Why the Wall Street Journal is Wrong about Young Adult Books

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It feels like every blogger and YA writer online has already commented on the Wall Street Journal article that sparked a Twitter upheaval (#YAsaves). If you need a run-down of it, Bookshelves of Doom (in a post appropriately titled "Another Day, Another Ill-informed Article About YA") has a summary. My favorite part was this:

...the article's author is the regular WSJ children's reviewer. So one would assume that she'd be aware that suggesting the YA industry is all about "bulldoz[ing] coarseness or misery into children's lives" might be going overboard. Especially in a piece that isn't in the opinion section.

But hey: Apparently not.

So the article's premise is this: YA books these days are too dark, full of evil, and those darn kids need to get off my lawn. According to the quoted "source," when she walked into the bookstore, all she could find in the YA department was "...all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."


Well, while my novel has nothing to do with vampires, I can assume, judging from a few specific scenes, that it is in the "dark, dark stuff" category. Pushing aside those specific scenes (because I don't want to spoil the novel for anyone), the genre itself would imply dark stuff: it's dystopian, a science fiction that takes place in a world that isn't ideal.


But—and I've said this before, but it bears repeating—the point of my novel specifically and dystopian novels in general—is not about the dark, dark stuff. They are all, at their heart, hopeful. Create a dark setting, but populate it with characters that are willing—are fighting—to rise above it.

You could read my book and focus on Eldest, and the mindlessness of the people on the ship, and the drugs and the murder and the dark.


Or you could look at it and see Amy, who won't give up her faith in either herself or the goodness of people. Or Elder, who—despite being raised in a dark society—learns to rise above it.

You can see the dark world, or you can see the people who rise above it.

Maybe our favorite quotations say more about us than the stories and people we're quoting.

—-John Green

Okay then, let's look at some quotes from the infamous WSJ article:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader-or one who seeks out depravity-will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.


Here's the thing. You may be seeing depravity, but I see hope. Give me Speak, and you may see rape, but I see a survivor. Give me The Hunger Games, and you may see children fighting each other, but I see people fighting oppression.

The article's narrow viewpoint indicates not what's wrong with YA literature—but what's wrong with the reader who wrote the article. She dismisses YA in one wide swath—but doesn't bother to apply the same sort of critical reading level that, I suspect, she'd apply to an adult novel.


I'm making assumptions here, but it's an attitude I've faced a lot with those prejudiced against YA. The attitude is merely this: YA novels are written for teens and therefore have no depth to them beyond the surface (because, of course, teens are kids and kids don't think analytically). This type of assumption drives me mad. YA isn't lesser in intellect, and deserves a thoughtful reader.

Here's another quote from the article:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.


I would say that the argument in favor of such novels is two-fold: not just to aid the teens who experience such hardships, but also to aid others into accepting or understanding teens in those situations. The article cites a Lauren Myracle novel dealing with a homosexual character who is abused. The article focuses on the graphic nature of the abuse—but (without having read the novel in question) I'd be willing to bet that the novel isn't about the abuse, but the characters.

Sure, some YA novels are graphic. But there's a place for it. Let me give you an example from my teaching days—a novel that my students read was Elie Wiesel's Night. This is a common high school text for world literature students, and it is graphic. But the level of detail given in this book really hit home with a lot of my students. There's a difference between saying you're hungry and describing hunger. Between saying you're tortured and describing the whipping. Between saying a character died to describing the light that leaves his eyes.


I'm sure that the author of the WSJ article would argue that Night isn't a YA contemporary novel. But it is a novel read by teens, and it is graphic. And it proves my point: sometimes graphic scenes are needed in a story.

The WSJ article concludes with a note about gatekeepers, the parents and guardians and schools that decide what books are easily available to their teens:

Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks "censorship!"


Um. No. NO. It is not censorship for a parent or guardian to decide what book his or her child reads. It's parenting. I don't know of a single author who would ever object to a parent dictating what book his or her child should read. What crosses the line into censorship is when you try to parent not just your child, but all the other children, too.

And, as much as I suspect this article would like to actually censor some titles, it is not censorship to state your opinion. You have every right to do so. I encourage you to do so.


But please don't ignore the way YA saves, and please try to speak authoritatively on the subject by giving it more credence than just a cursory glance.

This post originally appeared on Beth Revis' blog.