So, Megan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal is concerned about the darkness in YA literature. It seems that such stories (written, as they are, for teenagers) might introduce unnecessary dreariness and misery into the otherwise sunny time of adolescence.
It raises the obvious question: At what age does an adult undergo a mandatory brain wipe and forget about what it’s like to be a teenager? Even teenagers with nothing evil happening in their lives directly know friends who have awful things going on. More than that, teenagers are coming to grips with mortality and sex in two important respects: in both cases, they are confronting both the knowledge that they can make decisions that will give them power over the death and over the sexuality of other people, and with the equally uncomfortable realization that other people can have that kind of power over them (and that, at least with death, there will eventually be nothing they can do to stop it). This is to say nothing about their own desire both for sexual gratification and for some (safe) experience of violence and danger. Sex and death, folks. It don’t get more real, or dark, than that.
Now, I know the author of the article didn’t espouse the “all children’s entertainment must be sanitized” view, but nonetheless her basic argument rests on the assumption that children are somehow innocent (and that teenagers are somehow children). It’s a pernicious lie sitting close to the heart of one of the major culture wars, and frankly it offends my intelligence. It should offend yours, too.
Ask yourself: Is it a coincidence that YA books have been hotbeds of incest, taboo, tragic death, drug abuse, murder, domestic violence, mindfuckery, rape, evisceration, perversion, and demonic possession since the genre has existed? I doubt it. Anyone that ever sat around a campfire has told those tales themselves at that age, sometimes to the great dismay of adults listening in. Adults who have somehow forgotten that it’s natural, proper, and vital that teenagers call up the spirits that dwell on mortal thoughts. After all, would you want to live in a world where thought experiments were impossible? You may as well prohibit toddlers from walking, for fear that falling down might frighten or discourage them.
But there’s another part to this reality check: Teenagers aren’t “innocent,” except perhaps when they’ve been criminally sheltered. Most gradeschoolers aren’t innocent. Innocence doesn’t survive contact with the hypocrisy of adults, with the dominance games on the playground, or with those first rushes of power at age three when a clever child discovers the ease with which even the most clever of adults are manipulated.
Innocence also doesn’t survive contact with the neighborhood. Even a “good” neighborhood. For example, with the exception of two years in a very rough neighborhood (during which I was so young I didn’t realize I was playing baseball in the middle of gang warfare, literally), I grew up in a good neighborhood with very little crime and respectable middle class family values. I attended church in an even wealthier neighborhood, and spent the majority of my time among educated, mild mannered conservative Christians who were, by and large, not hypocrites. And in THAT environment, here’s a few of the things I encountered either first or second hand by the age of ten:
Embezzlement, blackmail, suicide, rape, murder, pedophilia, socially sanctioned and approved ostracism and scapegoating, gang violence (both formal and informal), degenerative disease, mind control games (not administered by any church), professional malfeasance, institutional corruption both in academia and in religious circles, brainwashing, pathological dishonesty, alcoholism, wanton sadism directed at people and animals of all ages and persuasions, petty gossip, delusions, insanity (clinical, diagnosed insanity), burglary, domestic violence, incest, and appallingly bad dress codes.
That’s an abbreviated list. There are a lot of things that could be on it that don’t fit into a two or three word sound bite, and a lot more things that should be on it that I frankly don’t wish to discuss in public. Now, read that list over again and bear this in mind: With the exception of getting beaten up on by other kids in school, I was not abused as a child; I walked through my darkest places later. This is not a litany of my private miseries, just a partial list of what a privileged white kid runs into growing up in a good neighborhood before the age of ten. Call it a reality check.
Children are not stupid, nor will adults ever succeed in keeping them ignorant without moving into the wilderness and isolating them (I’ve got a friend who grew up this way. I don’t recommend it). And teenagers, for all their wild emotional swings and poor judgment, are not children. They’ve got a full decade of sophistication in the ways of the world on a preschooler, and a good proportion of preschoolers already have a good (if limited and unnuanced) idea about the darker or more scandalous things in the world. It is only adults, who have learned how to be frightened of knowing dark things (because they remind us of dark experiences), who think children can, or should, be protected from knowledge of dark things. It is only adults, who admonish their children to honesty, who could view the world so dishonestly that they could construe lying to children (by omission) a virtue. And it is only adults who have successfully forgotten the difficulty of growing up who can possibly imagine that teenagers aren’t already thinking, talking about, and experimenting (in fantasies) with things far darker than they’ll find in any book…
…assuming, of course, that those teenagers are the fortunate few who haven’t been on the receiving end of a rape, or privy to a murder, or the victim of a cover up, or affected by a death, or the target of institutional or domestic or peer abuse. Because, by the numbers, most “kids” are, at one time or another. And if their books too must be bowdlerized and Disneyfied, how exactly do you think that’s going to help them learn to live in a universe painted in shades both of light and dark?
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