06 July 2011

Children Are Not Adults

In early June, Megan Cox Gurdon wrote what has become a much debated article for the Wall Street Journal about whether YA literature has become too dark. (You can read the original article here.) In the days and weeks that have followed, Twitter and the rest of the interwebs have exploded with discussions about the issue.

I haven't been sure what it is that I wanted to add, if anything, to the debate, but today, NPR had a feature about Ms. Cox Gurdon and her arguments, and for the first time I had a chance to hear the author of the article speak more about why she made the arguments.  (You can listen to the interview here.) It made me, finally, want to respond.

During the interview, Ms. Cox Gurdon said one thing that caught my interest more than anything else. Considering her general condescension toward the genre and its authors, it should say something that this is what caught my attention. She said, "Children are not adults." Her point was that children do not have the ability yet to distinguish good from bad, moral from immoral, art from trash, and that it is the job of adults (parents) to help them make those distinctions.

I agree...to a point. I think that it should be the responsibility of parents to help their children make these decisions. How parents are supposed to help them if their resources include articles like the ones that Ms. Cox Gurdon wrote--articles with no substantive evidence to back up some of the claims that she made. Articles that rely more on anecdotal evidence and fear-mongering than on actual investigative reporting. Well, that's a different matter, I suppose.

My point is simply this: It is true that children, that teenagers are not adults, but it is also true that literature is not propaganda.

Many on both sides of the issue--those for and against what Ms. Cox Gurdon argued-- seem to miss this important fact.

Now I'm not saying that literature isn't powerful and that reading can't be a transformative act. Literature is immensely powerful. Every time we pick up a book and read, we change. We become someone we weren't before, someone who has now experienced things that he or she had not before. I've spent so many years of my life studying, teaching, and (now) writing literature, because I do believe in its power.

But here's the thing: Literature cannot be prescriptive.

In part, this is because literary language has a slipperiness to it that is nearly impossible to pin down. An author might have certain intentions about what a book is trying to say or trying to convey, but any literature teacher (or student) worth their salt can tell you that when you're interpreting a piece of literature, authorial intentions are a moot point all together. After all, how many racists were vindicated by Twain's use of a certain unmentionable word in Huck Finn when Twain's own intention in using the word was something else entirely?

More importantly, perhaps, literature cannot be prescriptive because reading is an intensely private and personal activity. Without the reader, no book and no experience of reading can be complete.  The reader finishes what the author began in authoring the book, and because each reader brings to the book his or her own sets of experiences and assumptions, no book will strike any two readers the same way.
A book--whether we're talking YA or Romance or anything else--may save a reader or it may maim them, that much is true. But it may also do nothing at all. A book can change your life in any number of ways, but it does not do that simply by existing. To change a life, a book requires the reader's active involvement.

This is the real problem that I see with Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument and the arguments of so many of her opponents--they give the book itself a power that it just simply does not have.

For a book to injure a child in some way, the child has to finish reading it. And a child who cannot relate to some of these so-called "dark" subjects may not select those books or finish those books. But the opposite is true--for a reader to be saved by a book, it's the reader who is already actively searching for an answer. It's the reader who finds their own power within the pages of the book.

I think that what is most frustrating about Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument is that she claims that these "dark" books have the power to harm the teenagers who read them, as though teenagers are not savvy enough to see these stories as literature and not as propaganda. At the same time she accuses these books of ripping away the innocence of our children, she does no better by ripping away their agency as readers.

If YA does save--and I'm inclined to think that it might--it does not do so by preaching or instructing. If YA saves anyone, it does so by allowing teenage readers the power experience of interacting with beautiful, moving, and often challenging texts. YA saves by treating young adults not as the children that they might be, but as the adults they will eventually become.