The Dangers, Values Of Dark Teen Lit

A recent Wall Street Journal article argues that young adult fiction has grown too gruesome, especially as they're dominated by horror, vampires and violence. Many parents and educators have been responding to the article, with some saying that tackling tough issues can help develop teens' moral sensibilities. In this week's parenting segment, host Michel Martin speaks with Meghan Cox Gurdon, who wrote "Darkness Too Visible" in the Wall Street Journal and Christopher John Farley, editorial director of the Wall Street Journal's blogs. Also joining the conversation are acclaimed young adult author Patricia McCormick and young adult librarian Candice Mack.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our Moms conversation. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. This week we're talking about young adult literature and whether all those vampire novels and novels about cutting and eating disorders have made the genre just too gruesome for most teens. A recent Wall Street Journal article argues just that, that teen literature has just become too depressing, too sexually explicit, too emotionally dark than it really needs to be.

And the article has sparked an enormous reaction online and in parenting conversations among parents and educators, with some people saying, finally, somebody's speaking up about this. And others - including some well known authors arguing that reading about difficult issues can actually help teens develop the moral sensibilities they need to function in today's world.

Needless to say, this subject has definitely touched a nerve. So we wanted to talk about it. And we're joined by Meghan Cox Gurdon, the author of that article in the Wall Street Journal titled "Darkness Too Visible." She's a regular children's book contributor to the Journal. She's also a columnist for the Washington Examiner. She's a mother of five. She's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

MEGHAN COX GURDON: Hello. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also, we are joined by award-winning young adult author Patricia McCormick. Her most recent book is "Purple Heart," about a young American soldier fighting in Iraq. She's also a mother of two. You might remember her first book, "Cut," which was one of the first books that actually addressed the issue of girls cutting themselves. Thank you for coming.

PATRICIA MCCORMICK: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Christopher John Farley. Last week he also wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal responding to Meghan Cox Gurdon's piece. He is the editorial director of the Wall Street Journal's blogs. He has two children. He's also written two novels for adults and he's working on a third aimed at middle school readers. Thank you for coming.

CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY: Thanks for having me, appreciate it.

MARTIN: And Candice Mack is also with us. She's a young adult librarian with the Encino-Tarzana branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. She works with more than 50 teens and parents every week at her library. Welcome to you and thank you for joining us.

CANDICE MACK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And I probably should mention that this is a sensitive topic and the content may not be appropriate for all listeners. So with that being said, Meghan Cox Gurdon, in your piece, you know, you had some tough, tough language in the piece. I just have to read...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GURDON: I thought it was very polite and moderate.

MARTIN: I'll just give people the gist of it.

(Reading) How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear. So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18. Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.

And huge reaction to the piece.

GURDON: I think it's really quite remarkable. I mean, I'm delighted, actually, that the reaction was as extreme and expansive as it was, because I think it shows that it's a topic that really needs to be brought out into the open. And one almost thinks that the book industry is protesting too much. I mean, I think I would

MARTIN: You were actually a little taken aback by it, just to clarify. But you were actually taken aback by it.

GURDON: Oh, for sure. Look, I knew that it would get under some people's skin. I did not expect the sort of mob reaction that it seemed to trigger, but that may also be partly a function of the way that people communicate now, where people communicate in 140 characters or less. Those characters tend to be rather excited characters. It's not a measured conversation that always takes place.

MARTIN: But you were personally attacked. I think what you found the most - I guess, no not to traffic and paint ourselves, but you found, what, the most disturbing reaction - that you were being accused of censoring or being accused of advocating censorship or...

GURDON: Yeah. For sure. I mean, and in fact...

MARTIN: Anti-reading.

GURDON: Yeah. No, no. I know, it's kind of (unintelligible) and would be really self-defeating for a book critic to be anti-reading. But I think that people either deliberately misread some of what I had to say in the piece, or they were not, in fact, capable of grasping the points. And whether it's malice or ignorance, neither is very attractive, I have to say.

MARTIN: Well, Christopher John Farley, you're motivated by neither malice nor ignorance, but you wrote a piece, a response piece, saying that some of your son's favorite books involve problems, pathologies and personal choices that many authors from decades past would not have dared to explore. But you don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. Tell us a little bit more about how you feel about this.

FARLEY: Well, I think one important thing to keep in mind when you have young children that are reading books is, now, I often read along with them. And I'm reading the books, too. So if they have questions about what's going on in the books, they can consult me. They can talk to me. You know, I've never felt anything wrong with a really good book getting into a kid's hands. You know, I'm actually far more concerned about bad TV than I am about books exploring really topical or cutting-edge issues.

MARTIN: Patricia McCormick, your books deal with very cutting-edge issues, some of them quite heavy. Your most recent book "Purple Heart," is about a young American soldier in Iraq experiencing what people experience in war. "Sold" is about sex trafficking. Who do you envision picking up these books and why do you think that young adults need to deal with this kind of intense subject matter?

