Stuck in the Middle
So, if you've been around the blogosphere/twitterverse at all this weekend you've probably heard the uproar over the Wall Street Journal article entitled, Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea? After this article was posted, Twitter exploded in outrage, blog posts started popping up right and left, and people started bashing the Wall Street Journal, the author of the article, and, of course, ignorant parents. And here I find myself....stuck in the middle.
When I read the article, I have to admit, I didn't get angry. In fact, there were a lot of points in it that I agree with. A HUGE number of YA books ARE dark. My bookshelves (which are almost entirely made up of YA books) are full of books about Vampires, Werewolves, Demons, Zombies, and most recently a book where even the Angels are bad. The contemporary books are mostly about rape, cutting, suicide, eating disorders, drug addiction, sex etc. I mean, honestly, look at how the books are packaged. Most of them have dark covers, some dripping blood, or just have a generally creepy feel to them. Who can blame the mom for walking out disappointed? Why would she WANT her teen reading what looks like dark or depressing things? The question is, do these things have an affect on teens?
I think it's funny because in one breath, people will say, "Books are just stories, kids know the difference between stories and real life. Just because they read it in a book, doesn't mean they're going to go out and do it! Stop being so over dramatic!" Then in the next breath say, "These books change kids' lives! So many kids have said they thought about committing suicide (or other destructive behavior) until they read (insert book here) and decided against it. That book saved their lives!" So....do books have an affect on teens or not?
I definitely think they do. And I think they can affect kids positively or negatively. I think it depends on the child, the book, the situation, the parental involvement, and many other factors.
A couple of years ago I read CRANK by Ellen Hopkins. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, "There's no way I'm letting my daughter read this right now." The book, as incredibly written as it was, and as much as I loved it, just didn't have a place in her life. I saw no benefit to her reading it because it wasn't something that she was ready for, or would need to deal with anytime in the near future. I am her parent, and I have that right. You have the right to agree or disagree. The other thought I had while reading it was, "I hope that if there's someone out there who is struggling with drug addiction, they will read this book, and know there's hope out there for them." I also thought, "Every parent should read this book."
What may be right for one child, may not be right for another. It makes me crazy when people make blanket statements. "Books about cutting will make a teen want to try it out," or "Books about cutting won't make a teen want to try it out." Both of these statements are true, and both of them are false. If you think that reading about suicide/cutting won't affect a teen negatively, why don't you go and read this post. Please, go read it.....now. If you think that issues books aren't important, and don't/can't help teens, please go read this post. I am so incredibly moved by both of these stories. They both make me want to cry, and hug these people, and hug the author, or yell at the author, or yell at the parents, or a million other emotions.
I keep seeing statements made about parents, and even the parent in the article, saying that because they want to shelter their kids from certain material at certain ages that they are naive, or they're afraid to have the hard conversations with their kids. Really? I don't know who they've been talking to, but most of the parents who I talk to, who are concerned about what their kids are reading, are much more involved in their kids' lives than the normal parent. They have strong family relationships, and are open with their children about the reasons behind their decisions.
I definitely monitor what my kids read. Are you saying it's because I'm afraid to talk about sex? Trust me, talking about sex is one of my husband's favorite ways to embarrass our kids.....it isn't an issue. But when I see my 10 year old decide she wants to be a cat after reading the Warriors series, or decide to be "goth" and wear only black after reading Vladimir Todd, it makes me think about the influence of books on her. She is ABSOLUTELY imitating the things she's reading. So, then I start to think, "What kind of affect would a book like CRANK or SCARS or LIVING DEAD GIRL have on her?" I honestly don't know. And right now, I don't think there's any reason to find out. But there are plenty of girls her age that are reading these books. Why? Because they're available to them, and their parents have no idea what they're about. Which means that they're reading these books alone, without any adult to talk to about the things they're reading about. No one to explain what they mean. Maybe there are 10-12 year old out there that can benefit from these books, but surely not without guidance. But how do parents know? It's easy to say, "Well, parents should be reading what their kids are reading, so they'll know." But that's easier said than done. I have three kids, all very different ages, styles of reading, and reading levels. I can't possibly keep up, and I do this for fun! What about the single mom who has to work two jobs, and just wants what's best for her kids? Are you saying her kids just shouldn't read? Or that they should read whatever, whenever? Why not make things better/easier for her, and for her kids?
So where do we go from here? I have said this over and over, and I will continue to say it. EDUCATION AND INFORMATION!! I feel like sometimes authors are afraid to tell parents/schools what is in their books, because they believe there will be a fight. However, I think that if parents were better informed about what is in books, and WHY IT IS IMPORTANT, the shock effect disappears and they can make educated decisions about what's best for their child at what age. And I will make no apologies for believing that parents have the ultimate responsibility and right to make those decisions.
We, at Reading Teen, have tried to do our best to help inform teens and their parents (and those who just want to know) about the content in the books we review. We hope to show the things that may be questionable, but also talk about why the book was good, or beneficial. We LOVE reading Young Adult. If it weren't for Young Adult books, I would not read. I know it may rub some the wrong way that we provide content, but really, isn't it better that it comes from people who love the books, instead of people that are misinformed? I've had quite a few teens tell me that their parents didn't let them read any YA until they found our site.
The thing is, even though many of these books may seem dark on the surface, most of them are actually stories of hope. Most of the paranormal books are about good verses evil, and most of the "issue" books are about overcoming the issue, and what to do next. What I think the WSJ article failed to do, was take an in-depth look at the books that are on the shelves, to show both sides of the story.
What I don't think should happen, though, is for the young adult community to just scream foul and ignore the article completely. I think people on both sides of the issue should go into this with an open mind. You may learn something from the other side.
Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, did a fantastic post on the article, in which she articulates so much better, much of what I'm trying to say. Of course she does, she's an author!! Go check it out!! And here's another fantastic "Stuck in the Middle" post by a teen reader.
A comment I added to another blog:
I do think that the thing the article was trying to say is kind of being missed, though. Maybe I'm reading it differently than everyone else. I didn't think it was saying that these books don't help, or that they should be taken off the shelves. The point I understood was that there was SO MUCH darkness. That when kids, and even adults for that matter, spend so much of their time focusing on the negative, that it can affect them in a dark way. I think the same holds true to the news. My grandpa watched the news constantly, and was left angry at the world. He believed that nothing good ever happened and that everyone was evil. He was miserable. I think that if all people read about is horrible things that happen to other people, it can leave them depressed, scared and thinking that humanity is evil. Of course I think that these books are helpful, and are needed, especially for kids that have gone through a similar experience, but I also think adults need to be there to talk about them, and guide kids while reading them, especially younger readers and less experienced teens.