NEAL CONAN, host: Just beyond the children's section at your local library, past the endless Babysitter's Clubs, is a much darker world than you might remember as a teen. In the young adult section, you'll find hate crimes spelled out in graphic detail, fantasy worlds where child gladiators fight to the death and any number of books about anorexia, incest, self-mutilation and sexual situations that go way beyond Judy Blume.
Children's book critic Meghan Cox Gurdon ignited a firestorm when she suggested that teen fiction had gone from dark to lurid. It is, she wrote, possible, indeed likely, that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.
The response to her article was immediate and passionate. Authors defended their books and along with kids and librarians took to Twitter in droves with the hashtag YASaves. Kids, parents, librarians, is there a line? If so, where is it? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Our email address is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Got to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour, we'll talk with NPR's - we'll talk about something else, but - we'll talk with Chef Jose Andres, but we'll go first to young adult fiction, and we'll start with Meghan Cox Gurdon, who reviews children's books for the Wall Street Journal. Author Lauren Myracle will join us in a few minutes. And Meghan Cox Gurdon is with us from her home in Bethesda, Maryland. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
MEGHAN COX GURDON: Oh, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And your piece started with a mom looking for something in the young adult section to give to her 13-year-old on her return home. Describe what happened.
GURDON: Well, she went into the Barnes and Noble, which is very well-stocked with all sorts of books, of course, and was overwhelmed and disappointed by the number of books with dark themes that she encountered. And it made her feel frustrated because as a parent, there wasn't anything that she felt that she could see, that she would want to endorse by putting on her daughter's bed, you know, as a welcome home present.
And I have of course, since the piece has come out, in all the kerfuffle about it, I've heard from a lot of people who've reported similar experiences. You know, it is - the argument from the librarian community, as it were, is that people need to talk to their librarians. But of course, bookstores are there to sell books, and people - you know, many parents think they ought to be able to just pop in and find something. And what some parents find is more than they expected to find.
CONAN: More than what they expected to find, and you suggest that indeed this has gone a lot further than - well, the example we used is Judy Blume.
GURDON: Well, yeah, I think it's very - it's been very interesting to sort of look at the development of the young adult literature world over the last 40 years. As I - I pointed in out the original piece because I write of course for a general audience, not for an audience of booksellers or librarians or authors, that 40 years ago, there really wasn't any such thing as young adult literature.
It came into being, as it were, in the late 1960s and really took off, and through the next, you know, the next decades, things got dark and went darker. And so one of the things that I was describing in my piece was the way in which young adult literature has changed even, you know, in the lifetime of those of us who grew up, as you say, reading Judy Blume.
It's - there's a lot more specificity, let us say. Dark things that were hinted at in the past or maybe lightly outlined, you know, are very often you'll find very, very detailed descriptions. And also language. You know, this is a constant back-and-forth between, I think probably the adult world and the child world as to what language is appropriate, you know, what expletives are tolerable or not.
And it is a feature of a lot of young adult literature, clearly not all of it, that expletives are used with a freedom that they are not used in other parts of our culture.
CONAN: Haven't there always been authors who have continually, over the course of literary history, pushed the envelope. As new issues came to light, people felt the need to be explicit about issues like - well, it got controversial about masturbation all those years ago, and now of course it's self-mutilation and other dark things that if you don't address them, they stay in the closet, they're hard to talk about.
GURDON: Well, I don't know. I mean, I suppose it depends on what you think the purpose of literature is. If it's envelope-pushing, and if it's to - you know, if it's a measure of some kind of cultural expansion into ever darker places, then this won't obviously disturb you at all.
I think you're absolutely right that, you know, authors and creative people have often pushed. Authors and creative people have often not pushed, as well, and brilliant literature has resulted from people exercising some restraint on what they write.
Here's another point I think that it's important to make, and that is when we talk about young adult literature, we are still talking - except for the case of the 18, 17- and 18-year-olds, about children, and children going through perhaps a very tumultuous phase of their life but still, we custodial adults have a responsibility to think about, even if it's just to say I think about it, and I open the floodgates, to think about what our children are consuming, what is furnishing their minds.
The young adult category begins at the age of 12, and, you know, 12-year-olds, I'm afraid, they're very much on the young side of young adult.
CONAN: And just to clarify, where you calling, as some of your critics have said, for censorship?
GURDON: No, absolutely not, absolutely not, not calling for censorship, book-banning, book-burning or any of the other I think sort of reflexive assumptions that people like to make.
