Education Opinion

Books Are Dangerous! #YASaves

By Donalyn Miller — June 05, 2011 4 min read
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I was minding my own business last night, quietly reading Maureen Johnson’s The Last Little Blue Envelope, when all Hell broke loose. Not in the book mind you--it’s a funny and tender book. You should read it. What dragged me out of my blissful Saturday night spent reading was the furious tinging of Twitter alerts on my cell phone--an outcry that continues today. Meghan Cox Gurdon, a children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, published an uninformed rant, “Darkness Too Visible”, denouncing the “lurid” themes and “depravity” in young adult literature. Claiming that it is OK to ban and censor books if you rename it “judgment” and “taste,” Gurdon further implies that “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them” and that parents should rise up against a liberal publishing industry who is trying to “bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.” Not new arguments. Not even a new article. The Wall Street Journal published a similar article by Katie Rophie in June of 2009, “It Was, Like, All Dark and Stormy”.

Ms. Gurdon thoughtfully provides a suggested list of more appropriate YA titles for young readers. In keeping with the antiquated stance of the article, she divides the list into sections for “Young Men” and “Young Women” including 4 titles that were written more than 38 years ago. I’m not saying that True Grit isn’t a wonderful book, but it wasn’t written for a teen audience. While disparaging books like National Book Award winner, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and the critically-acclaimed Shine by Lauren Myracle, Gurdon suggests that young adults read Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction work, Ship Breaker, a post-apocalyptic book (also a NBA winner) that explores the same dark subject matter that Gurdon spends her entire article warning readers against.

Within hours of the WSJ article’s appearance, support for young adult literature and the power it has to inspire, support, and connect readers flooded Twitter. Thousands of readers, authors, teachers, librarians, book reviewers, and parents chimed in to share how young adult literature touches their lives and the lives of children they know. Readers who stopped bullying, readers who decided against suicide, readers who finally found a book they enjoyed, readers who asked for help, parents who found a path to discussing difficult topics with their children. The hashtag, #yasaves, became the third highest trending topic on Twitter, revealing that Ms. Gurdon should probably have interviewed a few young adult readers about what they read and why before writing her article.

Connecting young people with meaningful, though-provoking, soul-enriching, or just plain enjoyable books changes lives and creates lifelong readers. Pretending that bad things don’t happen to kids doesn’t make it go away, folks. Pushing books in front of kids that have no relevance to their lives makes their reading interest go away, though. How old should you have to be before you can find yourself in a book?

Growing up, I read The Outsiders and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret--two books that Ms. Gurdon claims began the YA industry. I also read Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Shelley (along with hundreds of other books). I didn’t kill anyone in a fight or bury old men under my floorboards as a result. I became an avid reader and a teacher who leads my students to become readers themselves.

Just like any other genre or age-range of books, there are some poorly-written, cashing-in-on-trends titles in the young adult section of any bookstore. There are also books that will inspire and enrich young readers’ lives--dark, provocative, light, romantic, innocent--books for any reader and any parental sensibility. I encourage parents to read recommendations from the School Library Journal, Horn Book, and the American Library Association if they need guidance in selecting worthwhile books for their children. Gurdon derides each one of these esteemed publications and organizations during the course of her article, further eroding any credibility she may have as children’s book reviewer.

Do not let ignorance and storm crow squawking about the decline of civilization prevent you from sharing relevant, powerful books with your children. My twelve-year old daughter and I plan to read, swap, and discuss a pile of books this summer. I don’t think she is old enough for Lauren Myracle’s Shine, but I have a copy waiting for her when she is. Ultimately, my husband and I decide what books our daughter can and cannot read. It is our responsibility. It is our right. We can take it from here.

Today, bloggers outraged by Gurdon’s WSJ article are responding in droves. For a concise and informed look at this controversy, the #YASaves movement, and the importance of YA literature, visit:

There’s Dark Things In Them There Books” by Lizzy Burns at SLJ’s A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy blog (includes links to other bloggers’ posts)

How to Save a Life” by Teri Lesesne at the Professor Nana blog

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.