Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?
By Janice Harayda
For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.
Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.
Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).
What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”
It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:
“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.
“Yet it is also 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. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”
Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And 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.
Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment: She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
(c) 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.