Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Good Taste, Good Reading

Is YA too angst driven? image: The Scream by Edvard Munch/


In my stack of reading material I came across a 2013 Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, entitled “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books” by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. The MEPA had flipped it my way, and I thought it would be interesting enough for reading, later. Later has arrived, a year and a half later. Does anyone else have an overwhelming TBR stack?

The article is a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, and Gurdon hits upon a sensitive issue: the dark topics found in current YA titles. She starts her speech by mentioning the two hot topics on Twitter on June 4, 2011 were the Anthony Weiner scandal and her article “Darkness Too Visible.” Her article discussed how in the four decades that YA has existed as a separate genre, it has become increasingly “lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.”

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent–and for some kids, very unhappy–but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective.

Gurdon continues to express her concern over how the first person perspective is the narrative choice, which means the immediacy of “I” and “now” is present in YA novels and keeps readers in “the turmoil of the moment,” creating a sense of wearing blinders to the current hormone-laden environment in which they live. To this I agree, to an extent.

Many YA novels focus on the immediacy of choices, or lack of them, the trauma and drama that teens live in. However, it is momentary. I recently switched from teaching ninth grade English to instructing seniors–talk about paradigm shifts. I had to almost reinvent my style of teaching because there is very little drama with 17 and 18 year olds compared to the 14 year olds I’m used to dealing with. And so it goes with what they read. Everything is so much more to a fourteen year old because so much less is happening: they don’t drive yet, don’t hold a job, barely have started dating, maybe barely have started puberty. Less is more. The books I hear them talk about, and see on their desks, reflect their need to read about the amplication of their feelings.

Gurdon related how she was charged by YA book writers JudyBlume and Libba Bray of “giving comfort to book-banners.” However, Gurdon argues that she doesn’t want books to be banned or instill fear into writers; she only wishes there would be an exercise in discretion.

What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

In the remainder of the article, Gurdon provides examples of lurid YA content, and the results of recent studies conducted at Virginia Tech. Her point is well-taken how media, particularly books, can establish a norm. Federal researchers, Gurdon pointed out, remained puzzled about the anti-drug/tobacco campaigns directed at elementary and middle schools and the actual use of the substances by the students. Apparently the conclusion is that the children were learning a paradox: adults must think you are using if they are telling you the dangers of doing so. Does this same logic apply to novel content?

Gurdon points out that “problem novels” normalize and validate the horrendous experiences of teenagers. She affirms this idea with Emily Bazelon’s book on about bullying, how schools are beginning to use a method that promotes the idea that cruelty isn’t the norm. The idea becomes estabished that there isn’t as much bullying going on as everyone says there is. The proclivity to be cruel isn’t justified, simply because it isn’t as big of deal as everyone is making it to be.

There is the tendency to gravitate towards the sensational. The gruesome, shocking, and disgusting make viral headlines and get repeated enough to establish an acceptance that if it’s in the news it must be what’s happening. Gurdon obviously riled a few people with her plea for discretion–authors, librarians, readers all reacted as if they were being vilified. And it is here that I feel Gurdon’s frustration.

I don’t hear her banning books or rebuking YA content; instead I hear her dismay. She emphasizes that she doesn’t believe that the vast majority of 12 to 18 year olds are living abject, miserable lives, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of providing material that emphasizes that life for those who are. She encourages the book world to seek out books that embrace wisdom and beauty, those books that provide answers to hard questions found in life. Perhaps that is the distinctive between what is today’s bestseller and tomorrow’s classic.

Gurdon closes her article with St. Paul’s words found in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

She then asks the audience to think upon those words when shopping for books for children.

As I sign off, I am given pause about promoting more of the lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy when I provide literature choices to my students. As William Wordsworth once wrote:

What we have loved
others will love, and we will teach them how.



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16 thoughts on “Good Taste, Good Reading

  1. A wonderful closing quote 🙂

  2. This excellent piece reminds of something my mom told me back in the early 1990s when flag burning was a big debate (ah, simpler times!).

    She said, “People should not be prevented from burning flags, but that doesn’t mean they should do it, either.”

