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Living Through Lit: Why Dark Young-Adult Books Shouldn’t be Banned

By Jennifer McDaniel — May 20, 2009 4 min read
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Kids just don’t read anymore. Sit through a department meeting at virtually any school in any district and you’ll hear this lament from English teachers. So imagine my surprise when, at a workshop dealing with drug and alcohol abuse among teens, several teachers clamored for the banning of one of young-adult literature’s most popular titles in recent years: Cut by Patricia McCormick. (Don’t worry. Vampires are still on the table.) This controversial book does contain some startling and graphic material about self-mutilation, but does that merit its being banned? A book that details both the highs and (importantly) the lows of such risky behavior might be an invaluable tool for keeping students on the right path and satisfying adolescent curiosity. These cautionary tales merit further consideration before they are removed from libraries.

At this training session, an enraged guidance counselor told the gaping group, “A girl came into my office and said, ‘Cutting myself didn’t feel at all like how the book said it would.’ The book was Cut. I checked all three copies out of the library and kept them in my office for the rest of the year.”

The instructor running the workshop nodded approvingly. She then wrote the word Crank on the board and underlined it. The workshop’s attendees scrambled to copy it down. The instructor said, “Here’s another one to look out for.”

See Also

Other essays by Jennifer McDaniel: The Case for PEDs, published on teachermagazine.org, and In Their Shoes, which appeared in Education Week.

Cut. Crank. Admittedly, many YA lit selections are as dark as their terse titles imply. Browse the selections on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble and it seems that for every light confection like The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot or Holes by Louis Sachar, there are ten books like Cut or Ellen Hopkins’ Crank (about methamphetamine addiction) that offer gritty peeks into the minds of teen protagonists with severe emotional issues and addictions.

This genre of “real-life” books may have found its genesis in Go Ask Alice, which remains popular nearly three decades since it was first published. Allegedly an anonymous diary detailing a young girl’s descent into drug addiction, Go Ask Alice culminates with a postscript informing readers that the narrator died of an overdose shortly after completing her last journal entry. This addendum, along with the book’s harrowing descriptions of prostitution, homelessness, and the mental turmoil that drugs cause, give Alice a decidedly anti-drug bent.

Critics of Cut in particular, however, argue that the book glamorizes self-mutilation. Passages such as the following, describing how the protagonist feels when she cuts, make it hard to argue with that assertion: “A tingle arched across my scalp. The floor tipped up, and my body spiraled away... I felt awesome.” Perhaps that was what my fellow workshop participant’s student was expecting when she copied the behavior graphically detailed throughout the novel.

Does this mean that Cut and its ilk should be ripped from library shelves, as the aforementioned guidance counselor saw fit to do? Perhaps not. “Glamorization” is subjective and if Cut were to be outlawed, fairness would dictate that many other titles would have to follow. Trying to guess at which works would inspire teens to engage in unwise or unsafe behavior is nearly impossible. Does the critically acclaimed Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson glamorize taciturn moodiness? What about Fallen Angels by perennially popular Walter Dean Myers? More violent than Cut or Crank, this book describes war with as much real-life intensity as McCormick brings to the subject of self-mutilation. Fallen Angels, however, is never cited as a catalyst for teen violence and is a staple of many curricula and summer reading lists. Forcing teachers and librarians to filter out any book that might have a negative influence on their teenage charges might lead to some sparsely filled bookshelves.

And the girl whose guidance counselor reported that she mimicked Cut’s material? Many factors lead to such behavior: lack of coping skills or a viable support system, genetic predisposition, and peer influence, to name a few. Maybe Cut did induce the specific actions this girl took, but who’s to say that this troubled teen might not have acted in out in another, just as destructive, way had she not read the book? For such a student, a book like Cut could also be valuable in another way. It shows the hard path to recovery that this student may someday find herself on, but also offers hope that self-injury is not a life sentence, that with enough work this problem and other issues with addiction can be overcome. Without such a message, this girl’s future may have been even bleaker.

Much like blaming teen violence on graphic video games and movies, naming Cut as the reason teens self-mutilate or Crank as the cause of meth addiction fails to address the numerous true causes of these social ills, and in doing so may rob adolescents of a valuable outlet. The middle and high school years are when teenagers experiment with—not solidify—who they are.

Reading can offer teens the chance to “try out,” through their imagination, a new experience without any real consequences. Curiosity about what it’s like to use meth, for instance, could plausibly be satisfied by reading Crank. Hopkins steps into the same controversial territory as McCormick when she uses poetic terms to describe the alter-ego protagonist Kristina becomes when she’s high: “copper pulse of moonlight / through blossoming seacoast fog.” Adults might cringe at such a beautiful metaphor used to portray a deadly, destructive drug. But Hopkins also allows her readers to vicariously experience the lows that drugs can bring, among them depression and victimization. That’s one more side of the drug that the local dealer is not likely to offer. Such books allow the reader an intimate yet safe look down a road they will hopefully never travel.


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