Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Rebuttal

First, read this article, "Darkness Too Visible" from the Wall Street Journal, then you’ll understand why I wrote this blog post.

The first thought that popped into my head after reading the Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible” was that I wish I had been working at that Barnes & Noble and that the mother had come to me. I would have given her some recommendations. My second thought was that I find it sad and ironic that the whole article spends all its time and energy focused on all the “dark” stuff the writer claims to dislike without EVER making the effort to show another side and perhaps make some book recommendations of her own. (If it’s true that Ms. Gurdon writes regularly about children’s books for the WSJ, then I’m thinking she reads plenty and she’d have some YA books to recommend. That is, if she’s doing her job.)

[Update: Oops, just realized there ARE some book recs in the side margin of the article. Okay, but why are they a side note?! Which, like me, someone might not catch because they're too busy reading the actual article!]

I think that’s what’s most offensive about this article, not that she’s pointing fingers at specific books and authors (which she does), but that it’s so one-sided in its discussion of YA literature.

I’ll be honest. Besides S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (the one book about which Gurdon has anything good to say) and Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, I haven’t read any of the books or authors that Ms. Gurdon mentions in this article. So, I can’t and won’t make any specific comments on those books. In any case, it’s the subject matter we’re discussing here, not any one book or author, and being an avid reader, I think I can still give an informed opinion. For one thing, I find it funny that although I haven’t read a lot of the books she mentions, I DO read a lot of YA literature, and quite frankly, what the WSJ portrays here is not what I’m seeing.

However, I do have one side note about the one author I have read that the WSJ writer singled out. The black-and-white, blanket statement that (QUOTE MARKS ahead. Also, said finger-pointing.) “The writer Robert Cormier is generally credited with having introduced utter hopelessness to teen narratives.” is ridiculous. Really?! Who credited him with that? You, apparently, Ms. Gurdon. I don’t think ANYBODY can be or deserves to be “credited” for such a thing. And although I Am the Cheese wasn’t my favorite of his novels, I wasn’t put off by it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. But I have read more than one of his books, and do, in fact, know that not everything he writes is hopeless. I loved The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (The title itself implies hope.) and was absolutely moved by Tunes for Bears to Dance To. I proudly recommend them to anyone who wants to read them and get a truer picture of Robert Cormier’s writing.

Now where was I? Oh yes, showing the other side.

I know that I’m kind of ranting, but to Gurdon’s credit, I do believe the WSJ article is well-intentioned, and originates from a respect of YA literature and not a hatred of it. (Considering Gurdon makes a career out of writing about it, I hope so.) She is simply lamenting the current state of things, as she sees it. I think she’s just worried about the “careless young reader” and those who “[seek] out depravity.” But that seems like an awfully narrow audience to focus on. Like I said, this article comes off as very one-sided. Pessimistic would be the better word. I think it’s poor logic to assume that anyone who steps into the YA literature section of a bookstore “will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” To this I reply, Is this really all you’re seeing?

I won’t deny that there are some ugly books out there, or that some writers, editors, and publishers have shown questionable taste. But I choose to look on the bright side and will just say that good books do exist and they are not hidden. I’m willing to believe Ms. Gurdon knows there are good books out there. It’s just a shame she didn’t address that side of the issue.

Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” That’s true, and it’s a principle I think every reader should practice and be taught. What you dwell upon shapes you as a person, so choose to focus on the good and treat the bad with caution. The objectionable always has and always will exist alongside the exceptional. It’s just a matter of how you approach it AND it’s also a matter of how you discern one from the other. You’re going to see the bad. Learn from it. If you keep digging, you’ll see the good. Cherish it.

Ms. Gurdon’s lament is not new. Haven’t we all, at some point, worried that things were getting worse instead of better? The trick is to actively seek out the good instead, even if it takes a little extra effort because it seems like no good options are available. But keep looking for the good anyway, and when you find it, proclaim it. Spread the word.

I’m a firm believer that what you’ve read before, whether you liked it or not, whether it offended or inspired you, informs what you read next. The more you read, the better you become at making (hopefully) good choices, and, may I add, the better prepared you are to guide others who may be lost. Like that poor mother in the Barnes & Noble bookstore or the “careless young reader.” You had a chance to help out, Ms. Gurdon, and you missed it.

I guess this all boils down to one age-old issue: censorship. So I leave you with this thought: Not all censorship is bad. Censorship, unfortunately, gets a bad rap, frequently portrayed as the tight fist choking free expression. But that’s not what censorship is, people. Censorship is more like—Jiminy Cricket. It is our conscience and our guide. Therefore, I do think censorship has a place: In the reader himself. Furthermore, I plead with writers, editors, and publishers to use their sense of censorship to provide us with the best possible options from the get-go. Remember that YOU ultimately choose what books you taste, swallow, or digest. But you have to read them first to know which ones they are.

In closing, here is a list of some YA books that I highly recommend, to make your search a little bit easier. I’ll let the books speak for themselves.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Anne Brashares
The Twlight saga by Stephenie Meyer
The Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale (I would also recommend her Newbery Honor book Princess Academy and Book of a Thousand Days.)
The Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini (I haven’t read the third book, Brisingr, yet, but I’m enjoying the books so far.)
A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck (There is also the companion book, the Newbery winner A Year Down Yonder.)
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Not technically a YA novel, perhaps, but its young protagonist and touching story I think would appeal to YA readers.)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Holes by Louis Sachar
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway OR Tunes for Bears to Dance To by Robert Cormier (Ha!)

Some classics for good measure:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer OR Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (I also highly recommend The Hiding Place by Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom.)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read now.
--Shannon