Young Adult fiction: the poison is the antidote

ya ficby Rachel Krueger

Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article on the “explicit abuse, violence and depravity” grown rife in YA fiction must come either from a place of willful blindness or an actual dark rock, under which she has been living. 

Granted, YA fiction has gotten more sexually explicit since 1973 when Judy Blume’s Deenie would touch her “special place” to help herself fall asleep, and more violent since 1967, when S.E. Hinton’s Outsiders fought each other with KNIVES. Oh no, wait. It has always been like, this. FOR A REASON. 

Gurdon calls teen fiction “a hall of fun-house mirrors” that reflect “hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.” I don’t know what means this “hideously distorted.” Dark And Brooding YA is necessary and valuable and popular because this sort of shit happens in real life. (Okay, maybe not the werewolfy bits. But the sudden upheaval of becoming a werewolf [combined with unexpected growth of hair]? Triumph of analogy.)

Gurdon complains that YA lit contains “images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” As if anyone has ever needed art to help them cope with joy and beauty, and as though literature wasn’t the shoulder on which the damaged, brutalized, and lost can weep.

Life is occasionally very shitty and the teen years are like an uncomfortable, uncertain flame to which said shittiness flocks. There are BAD INFLUENCES above and beyond those nasty books. High school frequently says things like “Bigotry is awesome!” and needs to be countered by novels in which bigotry has real and violent consequences, or is absent altogether. From the outside YA can look like it’s all angst and Chuck Taylors and co-dependency and it IS those things, but it is those things plus BETRAYAL and DISASTER and COURAGE.

Yet Gurdon also takes issue with the ability of YA to meet teens where they are at, and to give them a voice. She complains that writing about such “pathologies” as having been abused (at which I paused to die a little bit and then come back to finish the article), or indulging in self-harm, helps to normalize these behaviors, make them part of the culturally acceptable lexicon, and encourage them in other young’uns. Yet the article earlier asserts that “reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.” So which is it? This also presumes that self-harm is a hobby teens pick up because they think it’s rad, not (among other things) a coping mechanism to deal with deep psychological pain. DEEP PSYCHOLOGICAL PAIN IS NOT CATCHING. Or, at least, you cannot get it from books.

Sherman Alexie once wrote of his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that there’s “nothing in this book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.” Gurdon responds that “one depravity does not justify another.” However, in stark contrast to the internet, which is maintained by trolls and scarab beetles, YA lit is written by adults who love teens, and who get into YA PRIMARILY to be like, Let me help you through these awkward, wretched years. Given the choice of who to let talk to my kids about what sex is and what bullies are and how to escape the Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll always take well-intentioned adults over scarab beetles.

Let’s leave aside for the sake of brevity and of my poor, furious heart that the article discusses YA fiction as though it were a homogenous mass – as though Alyson Noel’s angsty Immortals are equivalent to John Green’s smart-talking, prank-pulling, good-hearted teens. Let’s also leave aside the inherent problems in the sidebar “Books We can Recommend for Young Adult Readers.” (Ship-Breaker is a book about a BOY and is therefore for BOYS and girls will be like, I don’t understand this dystopic business, where are the prom dresses? True Grit is about a girl but she is BADASS so it is ALSO for BOYS because girls should stick to books about “love-struck medieval girl[s] gone mad” [Lisa Klein’s Ophelia]. Who can breathe when they see this in print?)

I feel like I am stating the obvious, like I am arguing that water is excellent for thirst or that apples and baby wolverines are, in fact, two different things. But here we are, having this conversation, and I am both boggled and saddened by the fact that some people still think YA will keeeel you (metaphorically, emotionally, ethically). Instead, it is those teenage years that will kill you. YA might be the only thing to save your ass.


  1. Andrea says

    Because, God forbid we actually let teens read about things that actually affect them and those they know. Better to pretend nothing ugly or dark or twisted ever happens.

  2. Eleah says

    Here’s a thought too. Maybe if kids are busy reading books, they aren’t actually out there doing all those destructive things. But nah, better they go out on a Friday night and drink rather than curl up with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate/tea etc.

  3. says

    I read about the article before I read the article and… not only is obviously, um, we’ll go with “misguided”, but it’s also all over the place. She, as you point out, contradicts herself. She doesn’t seem to have a continuous thread of reasoning. Ah well, the internet knows she’s wrong.

  4. Ali C. says

    Thank goodness. I’ve taught the very students who need these books. Not just your everyday angsty teenager, but the ones who have actually been through all the nasty things that the books talk about. Not only do the books help the students who have been through it, they help the students who haven’t to understand the students who have. And most of all, these books get children to read. I don’t have a source at hand at the moment, but I’m fairly certain that it’s been shown that people, and especially children, who read anything at all become better readers. By becoming better readers, they become better members of society. I could get into my rant now about all of the things we do so kids to make them not want to read, but I won’t. Please just LET THEM READ. If they read enough they’ll figure out all on their own what’s right and wrong.

  5. Jessica says

    Gurton better look out! In my fun-times education classes where I am learning those things that will make me a teacher in December, we were encouraged to get children to read Alexie’s book! and spoke to great lengths about its benefits, and got into all that psychology of children which teachers learn so much about. Alexie says there are way worse things on the internet, and Gurton replies with a “then it’s the parents fault for letting them see said worse things on the internet” – how does that not apply to books? confusion central.

    I want to echo Kara and say if you don’t want your kids to read YA Fiction, then don’t let them.

  6. Kara says

    In addition to all your points (which: THANK YOU!) the thing I couldn’t wrap my head around was that she didn’t understand that saying “I don’t want my kids to read this therefore no kids should be able to” is THE VERY EXACT DEFINITION of censorship.

    “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”


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