I'm not really sure, actually, why the young adult world is so defensive. I think it's reasonable for book critics to discuss the contents of books. I think it's reasonable for adults to consider what kind of culture we are helping to create for the children of our country and our society. And to discuss a book is not to call for its being banned or anything. It's a call for engagement, if anything else.
CONAN: Let's talk with one of those authors. Lauren Myracle has been described as this generation's Judy Blume. Her most recent book is called "Shine," and she joins us today from Fort Collins in Colorado. And nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.
LAUREN MYRACLE: Hello, I'm so excited to be here.
CONAN: And you described Meghan Cox Gurdon's essay as idiocy.
MYRACLE: I'm so glad you started with that because I wanted to start with that, too. Meghan, I have many reactions to your article, but first I would like to issue an apology. You wrote an article, wittingly or unwittingly, that in my opinion grossly and negligently misrepresents the current culture of young adult books, and what happened that made me so mad was that you then put forth a claim that a big part of the problem were editors and publishers who had a coarse sensibility, or at least that's an idea that you threw out.
And that made me - I'm used to being attacked. I'm attacked all the time. But when somebody attacked my editors, who have more integrity than anyone I know, I thought no way, this is crap. And I lashed out at you. It was the article, but I did the wrong thing.
And that's what happens, I think, with - and that's what I hope both of us can get past is that when people get outraged, they get angry, and then it becomes into this weird argument instead of a discussion. And my minister at church is always urging our congregation to welcome people who aren't on the same page with love and generosity, and I didn't with you, and I'm sorry.
CONAN: Meghan Cox Gurdon, apology accepted?
GURDON: Well, that is extremely kind. Oh, of course, gratefully and with warm heart, and I return it. And I - you know, since we're in the apologizing mode, I'm very sorry that you felt that I had mistreated people whom you admire.
I was trying to make a broader case, and you, in a manner of speaking, got dragged into it because of the comparisons that have been made between you and Judy Blume, because to look at your work beside her work was - it was just an instructive - it was an entry point for readers to consider how young adult literature may have changed, since you have in commonality the idea that you are both in some means a version of Judy Blume. But thank you very much for your gracious words, completely accepted.
CONAN: And to put, Lauren Myracle, the question to you we're putting to our audience today: Is there a line?
MYRACLE: Oh, heavens, that line moves all the time. Truth is not something that we can grab hold of and say here it is. Truth changes. Truth is transformative, and truth mutates.
You know, I think about just something as simple as we used to think the sun revolved around the Earth, and we don't anymore. Eye surgery, vastly different than it is now. And so to say is there a line? No way is there a line. Is there a line today? Sure. Is that line going to be the same tomorrow? Absolutely.
And so I think where I find myself on this issue is, do we want to claim that there are absolute values that should be put forth in books for kids? Do we even want to say that there's a distinction in books for kids and books for grown-ups? And maybe not. It's a discussion. We want to talk about it.
But I think when you say there is truth with a capital T, as William James puts it - I love William James. He's, what, father of modern psychology - he says that allows people to take a moral vacation because if you say there is truth, and there is not truth, and these books are dirty and bad, and therefore we should not read them, it's lumping them into an "all" category instead of saying let's look at each book. Let's look at each kid. Let's look at each situation and see where that line should or shouldn't be.
CONAN: Meghan Cox Gurdon, I wonder if you had a response to that. You were writing sort of a meta-article about young children's - young adult literature in general, but you certainly mentioned individual books.
GURDON: Oh, for sure. I think - well, yeah. I think that one of the difficulties - I would argue that there ought, in some cases, to be distinctions made for children, who are young, and who are learning from the world around them and from the adults in their lives and the adults who reach them through novels or entertainment or any other kind of, as it were, cultural outreach.
They are learning what the world is, and they are learning what human life is, and they are learning about ugliness and beauty, and they're learning about kindness and cruelty, and they're learning moral values depending on what their families presumably take to be important things that are taught, like honesty or courage or whatever.
But they are still children, and I think we owe it to them to give some thought to what they are consuming. And, you know, as Lauren says, we - it needs to come down to the individual child. And I think that's right. Obviously, parents are responsible for each individual child.
But all children occupy a common culture, as just do all adults occupy a common culture. So if there are, let us say, extremely dark or transgressive or upsetting things in one part of teen culture, they are liable to be felt in other parts of teen culture.
And, you know, it's particularly noticeable from where I stand, as a reviewer of books. You know what, may I finish this point after the break?
