The Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday exploring the so-called “depravity” of young adult fiction. Gurdon recounts the story of a mother who was “terrified” upon seeing the offerings her local Barnes & Noble made to teenagers: “It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” The mother left without purchasing anything and Gurdon cites this as an example of the adult reaction to the dark subjects of young adult fiction today.
First of all, I will admit that I am an avid YA reader and have been since I was a little girl. My parents are devout Catholics and I went to Catholic schools my entire life. I’ve never cut, I’ve never done drugs, I don’t even drink. I made the decision to avoid those things on my own–my parents never had to tell me that they could damage my body or mind. They were also never able to control what I read. I had a library card at eight years old and checked out 20 books a week. I don’t ever remember being told what I could or could not read, and because of that, I was able to form my own ideas about life. They were there for me, but they gave me the intellectual freedom to know the difference between right and wrong.
During elementary school, I was the most bullied girl in my class. There was no reason for it. Not that these things mean you have to be bullied because NO ONE SHOULD BE BULLIED, but I didn’t fit into any of the usual molds: I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t obese, I wasn’t dumb. Nevertheless, I had spaghetti and Coke thrown at me in the recess yard, I received death threats, I was cheated off and ridiculed. I didn’t say anything to my parents, including how I’d begun to contemplate suicide. I spent every night crying myself to sleep, and it was a daily struggle to continue putting on the uniform of a school that I hated with every fiber of my being.
I spent one happy year in high school, and then I moved to the Philippines. If I had to count the number of times in two years that I came home crying because of how I was treated in my provincial high school, we’d be here for weeks. You have no idea how much it hurt to know that the people who I thought would understand me more didn’t care at all. I may have been Filipino, but they found me bizarre and unworthy of kindness. I didn’t know how to speak Tagalog; they ridiculed me. I was the best student in our English class; they called me a show-off. They thought I was rubbing my language skills in their faces, when I honestly did not know how else to communicate, if not in English, the language I had spoken for ten years of my life. Nothing I did was right. I was an exhibit at best, a waste of desk space at worst.
There was one incident in my senior year that scarred me for life. The class was having a homeroom recollection session one afternoon and our adviser told us to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of ten people who we hated in the class.
I was named eighteen times. Eighteen. I don’t know how I managed not to break down crying in the classroom. And their reasons for naming me? Nothing more than “she’s weird.” I was fifteen years old.
When I was seventeen years old, I fell into depression over family issues and my own insecurities. I’ve never been a pretty girl or a hot girl or a really smart girl. The family issues only added to the funeral pyre I’d created for myself with these thoughts. I was constantly lost, I ate more and more, I stopped taking care of myself and I stopped thinking that I had a right to exist. I quit university for a semester because I couldn’t see the point anymore. It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital with a slipped spinal disc, with my parents crying by my bed, that I realized I had to find a way to get my life back.
Throughout these painful experiences, my books were there for me. They gave me the courage to take that first step. In everyone’s eyes, I was a mature girl, someone impeccably put-together and untouchable. The books I read, the authors who spoke to me–they all proved, time and time again, that it takes a special kind of courage to survive the things I lived through and that I could find that courage too.
Gurdon doesn’t seem to understand this. In fact, she goes so far as to accuse YA fiction of perpetuating a cycle of violence and ignorance: “Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. ”
I marvel at the extreme ignorance the author herself displays in writing this sentence. No child who was bullied or hurt in any way would dare try to do the same thing to others. We know how much it hurts. We have spent thousands of tears trying to wash those scars away and for someone like her to play such pain off as something that can be “normalized” is the greatest insult she can throw at us. We have been cut and mutilated on the altar of self-esteem and popularity, but we survived because of the strength that these books gave us.
My favourite authors may never see this. They may never know how much I owe them for saving my life, for making me see that it’s worth something in the first place. They’ll never know how it was their books that caught the tears I never let anyone see. But I’ll be damned if I let this article do any more damage. Human beings do enough of that.
Our words, written or otherwise, are important. We can build or destroy. In removing YA fiction from our line of vision, we only cloud it with denial. Parents have a responsibility to know the horrors of the world and to teach their children how to fight them. How does one fight something one cannot see or know?
I am a writer. I chose to accept the difficult life of a writer because it’s the only way I know to give back to the community that made me who I am. I struggle every day to believe in myself and when I find it an unsurmountable challenge, I come back again and again to the books. The beautiful, scarred, wondrous, bleeding books that give you a hand to hold even as they lead you through this fucked-up world.
We were alone. And then we found understanding and loyalty and caring. And we won’t let anyone feel that way again.