  3. I say “Amen!” Thanks for a great post!

  4. I have to admit, my honest reaction to what Gurdon says (not trying to be a troll, apologies in advance)… at least as reported here … is that if she is really serious, then she needs to widen her scope. And she’d have to start with every Shakespeare play I read for high school, probably including Julius Caesar. But Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth, both gone. Lear and Hamlet, murderously dysfunctional families both, gone. Othello too. Great Gatsby, gone. Lord of the Flies – oh way gone. Scarlet Letter, yeah we better take that one out. Grapes of Wrath … ah, gone. Heart of Darkness, ditto. Mockingbird, maybe. Crime & Punishment, gone. Huckleberry Finn, alone for the sequence early in the book when his father has violent delirium tremens, forget about making running away look fun, better go. No ambitious teacher in grade 12 should suggest Karenin or Bovary, and none should encourage high schoolers – as one of mine did – to read the Inferno, and no one should ever mention the title “Lolita”. Forgive me for the overkill, but I could continue, and it makes the point, and most of the characters in these books are adults. If these books are different than the objectionable YA novels, then I like Gurdon to tell me why they are different; and if the difference is they are works of “literature” and the YA novels aren’t, I’ll be keen to know how sex blood and romanticized teen double suicide are made safe by Shakespeare’s genius but are dangerous in lesser hands. Again, apologies, not trying to troll. P

    • I understand your view, and sometimes it is difficult to accept much of classic literature as it is full of excess and violence. I do think that students see it as “that was back then” but when they read of a newly deceased teen sending notes to the supposed guilty or a teen who cuts or starves herself to cope with misery, that’s a step into the backyard and much more relateable, and if there is an inundation of that sort of offering, well, perhaps, it does become acceptable because it becomes so commonly available to read.

      • Ah, that’s an interesting point about the “classics”! I find it both persuasive and worrisome. Persuasive because I thought, “Oh yes, the young in aggregrate are certain anything not created in their time, and speaking directly to them in familiar ways, is irrelevant.” Worrisome because such a defense counts on the idea that the young are all bad readers – unable to make even small steps of imaginative empathy toward someone different from themselves – and especially on the idea that teachers are unable to make the classics relevant. Which means that there is a massive, pervasive, and systematic failure in the teaching of reading in secondary schools — and that the only thing protecting children from the bad effects of reading about bad things is … er … pedagogical incompetence. (Again, apologies, no trolling intended!) P

      • That is indeed the challenge as an English teacher–how to make the past relevant. We just finished an overview of Gulliver’s Travels and they did understand how 18th century writing has influenced 21st century culture. Connecting satire to Saturday Night Live helped, as did the watching of Galaxy Quest (is it parody or satire?)

      • I have a son in 12th and a son in 5th so I have a non-professional – but still keen – interest in the subject. What I say is that human nature has not changed since we began writing things down. I usually go straight to Thucydides for my example, at which point I lose my audience, if I hadn’t already.

  5. Very interesting post! Thanks for this. I just took a quick little workshop with Annie Barrows, the writer of the Ivy and Bean series. She talked about how after a recent reading at a bookstore, the manager told her she could take home a free book (a little perk for doing a reading). So she scanned what she called “the black wall of death” and found a book that was something a little different: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. Not only is the jacket colorful, but the message in the book is one of hope.

    All this to say that I don’t think you’re alone in your concerns. YA should reflect the vast diversity of life’s challenges and joys. Otherwise, it can be a depressing, depraved one trick angst-driven pony.

  6. Such an interesting post. I’m not too familiar with the YA genre. From my limited knowledge on the subject, it seems that teens read YA books quickly, for the joy of reading a series, for the pleasure of heroes and heroines, straightforward themes. And then they read all the other works of literature for their other needs and desires. Teens don’t just read YA fiction, right? Again, I have very little knowledge on the topic!

    • YA can be worthwhile and isn’t always for teens–look at Hunger Games. I don’t think teens usually seek out classics unless introduced to them in school. I hope they get a satisfactory taste to pursue on their own after that first nibbling.

  7. Interesting, I only tend to paddle in the shallows of YA, it does seem dark but I think like all sorts of media, once something with a positive message comes along (and makes money) then I am sure a lot of authors will follow the new train of thought. I do worry for those in the thrall of the dark stories now, if they are becoming too much of an influence. Every reader requires balance, I wonder if many parents encourage their kids to read and love books that they themselves did.

  8. It’s such an interesting debate, this issue. It’s hard to say how I feel about the reality of teenage lives – a lot of my students have had very rough experiences. But then, I’m only in my late 20s, and I know 10-15 years ago my friends and schoolmates generally had life pretty good. So I find myself asking, is it a generational shift in that circumstances really did change that much that fast, or did I just teach in a rough area maybe? I’m not too sure. And then there is the whole life imitating art question. I remember some of my friends reading The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and some of them their experiences did genuinely relate to that book but some of them acted like they could relate when they really could not. I do wonder how many teens read this sort of stuff then think that is normal and go out to act that way.
    Such an interesting topic, but I do agree that more positive YA fiction is definitely needed. I know when I was growing up I actively searched out positive and funny books – it was only as an adult I grew a taste for the tragic more.

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