Proof That the Written Word Can Be Oh-So-Dangerous

There's been a lot of hubbub over this article lately. And it's easy to see why. People still get really upset over books and what they think kids should read. And, in a sense, I completely understand. Books hold ideas, and new ideas can be scary. Some of them are rather unpleasant. The article, which I believe was written specifically to provoke this kind of outcry from all sides (thus better to guarantee those precious website hits, yes?) is full of language meant to inflame. The writer clearly wants their passion to spill through, seemingly wants REACTION. (Perhaps I am jaded, and perhaps she meant only to start discussion and was not thinking of such things as website hits and selling newspapers, but I can only guess at the author's motives, just like she can only guess at the motives of the YA authors.)

Okay, reaction then. I write books full of things deemed, by some, to be inappropriate for teens. I also have a child, which I think puts me in that category of someone who might, at some point, believe in doing some "I don't think you can read this yet" kind of activity. So how to react? Gurdon has so much material and passion that I can't seem to decide whether to laugh, cry, or sigh deeply in dismay. Overall, I feel like soothing words should be said. A soft lullaby for the angry internet, and perhaps Gurdon herself.

I will give it a go.

Yes, there are a lot of books full of dark things out there. You will find these books in every section of the bookstore. Every section. Trust me. I used to work in a bookstore and I read a lot. As a parent, you desperately hope your children won't need some of these books. You hope they won't need that picture book about bad touching or dealing with divorce. You dream that your adopted child won't need that book telling them how much their new family loves them--you hope they will just KNOW. You hope that they won't need to read Bridge to Terabithia because their friend died and they need to know that death comes to all ages. You will hope that, like me, these sad and depressing books were assigned to them IN SCHOOL where all the sad and depressing books seem to congregate. Books, I might add, chosen by the gatekeepers of education--parents, teachers, school librarians. People that want kids to be safe and learn. What makes these books okay and the ones Gurdon is so upset with not kosher? It can't be content. This content is everywhere. Your teens will learn of suicide from Romeo and Juliet. They might even pick up some great curses, because Shakespeare was the best swearer on the planet. Without going crazy with examples, my beliefs are that these books are new, not dulled by time, and fairly explicit at times. Okay, well, we'll get back to that.

In the mean time, what to do with all this angry yelling about how books in the YA section are put there by publishers hoping to simply make money and yell at well-meaning parents who want to filter what their child reads? I think I want to say what I keep saying to people who ask me if I think my book is okay for their teen: "I don't know--I don't know your teen. YOU do. Do you think it's okay?" 

Readers, regardless of age, can handle different books. Some are sensitive--at 12 and at 80. Some seem to thrive under the influence of dark topics. I think most authors want their books read, but they want them read lovingly by readers who are a good fit for their books. That's why there are so many books and so many book sections. Different readers need different books to read. Simple. I remember times as a kid when I picked up a book and thought, "Oh--I'm not the only person who faced this, who thought this." and it was a comfort. 

Not all abused, beaten, neglected, raped, angry, sad, depressed, children want to read about kids in their situation. After hurricane Katrina a lot of people asked me if I was going to write about. No. I won't. I probably never will. Writing and reading about that particular horror in my life brings no comfort. For others, writing about it and reading other peoples words on the subject was amazingly therapeutic. So for some of those kids, the survivors of awful things, and the ones swamped in terrible emotions, similar books can be an amazing touchstone, a thing that changes their life.

A book can be a lifeline. Don't believe me? Think of how many people love the bible. You think that book isn't the lifeline to their faith, their God? It is something that time and time again can bring them relief. Joy. Reassurance that there are other people out in this world that feel like they do. And there's a lot of unhappy stuff in that bible. It's not all sweetness and light. But for each terrible thing that happens, it offers some peace to it's followers. For Jesus's death, there is salvation. 

