I love children's literature. It's one thing that I look back on with fondest during the time my children were growing up. I loved revisiting old childhood favorites of mine and was so thrilled with all the new literature out there. (I remember when I worked at All for Kids Books and Music and the buyer handed me a book without a cover - a publishers' copy - and said "This is the next big thing." I read it and was enthralled. It was Harry Potter.)
But since my boys are young adults, I haven't kept up as much. But there's a new debate over how much realism should be in young adult books. The Times had a story from the Scripps Howard news service about this issue.
This debate was first sparked by the 1967 publication of "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton, which is considered the first book truly aimed at teens. Many parents were horrified by Hinton's picture of violent, disillusioned young adults, but teen readers loved the book — and still do.
Now, the debate has flared up again with the June 4 publication of an essay, "Darkness Too Visible," in The Wall Street Journal. In the essay, Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Journal's reviewer of children's and teen books, contends that contemporary fiction for teens is "rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.
Cox Gurdon's examples include the "hyper-violent" "Hunger Games" dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and author Lauren Myracle's newest book, "Shine," which tells the story of a teen girl living in a small town who overcomes her shyness to investigate the brutal beating of her best friend, who is gay.
I confess that sometimes I got squirmy or squeamish about what my sons were reading. Was it too much? Did it talk about things they were unlikely to experience (like child abuse) or should young teens understand about what other teens are experiencing in their lives?
Local author, Sherman Alexie weighed in.
Sherman Alexie, author of the National Book Award-winning novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," formally responded to Cox Gurdon in the June 9 edition of The Wall Street Journal in an essay titled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood."
Noting his own background as a sexually abused child, Alexie wrote: " ... there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books — especially the dark and dangerous ones — will save them."
Writing for Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams agreed that part of a parent's job is to protect kids. But she added: "There's something almost comical about raising them with tales of big bad wolves and poisoned apples, and then deciding at a certain point that literature is too 'dark' for them to handle. Kids are smarter than that. ..."
I recall allowing my younger son to watch Billy Elliott around age 10 because I had read reviews saying it was a good film. It was but I also didn't know there was a lot of foul language in it. My son told me recently that he was really surprised (in a good way) that I allowed him to see it and was proud to go to school and say he saw an "R" rated film.
I also sat down with my niece, when she was about 7, to show her Shirley Temple movies which I loved as a child. However, I forgot that Shirley was an orphan in a lot of these films (or worse, her parents die during the film). In one of them, she's in an orphanage and my niece asked why all those little girls were sleeping in a big room. I told her it was a big slumber party and she was satisfied. For her age, I thought that was all I needed to say.
But how much do you think teens can handle and do you preview books they read at your house?