CONAN: You may. Stay with us. We're talking about young adult literature, books for teens. How dark is too dark? Should there be a line? If so, where do you draw it? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll continue with Meghan Cox Gurdon and Lauren Myracle after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Anna(ph) in Oakland, California, sent us this email: Children all over the world are faced with war, violence, sexual assault, hunger, et cetera, and this is increasingly true in our own country. Perhaps this current trend in literature not only holds up a mirror to our increasingly dark world but prepares our children to face these realities, perhaps even inspire them to make change. When I was 12, I was facing some dark realities indeed.
We're talking about the ever, apparently, darker world of young adult literature. Our guests: Meghan Cox Gurdon, who writes about children's books for the Wall Street Journal and prompted a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that it had crossed the line to lurid. Also with us, Laurent Myracle, author of the young adult novel "Shine," among others. She's with us from her home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
We'll get to more of your calls. Is there a line? Should there be? 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. But Meghan Cox Gurdon, you wanted to finish a point.
GURDON: Oh yeah, just quickly. And I think it's - in fact, I realize I'm echoing a point that you yourself made in your introduction, which is that if you look at the books that are produced for young children, and there are, you know, thousands and thousands of books published now, untold thousands, and you have jolly picture books with a very reassuring picture of the world often, though not always, for younger children, and then adventures, swashbuckling adventure stories for middle-grade students, children of sixth, seventh, eighth grade.
And then suddenly in some ways - though I must say there are obviously exceptions to this, it's as though when you get to young adult books, you drop off a kind of cliff, and suddenly you are awash in dark topics, dark situations and dark depictions.
And it's a very observable thing and again worth just noticing. You know, is this - why is this, and is this how we really want it to be for our children?
CONAN: Lauren Myracle, do you think that's accurate? And if so, does it reflect the veils that sometimes drop off our eyes in adolescence?
MYRACLE: Oh, yeah. Okay, is it accurate that there are dark books in the young adult literature and on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Of course it is. And as Meghan would agree and has expressed, there are also beautiful pink, fluffy books and white books with flowers on them. There's a wide spectrum, wider than is initially indicated in her article, but she's already addressed the fact that those books are out there, too.
Here's what I would have to say about dark books and lurid books: I'm not even so concerned with that part of it. High interest books turn kids into readers. Good books turn kids into readers. Good books turn people into readers. Reading a novel lets a kid see and hear and experience what the characters in a book see and hear and experience. And that creates empathy.
And do we maybe - are we as adults - I'm a parent, I know Meghan is, too. Is it really scary to think of our kids experiencing something through the eyes of a book such as cutting? To me, no because a book is a safe place to experience something like that.
Is it scary to think that our kids might have to face that reality in the world? Absolutely. But those are two different things.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll start with Michael, and Michael's with us from Ypsilanti.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm a father of a 12-year-old boy, and the point that I wanted to make about books and the topic here is that as a parent, I feel more challenged to meet the needs of what he does encounter in the world around him and how he thinks about them.
And, you know, when I was 12, I didn't consider some of the things that he asks me about and that he comes up with from school. And I'm wondering, for the author and the critic here, I mean, do you see this as being an equitable challenge that parents have to meet? And likewise, what's the point of putting the information in a book, per se, for kids to read if there's no backdrop for them to help them sort through what it is and what to do with that information they're reading?
CONAN: Meghan Cox Gurdon, we'll start with you. Do these books, to at least some degree, reflect the reality that kids live in today?
GURDON: Well, that's a widely made argument, and I will have to yield to some who - I mean, there are people who are unshakable in their belief that adolescence, particularly contemporary adolescence, is really hellish and really rather terrible.
I myself do not adhere to that point of view. I think that adolescence is - that children are exposed probably to more media than they ever have been, and as a consequence of that, they're exposed to more ideas. They're certainly - I mean, our - this generation of teenagers is probably more affluent, as well. So they have the means to purchase things that would - that could bring some difficulty into their lives.
But I don't think that - well, look, let me back up. I think that one of the arguments for taking care with books about some things like cutting is that even in the best - with the best of intentions, what can happen is, as I think you said, is that it can extend the boundaries of what teens think adolescence is about and for.
There has been much research done in the instance of drug abuse and tobacco abuse. Researchers were puzzled for years. They couldn't understand why early childhood education about the horrors of drugs also seemed to correlate with greater drug use in adolescence.
And of course the difficulty was, as was eventually discovered, is that when you educate children and expose them to, in this case, drug abuse, what you are - and tell them it's something that teenagers fall into - that you're giving them the meta-message that you expect them to engage in it.
