Issue 115, Winter 2011

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal criticizing “dark” themes in YA literature set off a firestorm of protest:  authors such as Sherman Alexie and Chris Crutcher, among others, passionately and eloquently defended novels that delve into previously “taboo” topics, saying that such books are literally life-savers for many teens who have first-hand experience with rape, drug abuse, family violence and other traumas. For others, spared those traumatic experiences, these stories offer urgently needed insights into the experiences of others.

In the exchange of opposing views, one critical issue got lost: book censorship. People are entitled to views about which books are “good” for kids and which are not, but in this country, many appear to believe that they also have a right to impose their views on others.

While rarely in the national news, book censorship is an everyday event in the US. It takes only one person to launch a challenge: because a book contains “sex” or “violence,” or a character is a “bad role model,” or because it “denigrates religion” or “undermines parental authority” (and on, and on…). The goal, invariably, is to remove the offending material and keep all students (in a class, grade, school, or district) from reading it.

While individual views on the merits and value of such books vary widely, there is no evidence that kids are harmed by “dark” books, and indicators like  crime rates and college admissions all suggest otherwise.  In fact, a poll on the WSJ’s website, for instance, strongly supported (90.9% in favor) the view that these books are more helpful than harmful.

The comments on the WSJ poll provide eloquent testimony of the books’ importance to many young readers who have, or know someone who has, personal experience with sexual abuse, suicide, mental illness and family dysfunction. Many YA authors address these topics because they believe in the value of candor and honesty in speaking to their readers. They write not to frighten or sensationalize, but to tell the truth about realities many people would rather avoid discussing.

This is not to say that every book is right for every teen, or that parents shouldn’t be involved with helping their children select books.  Rather, the issue is whether any parent should be able to impose his or her views on others by claiming that a book or idea is harmful and should be banned.

The US has a long history of moral panics over the effects of ideas and images on children.  In the 19th century, the dime novel was thought to corrupt impressionable youth.  In the ‘40s, opponents claimed “true crime stories” caused criminal behavior.  In the ‘50s, it was comic books.  Then movies, TV, rock and roll, grunge, goth, rap, fantasy (from Dungeons & Dragons to Harry Potter), video games, “apps,” and on and on.  Now we’re back to books:  “dark” fiction is the contemporary version of the dime novel or true crime story.

At bottom, efforts to censor represent fear about the state of contemporary culture and the values it reflects, anxieties that can be triggered by books, video games, whatever. The packaging hardly matters.