Now, before you get going, you should know that I'm not religious. I just think that the bible is a great example for my argument. Nor am I equating all YA with sacred texts. But there's a reason the church sends it's bible out--sends out it's word. Because words are important. Words can heal, just like words can hurt. 

Now, lets get back to that whole content issue. The article mentions Judy Blume--a talented and totally amazing writer...who also happens to be one of the most banned writers. Last I checked, she was banned more than Stephen King. Think on that for a moment. Kind of blows your mind, doesn't it? Some people don't think writing about puberty in such an honest fashion is okay. They don't want their children reading it. They want to discuss this themselves--make sure their powerful words are the ones that their child hears. Okay. I understand that. But what if you're not there? Or, let's just for a moment, pretend that you're a twelve year old girl--you're worried about this scary and exciting new stage of life. You want to talk to someone about it. But your mom isn't there. Your dad means well, but he gets flustered over such topics. Or even if he's great and awesome, you're just not sure what a dad knows about these things. Your friends don't seem worried at all, so you don't want to be the one to broach the topic. Now, wouldn't Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret be something you not just wanted to read, but needed to read?

I would love to say that teens all have happy lives. That every single one of them is smiling, well-fed, adjusted and has never, not once, had anything bad happen to them. But I can't. Some kids don't just want those dark books, they NEED those dark books. They need to know they aren't alone. Now I know what you're saying, reader. You're saying--well, what if my teen starts cutting themselves after reading a book on cutting? What if they start doing drugs after reading a book on drugs? Well, then I would hug you and say you already have bigger issues on your plate. Because generally, if kids read those books and INSTANTLY start doing such things, then they have a lot more going on in their lives than simple reading choices. Something is going on. And I'm not a therapist. It isn't my job to tell you what that thing is. I offer in book-form what comfort I can, reader, and hopefully a few giggles and snickers. That's all I can really do.

I'd like you to take a moment to entertain this thought, however: is that all that your kid might learn from such a book? That surface action? Give your teen some credit. Yes, they might see how the character is sad, like them. Then, while reading, they might learn that things get better for that character. That what they're feeling is normal. That the character ends up okay and with some nice friends to help them out. They might learn new tools on how to handle a rough situation. They might even find the words to discuss it with you. Gurdon talks about "normalizing" such behavior...well, then maybe we need to. If normalizing is what makes it okay for people to talk about, for people to learn how to handle difficult and terrible things, then maybe that's what needs to happen. 

I think I've talked a lot already. Now might be some time to hear some people who will say it better, and with proper brevity:

"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed." -GK Chesterton

"We read to know that we are not alone." — C.S. Lewis

I want to say this last thing: I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. Sometimes that meant I stumbled onto things that were confusing, and content too old for me. My mom knew me--she knew that I would think on these things, learn from them, and if I had questions, she would be there for discussion. Each book was not only a learning experience, but a chance to talk and build that sense of family. Good books should do that, and I think great parents help it happen. 

But. (And isn't there always a but?)

Children are different. Parents are different. Some kids shouldn't read what I read as a kid. Some adults I know shouldn't read what I read as a kid. And for all those upset parents that think that librarians/booksellers/publishers/authors are against them? Then why do they put "suggested age range" on the books? (I think that most of the books that the parent in the beginning of Gurdon's article was talking about were actually ranged 15+ like my book, but that is only a suspicion.) Why do they painstakingly write reviews and state content so that you can make an informed decision? 

Why are so many of them posting their own blogs, letting the whole world know that we believe our books, our voices, have a place in the library, the bookstore, your homes? Why do so many of us have positive examples of how our books have helped or made non-reading children into book lovers? Why are so many of us stopping and taking the time to disagree with people saying that our voices are not okay, and that, by proxy, the children in dark places, those children who have already had so much happen to them, should remain unheard? 

As Chesterton pointed out, the dragon is already out there. For many teens, the witch has already poisoned the apple and picked up directions for Snow White's time-share with the dwarves. Why make them face those nightmares alone?