Good Taste, Good Reading
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.