There is something uniquely polarizing about banned books for teens and children. When an adult decides to buy a book, the conflict of its content exists only between themselves and social mores. When a teen or child reaches for a book, immediately involved is a parent or caregiver. On the one hand you've got authors, fiercely passionate about telling the truth in their writing, in acknowledging the realities faced by teens and children no matter how dark or brutal. On the other you have adults willing to stand between that content and their child, to protect them from and nurture in them feelings and realities unconnected to anything unpleasant. The battle between these two ideologies may be a healthy one.
Recently Meghan Cox Gurdon's "Darkness Too Visible" article in the Wall Street Journal ignited a fury of response in the Young Adult (YA) writing community when it chastised local bookshops for exposing teens to depravity, violence and abuse. She highlighted titles like Go Ask Alice a diary of a teen's spiral into drug abuse, rape and prostitution and went so far as to site S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders as "launching the industry" on YA novels with its tale of "class tensions, family dysfunction and violent, disaffected youth."
Lauren Myracle's Shine about gay hate crimes in a small southern community, and Cheryl Rainfield's Scars about a 15-year-old who copes with memories of childhood sexual abuse by cutting herself, also made Cox Gurdon's list when they were on the table for banning by the U.S. library system. She thought their profanity and content crossed the line when parents and caregivers were trying to exercise "judgement" and "taste" in what their children were exposed to. The move to ban them fell through. She was honest about how cornered parents feel when teachers, libraries and authors themselves accuse such censorship as banning the truth and reality of the world from children and teenagers. She acknowledges that the landscape is changing in literature and it is harder than ever for a parent to have any real control over what their children are influenced by via literature, television and movies.
Authors of Young Adult books immediately took up arms. Sherman Alexie, author of the semi-autobiographical YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian countered with his own article, "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood," describing the profound experiences he had touring high schools and talking to teens about the real issues they deal with. He talked about resilience and hope and the need for teens and children to connect with others about their experiences. And he highlighted that darkness already exists in children's lives and needed to be acknowledged.
"I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as 10 have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I've ever read."
Books like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak whose heroine struggles to find the courage to tell the truth about being raped at a party and Chris Lynch's Inexcusable told from the perspective of a teen football player who can't understand why what he has done is considered rape, made his list of books he wishes had been available when he was an abused teen and felt unredeemable.
The Twittersphere lit up during this exchange with the hashtag #YASaves filled with comments from YA Authors, teen readers, booksellers, teachers and parents talking about the incredible influence and experience of reading on their lives. Authors like Cassandra Clare whose Mortal Instrument series features an urban fantasy landscape where teens confront issues of family dysfunction, loss, and sexuality weighed in on their own teen experiences and the dark places within them, claiming that difficult content confronted in kids and teen books plays a vital role in helping them cope.
Ellen Hopkins, whose series of poetic , free-form YA books , beginning with Crank cover the horrors of drug abuse and are particularly well-received in Canada, tweeted, "It is ludicrous to assume a teen who reads about cutting will choose to self-harm."
Other responses cautioned against painting Cox Gurdon's article too harshly: "Cox Gurdon isn't saying: Never read young-adult books. She's saying: Know what's in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies."
Malinda Lo, author of Ash, a Cinderella retelling featuring a gay heroine who falls in love with a royal huntress, tweeted, "The subtext of Gurdon's essay is that YA literature has a responsibility to teens to show them a moral world. The problem is: Whose morals?"
An incredible dialogue opened up between two groups of people who love children and teens: parents and caregivers who cherish and protect them, and authors who are determined to keep vigil with all of the feelings and experiences teens and children have through the stories they tell.