How Reading Disturbing YA Books Made Me a Better Person

The lit and library corner of the Internet was all aflutter last week over a Wall Street Journal article written by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the depravity of young adult (YA) literature today, and Sherman Alexie‘s response to that article. Gurdon tries to preempt those who would contradict her by saying they’re too interested in free speech and not interested enough in the well-being of teenagers who read books about truly horrible things like rape, abduction, drug use, and child abuse. She wants to protect young readers from being exposed to the horrors of the world, and I can understand a parent’s impulse to shelter children from bad things.

Lock up the children! It's a fantastic, truth-tellin' book!

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But as Alexie points out in his response, it’s too late for too many young readers to be sheltered from those same horrors, because they’re experiencing them themselves. He lists several examples of teens who connected with characters in his books, who saw themselves and their dark secrets in the lives of his characters, and who found hope and redemption in the pages of those books. The people who wring their hands over the lost innocence of teens who read about tough realities are the same people who can’t or won’t acknowledge how rampant those problems are in the real world, and don’t help the teenagers who are living those tough realities every day. As Alexie says, “they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.”

I was one of those privileged children, and I will say that some of the books I read as an adolescent were utterly surprising and terrifying to me. Books about war, and child abuse, and the sudden and inexplicable death of a friend scared and confused me. I’d never had to think about these things before, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family and an environment that had succeeded in protecting me from experiencing or even knowing about them. I had little in my life to compare to the lives of the characters in these books, except for that reliable adolescent feeling of isolation and fretful yearning that the best YA books capture so well.

The power of books, of course, is that we don’t have to be anything like the characters to relate to them, or to care about what happens them. Books are the purest gateway to new perspectives, and an ideal way to nurture empathy. The hope is that when those of us who were lucky enough to escape trauma in our young years encounter it later in life (and we all will, since that’s the nature of things), we will have a stronger sense of commonality gleaned from the pages of those disturbing, almost always redemptive novels of our youth.

I am positive that I am a better person for having read a wide range of books when I was growing up — from L.M. Montgomery to Cynthia Voigt, from Chris Crutcher to Lloyd Alexander. I wouldn’t want to read only books about depressing topics, but nor would I want to read only books about fairytale lives and happy endings. I found Dicey in Alanna, and Will Beech in Peter, and any number of characters and themes in various books, until I had a much more complete picture of the world than my own happy upbringing had given me (and let’s be clear, I am thrilled my childhood was so happy, and I don’t think my parents should have sat me down to tell me about bad things in the world in some big speech; reading them on my own allowed me to discover them at my own pace and ask questions as I needed). Reading was sometimes overwhelming in the new worlds it opened up, but I was never sorry that I’d learned more or considered a new point of view or felt closer to my fellow teens. It only made me determined to help end the bad things I could, and to endure those that I couldn’t.

“Books written in blood,” as Alexie puts it, are necessary for all adolescents; they’re lifesavers for those already bearing the scars of experience and for those whose wounds will come later, for those needing a guide out of a dark tunnel and for those who walk with them.

8 thoughts on “How Reading Disturbing YA Books Made Me a Better Person

  1. It’s also telling that Cox Gurdon felt compelled to recommend different lists of “Books for Young Men” and “Books for Young Women.” Good grief.

    Good post, Lisa.

    • Indeed. And also how much she focused on the cussing in these books, as if that might be just as traumatizing as reading about horrible events. As if focusing on swear words doesn’t immediately show her to be a prude rather than someone with a reasonable argument.

  2. Great post Lisa!

    I particularly loved Alexie’s last few lines, “I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

    So true. So real.

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  4. I was thinking about this post more today, Lisa, and not even because it was re-posted at IBT.

    I’ve found that fiction can be one of the most helpful ways to discuss difficult issues with children as well as adolescents. Many teachers I know have their go-to books addressing death, divorce, bullying, moving, adoption, loss of a parent’s job, etc. Like disturbing YA novels, I think such stories are vital both to children who have experienced hardships in their own lives and those who have not. Last week a first grade girl told me her grandmother in Syria was “tiptoeing to the market” because “the bad guys are trying to kill all the peoples.” I found a Naomi Shihab Nye children’s book about an American girl worrying about her Palestinian grandmother, and I hope it offered her something– in such times, what to offer?

    But I do wonder about developmental appropriateness with very disturbing topics and much younger children. Because Alexie’s argument still holds here: there are five and six year old kids who have endured more terrible things than I ever have. But I would not choose to share a story about toddler sexual abuse with a class of kindergarten students (and not only because it would be akin to turning in my resignation letter). I’m not sure it would help the children develop empathy and moral courage, as it might with teens or older elementary students. I would fear that it would just terrify and confuse them. Where’s the line, though? It depends on the context and the kid, sure, but I do think that this is an area in which there is room for an interesting conversation between those looking to “protect” kids and those wishing to let them see the ugliness for the part of the world which it is.

    The above dilemma is a bit of a moot point for most children, because books with graphically disturbing subject matter tend to be written at a more challenging reading level. It can be a challenge for parents and teachers of extremely precocious readers, though — whether or not to allow a second grader to read YA lit. And there is the opposite problem on the other end of the spectrum, as many of the adolescents who might connect most strongly with disturbing realistic YA lit can’t read it, because of disabilities, language minority status, years of shitty schools, or some combination of those and other factors. If Sherman Alexie could re-write “Absolutely True Diary” at a third grade reading level without too badly compromising its humor or its confrontation of sexuality, racism, and poverty, I think it would be his most brilliant and helpful achievement yet.

    • Pam, this is an unconscionably late reply on my part, but thank you so much for your thoughtful response to the post.

      I agree that YA fiction is generally for a specific age group for a reason, and that it’s common sense, not censorship, to not recommend certain books to young children. I didn’t get the sense that the original arguments were being made about 7-year-olds reading books about cutting, but rather 13-year-olds reading them, and obviously there is a big difference there.

      But I agree it’s difficult to know what to do for precocious readers, who aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with some themes–or at least not without guidance/a book group of some sort to help sort through it all. I think that’s probably the best way to do it. Some books you give to a kid and say, “Here. Explore. Enjoy.” and you know they’re going to create a whole new world in their imagination. Other books you say, “Here, let’s read this together and talk about it as we go along, because there’s some tough stuff to think about and it helps to talk it through.”

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