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Children and Literature: What should they read?

YA booksIn the July/August 2013 issue of Imprimis, Hillsdale College’s monthly conservative opinion publication, Meghan Cox Curdon, a children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, presented the case for good taste in children’s books. Ms. Curdon had written an article entitled “Darkness Too Visible” which discussed “the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult”. These books are mainly aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years old, and Curdon observed that YA “has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.” Her critique drew much criticism and outrage from Publisher’s Weekly, YA authors, and the liberal elite, and gained substantial traction in the Twitterverse as the second most trending topic on June 4, 2011, just behind the Anthony Weiner scandal. To give you an idea about what kind of books that Ms. Curdon finds distasteful and inappropriate, here are a couple of examples that she cites and summarizes in Imprimis.

“A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, ‘covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. Where the f- was this?’” – Andrew Smith’s YA novel “The Marbury Lens”

RAGE“A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her a ‘cutterslut’. In response, ‘she sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.’” – Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 YA novel Rage

Frankly, the fact that the industry is marketing these materials towards 12-14 year olds is simply disturbing. While exposing children to a variety of experiences may serve to provide different perspectives, there is certainly a gentler way to introduce things like suicide, rape, domestic violence, self-mutilation, depression, and anger to a 13 year old. Curdon notes that “the book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read whatever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.”

MPAAI’m reminded of how the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) regulates films, while for the most part, literature is completely at the discretion of the editors and publishing companies. Can you imagine any one of these YA books that Ms. Curdon describes being made into a PG-13 movie? Of course not. It would be too violent. Too graphic. Too severe. Admittedly, the visual medium oftentimes elicits a stronger and more visceral initial response, but there is an argument that the emotional investment is much more palpable and deeper when reading a novel. This is why, for example, while the Red Wedding was horrifying to watch, and the producers at HBO did it justice, it was still more traumatic as a literary experience, and I’m sure most enthusiasts of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” would agree.

The idea of protecting children from certain topics and curtailing their exposure to particular literature, texts, and religion has been greatly debated in the public arena. I started having this discussion with some friends, and after several volleys of emails across the country, two responses stuck out. One friend responded, “I have mixed feelings on this topic. Speaking generally, I do take a more liberal stance when it comes to reading and learning. I believe trying to “protect” children or banning books is ineffective (especially in the internet/digital era) and may actually be counter-intuitive by enhancing the appeal of the material that you’re trying to restrict. I also think that exposure to a vast range of experiences helps provide perspective, and I wouldn’t want to restrict my children from having that opportunity. Having said that, I would obviously have a visceral reaction to my kids getting really into a text like “Mein Kampf,” or other works that could lead to radicalization, depression, violence, brainwashing, or any other undesirable outcomes.”

dhammapadaThe second friend responded, “I think it entirely appropriate for parents to encourage their children, whatever their age, to read books that are good.  And the books mentioned in Imprimis are not that, gratuitous as they are in wanton violence and sex and hardly useful (in my view) at promoting critical thinking.  I think we all agree that it is especially important for children to be exposed to good books at an early age, because their habits, thoughts, and values are malleable and just beginning to form.  For example, I would prefer my hypothetical children (at least before they are in high school) to read the Bible or Dhammapada, a collection of stories of the Buddha, or Confucius (in illustrated form depending on age), over The Prince or Nietzsche or Han Fei Tzu… Incidentally, the cure is not to “regulate” the market (i.e., by censoring materials) but to encourage better sensibility.”

Society as a whole has a shared responsibility in the rearing of the next generation. To that point, editors and publishers could afford to exercise better judgment when reviewing content that will end up in teenagers’ hands. Or maybe they can’t. Maybe economic pressures are proving to be too great and compromise was inevitable. However, parents also share in the responsibility of guiding their children to thought provoking and enriching material that drives them to be critical thinkers. They are also the ones who need to exercise the “faculty of judgment and taste” that Curdon writes about.  Lastly, educators need to be aware. While there is a canon of literature that high school students around the U.S. are exposed to (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare), high school English teachers are by and large autonomous in selecting required readings for their students. We can only hope that our educators have enough sense to not make these kinds of books part of their syllabi.

I’ll be following this article up with another loosely-related question that was posed during the conversation with my friends: Where do you stand on teaching creationism in public schools?

Paul G. Lee
Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

3 thoughts on “Children and Literature: What should they read?

  1. I feel like one of the biggest challenges to turning all this around is that we have always idealized books to somehow be elevated in terms of cultural significance insofar as education was concerned. This concept did color the way we evaluate books and in turn, allowed the creation of a rating system that does nothing. What I mean by that is that for so long parents, teachers, and elders in general held reading in such high regard that often the message was to simply read versus selecting the right texts. If we are to change this idea that has been indoctrinated into us as children, there needs to be a major paradigm shift wherein all forms of literary, visual, and or multimedia driven forms of content are reevaluated and graded on a scale of appropriateness. If that is not possible, and it’s likely that this is the case, I agree that it is the parents of the children that need to take a more active role. Like all movements, if you want change to stick and not just be a flavor of the month, you need grass roots driven growth.

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