Should parents censor their children’s reading?

That’s one of the questions brought up by the storm over the Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the current fashion in YA lit. Gurdon’s review of the genre, called Darkness Too Visible, called out publishers and writers for — in my reading of it — both sensationalizing and normalizing pathological behavior.

“If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. Adolescence is brief; it comes to each of us only once, so whether the debate has raged for eons doesn’t, on a personal level, really signify.”

This is an old argument indeed; kids have always been reading literature that their elders have disliked.

But I think Gurdon has a point, and it’s been lost in the cries of censorship and outrage that the writing and reading community have given voice to. What exactly is YA? Who is it aimed at? You will find many fans of the genre (is it even a genre? Or is it an age group? It’s so confusing) are in their 20s or older, so even Gurdon can hardly complain about their reading material. But every parent should ask whether their child should be reading the darker, harder stuff that’s out there. Should a 13-year-old read Tithe, by Holly Black? It might be fine for an older teen, but who makes that consideration? Parents get ripped for being too lenient with their kids nowadays, but shouldn’t parents be able to make that judgment?

Back when most adults were children, the readers among us had a similar upbringing; no books were off limits. Some readers self-regulated; I found myself in some pretty adult territory a few times, and in retrospect I wish I didn’t still have those books in my head.

Nowadays, I don’t think parents have the luxury of giving their kids the same leeway. And I think what Gurdon is saying is, if this is all that is out there aimed at teens and tweens, what does that say about the genre and why is that all there is to it?

I think it’s a bit disingenuous of authors to say, hey, I’m just shedding light on a tough issue, whatever the issue is (pedophilia, cutting, eating disorders, etc.).  Sensationalism has always sold books, and we are all in this business to sell books and tell stories and provide fans with a satisfying reading experience. My goal is to keep you up past your bedtime on a work or school night reading one more chapter; teen readers crave that same breathless sensation.

At a book signing a couple years ago, a mom approached me about the violence level in Red Gold Bridge. Yeah, it is violent. There is a mad general with a fixation on a 16 year old girl so it’s not only violent it’s icky. This mom’s daughters were in high school, well within the age group for my books but she opted not to buy it for them.

Darn. When I related the story to friends, we all kind of laughed at this overprotective mom.  After all, who hates to lose a sale? And yeah, considering that my books are not very dark, even though dark things happen, really, it would have been fine for her daughters.

But she has that right to make those kinds of decisions. I have the right to keep writing what I want and people who want to read those things will buy my books.

YA editors have a particular love for the novels they bring to their readership, and are true evangelists for the genre (or the age group).  Gurdon might be jaundiced by what she sees on the shelves, but I don’t think that editors and publishers are as cynical and self-serving as this review implies.  I see this review as opening a dialog. Now it’s our turn to talk about the books we love and why we write them.



CAS · June 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

Interesting article – thanks for sharing. Parents can and should ask for guidance from their school’s librarian who tend to be a little more conservative than Public Library Youth Services Librarians. It is a very interesting dilemma. Try “Living Dead Girl” and tell me where you think that fits.

Patrice Sarath · June 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

That’s a good point – but how many school librarians are left in these days of budget cuts? : -(

I have heard of Living Dead Girl. I’ll put it on the list.

Out of curiosity, where do you stand on Gurdon’s article? Do you think YA has gotten too dark?

CAS · June 8, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Don’t count school librarians out – while it is a tragedy when a position gets cut – that is the exception not the norm. As a writer and a reader you should never accept a world without librarians as a consequence of the economic downturn – we all must protest when this happens so it does not continue.
I thought Gordon’s article was excellent in bringing into the discussion all of the cogent arguments. Personally, having read many of the titles discussed and having similar discussion among peers, I am conflicted and could not recommend all of the titles to readers under 18.
One exception was the Hunger Games trilogy as you know.

Patrice Sarath · June 9, 2011 at 8:41 am

I’d like to emphasize what you said about teachers asking their school librarians, because I bet a lot of parents don’t even think of him or her as a resource, sadly enough (although, in my case, I loved chatting with my kids’ middle school librarian. She was the bomb). I’d also like to point out to other readers that since you are a librarian, and you have also had some of these same discussions, that hey, even people who are in the business of cultivating readers and who don’t want to censor anyone, are asking the same questions as the editorial does.

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