Gratuitous Violence in YA Literature

Not long ago I wrote a piece for Huffington Post Books in response to those who were being critical of Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal piece on YA Literature. I write for many fora both online and in print and it has always been my policy not to respond to those who comment on the former. It has been my experience that most of the time the discussions that follow are not intended to broaden or deepen our understanding of an issue but, rather, to grandstand. This one is no exception. The comments that follow reveal one common trait among those writing: they read but they do not comprehend.

Comprehension may have revealed, for instance, that my support of Cox Gurdon was specifically regarding the gratuitous use of violence in YA literature for the purpose of selling a book rather than violence that is central and organic to the story. For more on that I direct readers (who can comprehend) to take a look at Ben Percy’s excellent essay in Poets & Writers about the use of violence in any genre of literature. They may also have gathered that I was not about to censor any child’s exposure to such literature, but certainly willing to speak up on behalf of literature that is worthwhile and helped expand their horizons in ways that were, possibly, less detrimental to their souls. And who am I to judge? I don’t know – someone smart, well-read, (possessing powers of comprehension), who gives a damn?

I believe that there are certain truths that are eternal: protection of children from violence, equality of treatment toward women and men, compassion toward our fellow men. Within the umbrella that is composed of those truths, I have found, there is ample opportunity to disagree and yet walk a path that is considerate of each other’s humanity, leaves ones integrity intact, and devoid of bullshit. To say that people should be allowed to protest funerals of gay people on the basis of upholding the constitution? That’s bullshit. To say that incarcerated “illegeal” immigrants have neglected their American-born children (since they are in prison and unable to care for them and unable to make arrangements for caring for them thanks to warrantless arrests and raids), and therefore those children should be placed in foster care? More bullshit. To say children benefit from exposure to extreme violence in reality, or imagery? Yep, bullshit. Suffering is just suffering. Bullshit is just bullshit no matter what patriotic utterance is wrapped around it.

Last year in an attempt to supplement the public school reading lists, I borrowed a few good books from the library and asked my oldest daughter to pick at least one. She chose Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart over Any Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. A few months later she thanked me over her shoulder as she ran out the door because her ninth grade reading included exactly that book. Achebe’s masterpiece is a perfect example of violence that “works” because it is endemic to the central character. A few years earlier, she and I read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief together, and I was gratified by the way in which she could identify the parts of the book that worked and those that were, simply, overkill. “Die already!” she screamed one night amidst gales of laughter, when the conceit of death as narrator constantly predicting death became absurd. Again, much violence and yet, violence that served a purpose. This year, too, her school reading required Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a story whose moments of violence she could understand and critique while simultaneously bucking the trend toward the hallelujah chorus on behalf of Hassan with well reasoned arguments against the utter subsuming of the self.

None of these books speak to her experience as a mixed-race teenager straddling two vastly different cultures and religions, and growing up in suburban America as a multi-talented child attending a highly-ranked public high school. There are however experiences she has had which, in the interest of protecting her privacy I will not go into, but which are covered in great detail in young adult literature that I hope to god she never sees. No child needs to wallow in the muck that a profit-minded and thoughtless adult world forces upon them. What solace she can find for what demons she has faced I hope she finds among friends and family and within her own spirited soul. I cannot, obviously, prevent her from reading such books. Some of the books which I would probably dislike because of the contents – Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games, for instance – are assigned by her school, others she may pick up on her own accord. We have a policy in the house that “junky” books – badly written books with shallow themes – are routinely discarded. (Such books come to my house in boxes of donations which I never refuse because I’m a book addict and so are all my daughters and husband.) There isn’t a room in the house that does not contain shelves of books and in those shelves, I’m sure, are a few questionable books that I would consider trash for a variety of reasons but which still continue to live within reach of my children.

But though I cannot and will not stop her from her reading such books – I would not call them literature – I can and do counsel her regarding the relative merits of such books when placed against others such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That I consider it part of the duty of a parent with a functioning brain and a compassionate heart. Right now, I’m traveling with her. As part of her summer reading I packed Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was a Puerto Rican, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read and a favorite of mine), and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Violence? You bet. Gratuitous violence? Not a chance.

One thought on “Gratuitous Violence in YA Literature”

  1. Ben Percy’s essay in Poets & Writers was spot on and should be required reading in creative writing classes. Gratuitous anything–violence, sex, etc– distracts more than benefits.

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