And I have heard from people, in fact some people who felt that these books - when I say these books, the books detailing more lurid practices and self-mutilation - that they were actually influential in reaffirming their feelings of torment and that in some cases they learned from the books how to pursue these things, you know, more - well, more efficiently, I guess.
You know, again, I'm not saying that everybody who reads a book about cutting is going to turn into a cutter, but the more there is about it, the more there is of it in the culture, the more children hear about it, and, you know, children are young and malleable, and it's part of what makes them children.
CONAN: I did say it might make it more normal. I was quoting you, Meghan Cox Gurdon, it was not my thought. So forgive me for that. Lauren Myracle, does writing books about these things make them more normal and indeed more widespread?
MYRACLE: You know, my mind is so boggled. I have so many places to go with this. No, I don't think so. Do books normalize dangerous behaviors? My answer would be people aren't dummies. Some are, but most aren't. Kids aren't, either. I think that kids are, again and again, not given enough credit for being smart and for being critical thinkers.
And kids aren't going to be fooled into thinking that beating a gay boy up and leaving him for dead, which is what happens in "Shine," is a good idea because they read about it. Likewise, myself, I don't care what Goldilocks did. I'm not going into the house of three bears. I enjoyed Goldilocks' story, I'll tell it to my kids, but they don't seem to want to hang out with the bears, either.
So does it normalize it? I think that Meghan's really interesting example of drug consumption going up and smoking consumption going up is a good one to look at because it's a correlation, and correlations are not cause and effects.
For example, I remember when my kid - my husband and I had a nightlight in his room, and then we read this study. Oh my goodness, kids who have nightlights in their room turn out to need glasses. And so everybody took their nightlights out of the baby's rooms. And then the next year, they said oh, whoops, sorry, it turns out that it's really that kids who have parents who don't have good vision tends to put nightlights in their kids' rooms. So it was a correlation, not a cause and effect.
So is it books talking about drugs, or the culture talking about smoking that makes more kids smoke? Or, could it be there's more access to smoke, there's more, you know, meth production? I don't think you can take a correlation and turn it into a cause-effect relationship.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
GURDON: Just let me say that was not my correlation. That's the correlation of researchers who worked for the White House drug office. So I'm not making that up.
MYRACLE: Totally. I'm just saying correlation, it's a dangerous term to use, to then expand to say cause and effect. It's a correlation between - well, never mind.
CONAN: I wanted to read this email we have from Samantha(ph), which is again one person, one anecdote and certainly not necessarily a correlation: I'm a 23-year-old who has suffered from major depressive disorder since I was 13. I have been a cutter, and I'm a recovered anorexic.
As a sick teenager, books about cutting and eating disorders did glamorize destructive habits and inspire me to engage in them. I saw them as methods to prove just how miserable I was and to find an identity for myself, albeit a disturbing one.
I do believe writers intending to educate teens about these issues are doing good, but they are also inadvertently glamorizing them for teens whose thought processes are severely disrupted by mental illness. I hope my story lends credence to Ms. Gurdon's argument against disturbing YA fiction, which went largely unsupported by other listeners.
Let's see if we can get another caller in on the line. This is Amy(ph). Amy's with us from Shamburg in Illinois.
AMY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I've been enjoying listening to the discussion from both sides. Certainly many teens at the library where I work are huge fans of Lauren's books. They usually are in tatters, and we have to replace them. Many interesting points here. I would have to largely agree with Lauren that it is disrespectful to teens to feel that just reading a book about something will cause them to perhaps engage in those behaviors or normalize those behaviors.
Also, I was bothered by the part that maybe teens are more affluent and are able to, you know, purchase items that bring them closer to issues. I've seen issues in teens, everything from suicide to sexuality issues to abuse issues, from all economic areas. And I don't think reading the books or having access to the news or media is bringing those issues closer into their lives. I think the last person who wrote in also maybe would have found another way to harm herself even if she hadn't found that book...
CONAN: Entirely possible. But, Amy, the question we're asking our callers today: Is there a line?
AMY: You know, I don't feel there is. I think in the same way you find right books for adults, you have to find the right book for the right teen. And there, again, I wish the original mom who went in the bookstore maybe had asked for help finding the book or maybe had asked the teen the sort of things she'd like to read. I have teens who've been exposed to things who are a lot older and more mature than some 19-year-olds. It depends on the teen. Are they ready to handle a particular book? And that is where the adults can step in and help them find the right type of book.
CONAN: So depends on the individual.
MYRACLE: I have something.
CONAN: Go ahead, Lauren Myracle.
