Hmmm. I may be coming off as too negative. Megan Cox Gurdon can't actually be illiterate - she's written for National Review Online for years and I'm sure Bill Buckley's magazine and it's blogchild wouldn't hire someone who couldn't read. But I question the subtlety of her reading skills when she says things like "publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into [...] children's lives." (See here)
Before I go further, allow me to engage in a bit of Toulminesque common ground finding. I agree with Mrs. Cox Gurdon that parents have an obligation to wisely oversee the content of their kid's reading for the child's own protection. (We can argue about what wise oversight looks like in another post.) And I agree that there probably are some books out there that portray violence, sex, drug use or what-have-you just for the heck of it. At ConCarolinas just last week I attended a panel that addressed the question of "War Porn" in the fantasy genre. So there is a real issue worth discussing here.
However as the #YASaves thread on twitter shows (check it out!) many, many thousands of teens and adults can testify that the books that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns made a huge difference in their lives by giving a face and a voice and, most importantly, a hope to the problems they face. As Susan Lazear says over at GeekMom.com "I wish today’s YA had been around when I was a teen, when I felt like no one understood. When I quite literally shut everyone out for nearly two years because I couldn’t deal with the stress, the pressure, the hormones, all those things I felt inside but couldn’t verbalize. When I quietly dealt with eating and body image disorders for years all on my own, and no one ever noticed." And she's not alone. Thousands of other readers, including me, can say similar things.
Because the YA that Mrs. Cox Gurdon condemns isn't really all YA. It's the fantasy genre. The vast majority of the books she lists to support her claims about YA being too dark, too ugly, too full of bad habits kids could pick up, are urban and epic fantasy. In the process, she reveals the major flaw in her argument - she either doesn't read or doesn't understand these books. To give just one example, she condemns The Hunger Games as being full of dreadful violence. End of story. It's violent, ergo it's bad for teens and evidence of the coarseness of the genre. But what she fails to realize is that The Hunger Games is fundamentally a book about moral choices in an immoral world, about finding the strength and the wisdom to know what to protect and who when you can't save everybody, not even yourself. And that, my dear friends, is a problem faced by every teen in America and indeed the whole world. Because it's a fundamental problem of the human experience. And because the teen years are when we start to realize such ugly truths as well as realizing how much we have to choose to become the heroes we are looking for.
Disney used to tell us that someday our prince would come. But when I was a teen, lo these many moons ago, I read and reread every book I could find that told me a hero doesn't have to be super, or handsome, or well prepared. The hero has to be willing. The books that mattered most to me, the ones that steeled my soul, were the ones where the hero has to crawl through their own weakness to finish the quest. Frodo says "I will take the ring to Mordor," and then walks nearly all the way there. The Aerin of the Hero's Crown kills a dragon all alone because the armies have gone in the other direction and no one else is left. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth (ooh, zombies and teen sexual tension!) the heroine has to grow the hell up and push on alone through a world that literally wants to eat her to find the land beside the sea. Do I need to go on? Of course not, you, dear readers, could write a list a thousand books long, I'm sure.
The point is, that as a teenager I desperately needed someone to tell me that it was okay for me to (metaphorically) pick up a sword and become the hero of my own story. And I needed to have hope that whether I found a Samwise at my side or not, it was worth slogging onward because change is possible, a better world or at least a better self are possible, and there are intangible beauties in the human soul even in a broken world. Faulkner certainly didn't tell me that. Heaven knows Hemingway didn't tell me that. Nor did Fitzgerald or most of the other authors we read in High School.* But C.S. Lewis did. And Tolkien. And McKinley. And McCaffrey and many others, including S.E. Hinton, who Mrs. Cox Gurdon credits with starting this downward slide into "darkness." And that's my fundamental problem with Mrs. Cox Gurdon's argument. She's straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
To conclude, I'd like to point out one more camel she swallowed. Why isn't Twilight at the head of her list? This is a book that actually is influencing millions of young teens to engage in dangerous behavior. I don't mean running around in the woods with vampires - I mean mistaking infatuation for love, emotional and physical abuse for romantic passion, and sexism for gentlemanly affection. Somehow Mrs. Cox Gurdon's desire to shield her dear children from the darkness doesn't extend to that piece of literature. So maybe she is illiterate after all.
*I freely admit that this may be a flaw in my High School's reading list, not in the whole category of literary work as a whole. For example, I never knew how both hopeful and sarcastic Dickinson could be until I got to college.