right in front of our collective noses.

    i’ve said it before: stop blaming books.

  5. david e Says:

    and one of these days i’ll learn to be a better proofreader before i publish my comments!

  6. laurel Says:

    Thanks, everyone.

    David, as I recall, you and I became friends THROUGH a negative review! I’m all for criticism. ANd yeah, on the “what is dark” thing… one review I got called Any Which Wall dark, because a dog has been hurt in it. Everything is so subjective.

  7. patricia Says:

    Thank you, Laurel, for such a balanced, reasoned perspective. So refreshing, and so very much needed in this recent discussion.

    Personally, I’d love to start a ‘Humour Saves’ trend on Twitter.

  8. david e Says:

    laurel, i keep trying to tell myself “i wasn’t THAT negative…” but then i go back and look at it… huh, yeah, i guess it was somewhat negative. in my defense (not that i’m feeling defensive, oh no, not at all) i did admit that it simply wasn’t for me, that i abandoned the book, and didn’t pretend to read it the way i’ve seen some other reviewers do.

    and i’d like to think that you and i became friends because through that review we both came from and to a place of honesty and respect, that we could talk and LISTEN to each other and find greater points of commonality than discord. something i sincerely doubt gurdon could do herself, based on her stance and the way she articulated her opinions. that “pity” line was incredibly telling.

    dark because of a hurt dog? wow. i guess dead dog books end up being the ultimate in evil.

  9. laurel Says:

    yes, exactly, but i guess that’s my point. ALL reviews should be respectful. all reviewers should understand they are only a single reader. all authors should be willing to listen. in general, this is how dialogue happens, I think, and how relationships are built.

  10. Kaethe Says:

    Laurel, I love your books, and I credit Penny Dreadful with turning my youngest into a real reader. But I couldn’t disagree with you more about this whole thing. Here’s where I part ways with your Boston Globe column and with Gurdon’s WSJ piece: both of you seem to be looking at YA shelves and bemoaning lost childhood innocence. I have two problems with this.

    The first, of course, is that for many children innocence is a lie. For some significant portion of the population, problems like hunger, crime, violence, abuse, etc. have always been and always will be part of the picture. A shrinking middle class means a greater percentage of kids are growing up in poverty in the US, which only increases the vulnerability to everything else. For a lot of kids nothing in fiction is as dark as their own existence.

    The second lie is hiding in the vague phrase “books for kids.” Above you say define your terms, but in your Globe article you mention three YA titles that struck you as dark, and you seemed to be under the impression that they were in direct competition with Hans Christian Anderson. In both my local bookstore and library they’re not even in the same room with each other. That seems like complaining that three popular PG-13 movies are inappropriate for kindergartners. Neither you nor Gurdon know so little about books that the MG designation is news to you. I have a hard time believing that you really think the choice is between Ash and Disney’s Cinderella for anyone, let alone a child of an unspecified age.

    As for the point you make in this blog entry, I agree wholeheartedly for the most part. The only thing I object to here is “You think a website can really help you find just the book you want, for that kid who isn’t just reading the hot new thing?” The web is the best place to get reading advice these days.

  11. Sondy Says:

    I love this essay, Laurel! Especially your line, “Let’s see a radio show about how the overwhelming trends are supported in great part by the size of our “stores” and a devaluation of the people we trust to help us find the books we so badly need.”

    The thing that most made me crazy about the original article was that in a big box store, a parent couldn’t find light YA books — which a librarian could have easily found for her.

    I leaned more toward overprotection when my firstborn was small. As a parent, I learned that letting them read what they were interested in and talking about it was much more beneficial than trying to keep “dark” things from them. (And I so agree about being annoyed with the term “dark” and making it mean whatever you want it to mean at the time!)

    Your essay touched off a lot more thoughts. I’ll have to write a blog post myself.

  12. Sonderbooks » Blog Archive » Bravo for YA Literature! Says:

    [...] Snyder posted a nice reaction to the first interview. And after listening to both interviews, there are things I want to [...]

  13. Even in Australia Says:

    I love this take on the whole to-do! It’s so… reasonable of you.

    Also – LOVE Ballet Shoes!!

  14. BTW: Re-Entry, Ramadan and The Dark Is Rising | Amie Kaufman Says:

    [...] This post from one of my favourite authors, Laurel Snyder, on the recent debate about “darkness” in YA literature. [...]

  15. Kurtis Says:

    Great job, Laurel. I’ve too have been irritated by the lumping together of realistic/dark with escapist/dark.

  16. James Preller’s Blog » Blog Archive » Bad Words in Books: Censorship, and Self-Censorship, in Children’s Literature Says:

    [...] the way, I have to recommend that you check out this link, from a blog post by Laurel Snyder, that addresses many of the above issues (as they pertain to the recent YA brouhaha). Great job, [...]

  17. The Frugal Hostess Says:

    I’m reading this late, and I’m not going to pretend to be as well-versed in this particular fracas as I am in many others. I just have two things to say.

    1. Ballet Shoes!!!

    2. Do you think there is any truth to the belief that the “trending topic”-type books (werewolves, vampires, whatever) turn non-readers into readers in a way that a Dicey’s Song can’t?

  18. James Preller Says:

    Great piece, Laurel.

    But, Kelly, wait. There’s a sex scene in THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN?

    Damn. I hate when that happens.

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