MYRACLE: Well, I was just going to say I have something to add to that. And, hi, Amy, thanks for saying that. Say hey to all your readers for me. This whole idea - and I also wanted to address something the dad said earlier about wanting to be there for his son and trying to figure out what he should read and how to go about that. I got an email - I get emails all the time, and most of them are lovely, some of them are not, and some of them are heartbreaking.
And one of them said to me, it was from a dad, he said, you stole my daughter's innocence. You told her about things that I didn't want her to know yet. And I, it crushed me. And I have a public front, just like Megan does, you know, and I maybe sound like, ahh, you know, easy breezy, but I care passionately about the impact that my books have, although I do not write to educate - and more on that later if you want to talk about it. But should parents be able to dictate what their kids read? A year ago I would have said yes, but I've been pushed to think about that myself.
The line has changed for me because, again, truth is always changing. I don't think that teenagers are kids. We can argue the 12-year-old point if you want to, but let's just leave them out of it for now. I think that parents have the right and the responsibility to protect and guide their kids, but not all parents can do that. And, yes, we need to have loving boundaries, but that love can't stem from fear or ignorance. And teens need opportunities to reflect and think critically about their world. They can do that in books, and they can also do that with their parents. And they can really, really do it well by watching their parents read books.
CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the phone call.
CONAN: We're talking about young adult literature with Lauren Myracle, who you just heard, the author of, most recently, the novel "Shine," and Meghan Cox Gurdon, who writes about children's books for The Wall Street Journal. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Jessica, and Jessica's with us from St. Paul.
JESSICA (Caller): Hello. I'm calling because I agree that the literature has grown very dark and very lurid. And I think that people constantly say that parents should be monitoring things. But my experience was that when my 10-year-old brought home a book that included the two lovers making love and the girl being bruised and then having - instead of wanting to stop that - only having more desire for it. You know, as a parent, I've looked at how words and the written words has been influential in my life, including my religion and my college education, which has totally expanded my mind and horizons and the things I believe about the world.
And I felt that 10 years old was a bit young to be educated in that. And my friends were appalled that I wanted to ban my child from reading this book. And it was pretty much impossible. They go to school. They share books. And now, three years later, my daughter, along with seven of her friends - they're all in the same class last year - are burning themselves. It has been very difficult for my family. And it's interesting to be in the same group with those women, who, three years ago, you know, were appalled that I would want to put something else in the hands of my child.
And now we're all sitting there looking at each other, going, what do we do? I feel that it is very difficult to find positive attitudes in the novels, not just the details of the sex and the darkness, but positive attitudes. It's almost impossible. And it's not just "Twilight," it's many books. But that was the one book that my daughter brought home that started this conversation with these other parents. And it's very frustrating to hear that it's up to us when they go to school and they're able to have access to it. And I just - I hope that we can start to think about some boundaries for our children, especially if we're going to market these things to them.
CONAN: Jessica, we hope that your daughter and her friends find a way out of their terrible plight. And it's not an easy thing to do.
JESSICA: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. And there was a passage in Meghan Cox Gurdon's second article, I think, about this. And I wondered, Lauren Myracle, we just have a minute or so left, but I wondered if you would respond to it. If you think as many do that novels can't possibly have such an effect, ask yourself when you press a wonderful classic children's books into a 13-year-old's hands, are you doing so in the belief that the book will make no difference to her outlook and imagination, that it's merely a passing entertainment?
MYRACLE: Oh, was that the part about where she was talking about - that was the part of the article that flummoxed me because, first, she was saying books normalize behaviors and books normalize bad behaviors. And then she was saying that librarians said, oh no, they don't. And then she said, OK, then why do you give a classic to a kid if you think that a book doesn't have an impact on a kid? And I think we all think books have an impact on a kid. I hand my kid a classic because it's freaking awesome and I want them to read it.
And, you know, here's something interesting that I just ran across. There's this - my husband is a reading specialist. And he was telling me about a reading professor in Wisconsin who was talking about an 18th-century study done on a woman, a shoemaker's daughter. And she had read Shakespeare and Dryden and one other of the great guys - I don't know who it was - who were, at the time, considered not the classics, but the popular writers. And she said, in that, that she found that those books to be so meaningful to her because they showed her that all humanity was like her. And I think one thing we should remember is that today's popular books may be, 20 years from now, the classics.
CONAN: Lauren Myracle, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. And our thanks as well...
MYRACLE: Hey, thanks. My pleasure.
CONAN: Our thanks as well to Meghan Cox Gurdon. When we come back, Chef Jose Andres now doing American food. This is NPR News.
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