MCCORMICK: I think the reason that Meghan's column has generated such a big response is that her concern is a valid one. It's one that's shared by a lot of parents. This wish for a kinder, gentler literature for adolescents is really a wish for a kinder, gentler adolescent experience. But that just doesn't exist anymore.

MARTIN: Candice, let's bring you in here. You don't have children yourself, but you are a librarian. You obviously work with kids every day. What are they - can you help us here? What are they asking for? Do you they want books that seem very explicit to them? What - can you talk a little bit about that?

MACK: Sure. And actually, I asked a bunch of the teens that come into the Los Angeles Public Library in the afternoon. I have a lot of teen volunteers, and I said hey, you know, this is an article that came out about a week ago. What do you think of it? Are you attracted to dark books? Do you feel they're too dark, etcetera? And they were very committed to the idea that these books actually expand their imagination but in a positive way - especially since the ending of most of these books tend to be positive.

MARTIN: You know, we're talking a lot about books that seem to be aimed at girls, like these vampire books, which a lot of them really are kind of sublimated sexuality. I mean who are we kidding?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But what about the stuff aimed at boys? Christopher, what do you think?

FARLEY: Well, I would wonder, you know, I do think that, again, the distinction people should make is between books that handle these themes well and books that fail to do so. Sherman Alexie is a name that came up in the original article, and he actually wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal online in which he, you know, tried to justify what he does. And the response that was also huge, hugely positive. People saying yes, you know, you've touched upon what I'm going through. His books "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" deals with racism, with poverty, with alcoholism, and I would say it does in a way that doesn't sort of validate that these are good experiences to go through, but I think it does tell readers this is what the experience feels like.

MARTIN: Oh, I want to talk a little bit more about what Sherman Alexie had to say. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about whether young adult books have become too bleak, too profane, too sexually explicit.

We're talking with Wall Street Journal contributor Meghan Cox Gurdon. She wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that makes that very point. Also with us Wall Street Journal editor Christopher John Farley. He's written a piece responding to Meghan's article. And also with us, young adult author Patricia McCormick. She's an award-winning young adult author, and young adult librarian Candice Mack.

Now Sherman's piece, also very provocative. And if people don't know, Sherman Alexie, he's a, you know, an award-winning writer, has published, you know, widely in The New Yorker stories, he's also done films and he writes: When some cultural critics fret about the quote, "ever-more-appalling" young adult books, they aren't trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native-American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren't trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they're simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They're trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

You know, tough piece. Meghan, what's your response to that?

GURDON: Well, okay. First of all, I want it to go on the record here and now that I have no animus towards Sherman Alexie. People who write books for children and people who sell books to children understand those children in the abstract. But parents of those children love them very specifically and know them very well and care a great deal about what is in their hearts and what the wallpaper is in their minds. And it is no knock on any other author just to say that this is something that matters and parents have a right to have an opinion about this.

MARTIN: Can I also mention though as a person of - as another person of color, that I think this is a very rich argument and real live conversation with many people of color, too, who don't necessarily want their children's experience expressed solely in the form of pain and suffering. It's a very real question of how early do you introduce questions like the Long Walk of Tears or slavery. And, you know, I've had African-Americans - other African-American parents say to me, you know, I don't want my kids thinking of their white friends as oppressors, potential oppressors and I don't want themselves thinking of themselves as victims. So maybe they want sort of a protected zone where that isn't the...

GURDON: That's right.

MARTIN: ...the whole thing that's being discussed. I don't know. So Christopher John, you want to talk about that a little bit? And Patricia, I want to hear from others on this question too.

FARLEY: Well, here's the thing, there are lots of books to choose from. You can buy your kid, you know, "The Diary of A Wimpy Kid," and that book is going to deal with a lot of sort of fun things that kids can laugh about and, you know, kids writing on walls and having food fights and doing silly things and my son has read those books and enjoyed them as well.

MARTIN: The cheese touch.

FARLEY: Well...

MARTIN: And worrying about the cheese touch.

FARLEY: The cheese touch. Yeah, that's just, that's great stuff. I think that's terrific kid's literature, or perhaps your kids might be ready for something more challenging. They might want to read a book like "Number the Stars," something that deals with the Holocaust and that's something you want to sit down and discuss with them. I mean, the fact is we live in a world with over nine percent unemployment, live in a world with tornadoes and earthquakes and nuclear accidents and alcoholism and racism and poverty. And I think in general when the books are done well they really add to a kid's intellectual and childhood experience.

MARTIN: But I think isn't part what - I think what Meghan is saying, if I, I don't think she needs me to speak for her, but in part what she's saying is all too many of these books are not well-written. And Candice, one of the things I'm curious about is did you see, probably a lot more books than most of us see is, in part what are we reacting to is - I don't know, I hate to use this word - the democratization of literature? And the fact that perhaps more people are writing about things in a more, there's just a lot more voices out there and some of them just aren't that good? And part of it is that there aren't the gatekeepers that used to be to say, well, this is good, this is not good? And in one way that's great because you're getting more voices. On the other hand, some of the stuff is just not that good. I mean what you think? I mean I know you're a librarian. You're not in the position of making these judgments. But I wanted to ask you, since you see a lot of things as part of what we're reacting to the parent, the sense that some people have that some of the stuff that's getting published is just not that good.

