Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sherman Alexie and More on YA's "darkness"

Go here for Sherman Alexie's defense of current YA. It's excellent. He finishes with this:

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. 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.

This YA debate has really gotten under my skin because it's not just about books, it's about how we talk about and cope with reality, especially the realities too gruesome to contemplate. Megan Cox Gurdon's article accurately traces an arc in YA books that gets darker and more explicit as publishers have become more and more willing to allow such things onto the shelves. But she's wrong in thinking that the publishers' willingness is a cause rather than a symptom. And she's wrong to imply that all or even most kids used to have idyllic, easy lives with two loving, functional parents who protected them from all the scariness in the world.

The more I think about it, the less I think the "old days" for kids were any easier than they are today. In fact, they may have been harder. I think the difference is that today we're more vocal and aware of certain kinds of struggles in children's and teens' lives. I think writers are now saying things that were unprintable a generation ago, and I think the internet has given a way for people speak to a larger audience, but I don't really believe there ever was a golden summer of childhood in which all children grew up safe and warm.

How many women and men of my parents' generation were sexually abused? How many were date raped? Physically abused? It took me until I was in my 30s to hear the stories from my own family members.  These are the kind of stories that women tell only to other women, quietly, standing in kitchens, looking at the floor, or hunched over the kitchen table, toying with a cup of tea. These are the stories they tell when the daughter or niece or cousin has become a woman like them. I'm not going to name names, but I can tell you that in my extended family alone we're just about at the 1 in 4 statistic that people like Megan Cox Gurdon deride as a gross exaggeration. And that's just the women. I don't know the men's stories.

If you don't believe me, go back and look at the statistics on children with sexually transmitted disease over the last hundred years.  England's medical community kept sporadic records on such things starting around the turn of the century, but even those grossly spotty numbers will make you weep. A big difference between then and now isn't a rise in child sexual abuse, but in the way society handles the abuse. Today we have laws explicitly protecting children as a special class of extra vulnerable victims. We also have a foster care system that, while deeply flawed, at least attempts to put endangered children into safe homes. In 1923 girls under age 9 who were diagnosed with gonorrhea were likely to be sent home with advice to their mothers to keep a closer eye on them. If older than that they were likely to end up in a reformatory and labeled as social deviants.

Shall we retreat to the lovely Victorian era?  One of the best selling books on the paperback market in the 1800s was a guidebook to brothels in major American cities, detailing exactly what kinds of services a customer could expect from which houses. It included where the youngest whores were to be found. It was like a Fodor's of sex. The first child abuse prosecution in the western world was brought only by applying animal safety laws to a child using Darwin's theory of evolution to convince the court that the girl in question was technically an animal and therefore entitled to the same protection as a draft horse. She was so badly abused by both her parents that she had to be carried into the courtroom on a stretcher for the jury to examine.

Want to go back further in time to find Neverland? In the 1660s Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about the prostitutes who dotted the London streets. If you read his, and other gentlemen's writing, you'll find that they did not consider a 10 year old prostitute either surprising or difficult to find. Some of them express disdain that parents should sell their children so soon. None of them are surprised. Today we have laws against beating and starving children.

One more leap back in time - to the wife of Bath. A fictional character, I know, but much in her story squares with historical details found in other sources. She was married to an old man at age 12. She tells the audience that she learned very quickly to use her body as a bartering chip for money and the freedom to leave the house. What would we call that today? Slavery? Prostitution? Pedophilia? All three? But at least now marrying off a 12 year old is illegal in every state in the US.

Megan Cox Gurdon wants to believe the darkness isn't really there, that it only exists on the pages of YA books produced by a small group of boho liberals who, for some obscure reason, want to bring horror into the lives of innocent teens. I say the darkness is there and has always been there. We may look at it only through our fingers, but it's no less real for all that. It's been there since the moment of original sin brought the darkness into our own souls. And we can't fight the darkness if we don't turn to face it.

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