I work around books every day so I've always been reluctant to take the final step and start writing about them as well but now it seems that I've found something that I think is important enough to speak up for. Recently in the Wall Street Journal a guest writer has been editorializing about the negative impact of teen fiction. So consider this my letter to Megan Cox Gordan.
I still remember the day that my aunt gave me her battered copy of Lisa Bright and Dark by John Neufeld. I was in sixth grade and the story of Lisa's descent into madness was beautiful and terrible at the same time. I loaned it to a friend and then another friend and then another until it made it's way through every girl in my circle. We talked about how horrible it would be to be Lisa and feeling betrayed by your own mind. We talked about the fear that her friends had to feel and the helplessness when they realized they were too young to really help her. I still have that book. It's completely fallen apart by now but it sits in a gallon sized freezer bag as a reminder of that girl who, at twelve, was opened up to a wider world. One beyond bike rides and first kisses. One where the world was a scary place and things weren't sunshine and happiness.
Lisa Bright and Dark was released in 1968 during the first golden age of teen fiction. John Neufeld along with such visionary authors as Judy Blume, Paul Zindel and Norma Klein were writing real fiction for real teenagers. These authors weren't afraid to touch on controversial issues. They wrote about teen pregnancy and drug use heck, Love is One of the Choices is about a girl having a sexual relationship with her teacher. They were honest and they were tough and I owe so much to these brave men and women. They helped me see the world beyond my front door. It comforted me to know that I wasn't alone in having problems. That life wasn't Sweet Valley like everyone seemed to want it to be.
I ate up books by authors who dared to tell the truth good, bad, and ugly. I came to know the characters to see them as friends. Even then I seemed to like book people better than people people. But for as many problem novels that I read I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, I wasn't promiscuous. I didn't even swear. And don't think that it was because I had some kind of super strict upbringing and snuck these books because that couldn't be further from the truth. I was raised in a house full of honesty. My aunt had me watching the nightly news when I was eight or nine. I chose my own books from the first day I could read (though my aunt's suggestions were always welcome). I listened to the music I liked. And I turned out okay.
People like Ms Gordon insinuating that the content of teen fiction causes negative behaviors is short sighted and frankly unfair. And not just to the writers. But to the readers. Especially to the readers. I've been reading Thirteen Reasons Why and the thing that strikes me as absolutely fabulous about the book is how Jay Asher illustrates the small cruelties and how they can lead to much more significant events. That isn't a book that should just be read by suicidal girls. It should be read by every boy who brags about doing things with a girl he hasn't done and every girl who whispers behind her hand about what she heard happen. Books like Cut shouldn't just be read by girls who are harming themselves it should be read by every girl because the feelings that led to cutting are feelings every girl has. Loneliness, fear, isolation. And maybe reading the negative impact of the behavior will keep one girl from hurting herself. Or maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe we should just let them pick out their own books and stop making such a fuss. Because, really, when you get down to it we aren't reading these books (well, I am but it's my job to) they are. And to them this is the world stark, sometimes horrifying and very, very real. And you never know, in twenty-five years there may be a young woman with a battered copy of Thirteen Reasons Why in a baggie on her bookshelf.