MACK: You know, I would actually both agree and disagree with you. You do have a wonderful gatekeeper, as I may say so myself, and that would be at your local public library. Actually every day, or, I'm sorry, every week I do have a parent that comes in. She's the parent of a 13-year-old child to get more books because her 13-year-old daughter is a voracious reader. She's told me what her daughter's interest is, which is generally fantasy, mystery. She, and the parent's parameter, which is that she's just, she doesn't want anything with sex in it. They can deal with some violence but just no sex please because she's only 13. So every week I give her between 5 to 10 books to give to her daughter to read that are not dark.

I would agree that there are dark books that are being published. But I would argue that the reason why is because in general it seems that YA literature is the fastest expanding area of publishing in general. So while there's more dark books coming out, they are also more action YA books coming out. There are also more mystery YA books coming out.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, the minute we have, the couple of minutes we have left, I'd like to hear from each of you about people who are listening to our conversation and saying what do I do? How do you, give me some advice about how you would handle this? And Christopher, do you want to start, just because you had already started down that road. I mean you started by saying, you know, read the books before you hand them over? Or what, give us some common sense guidelines on how you would address this issue in your own household.

FARLEY: I would say, you know, be a good reader yourself. Go out and get books. Have them on the shelf. You know, book like Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," have it on the shelf so the kids want to read the book. They can choose it. They may get a book from the school librarian, from their friends. But it's good to have good books that you respect, that you think actually address the world in interesting ways just lying around the house. You don't have to force them on their kids. They don't have to require that they read them. They'll choose them themselves. They'll be walking around and find these books on the shelf and decide whether they want to read them themselves.

I think that if you start talking about cutting off exploring some of these topics in the world of literature, these topics won't disappear, they won't disappear from the kids' lives, they won't just disappear from the world, and certainly other forms of media will be ready to explore them in less interesting ways.

MARTIN: Patricia?

MCCORMICK: Well, I think one of the things that I found with kids is that they are, this generation in particular, is a much more socially active group. And part of the reason they want to read books about homophobia or trafficking or alcoholism or teen pregnancy or whatever it is is because they are curious about finding solutions. So I think along with reading those books with them, that if we join them in efforts to address things like homelessness, teen pregnancy, incest, violence, that sort of thing, rather than take aim at the books, to join them where they are on their quest to make the world a better place.

MARTIN: Meghan, what about you? Final thought from you?

GURDON: Yeah. I absolutely endorse the collaborative, a relationship between the adults who love a child and the books that the child gets. I think that's absolutely essential. And Christopher said that as far as, you know, reading books ahead of time or knowing what's in them and having them around the house. And I love the story of the librarian working with the mother. That's absolutely fantastic because that means that both the parents idea of what is good for this specific person whom she loves and the child's ability to explore the world are, you know, all validated.

But I would like to point out just as the last thing that, you know, with all this emphasis on the darkness, we forget all the light. You know, Christopher had a list of the qualities of the world, that it's a place of natural disasters and of misery and of incest, but it's also a place of beauty and love and caring and bravery and nobility. And these...

MARTIN: And courage.

GURDON: And courage and dignity. And they're all sorts of marvelous things. They are marvelous human attributes that are just as important - well, certainly, they just exist just as much as the dark side of our characters and of our nature and of our culture. And it is worth, I think, just in terms of what the kind of world that you create for your children and how they see the world to emphasize those things.

FARLEY: I'd say that things often don't exist without their opposites. And we see those things in stark relief when we actually explore some of those what you call the dark side of human existence. When we see someone struggling against oppression, against racism, against poverty and succeeding, that makes the light places that you say so much interesting and so much more beautiful to see when you actually see someone struggling and succeeding against those things.

MARTIN: You can read Meghan Cox Gurdon's piece and Christopher John Farley's response on our website. Go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. We'll actually link to a number of pieces that were written in response to Meghan's essays. It's been a rich conversation. I have the feeling it will continue.

And with us for this conversation, Meghan Cox Gurdon, she wrote the article "Darkness Too Visible" in the Wall Street Journal. She's a frequent contributor to that newspaper. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Candice Mack is a young adult librarian with the Encino-Tarzana branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. She was with us from NPR West. Christopher John Farley is the editorial director of the Wall Street Journal's blogs. We look forward to your forthcoming book. And Patricia McCormick is an award-winning young adult author. Her most recent book is "Purple Heart." And Christopher John Farley and Patricia McCormick were both with us from NPR New York. I thank you all so much for joining us.

MCCORMICK: Thanks for having us.

MACK: Thank you.

GURDON: Thank you.

FARLEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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