05 June 2011

The Wall Street Journal--saving the world from YA

Last night, as Doctor Who spoilers and Bruins lamentations fought for control of my Twitterfeed, I started noticing a recurring hasthtag: #YAsaves. Someone--specifically, blogger and Youth Services Consultant Elizabeth Burns--was retweeting a vast amount of responses to an article which had appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The article was entitled "Darkness too Visible" and was followed by the following: "Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"

Silly me--for a moment I thought the article was going to explain why it was, in fact, a good idea. What the author wrote instead was damn near medieval in her disdain for and ignorance of what she considers to not just be a current trend in YA literature, but an agenda championed by librarians and book publishers to introduce teenagers to every grim reality this world has to offer--all in the name of freedom of expression and overriding parental controls. Yeah--that's why I went to library school.

There's a lot wrong with this article, and voices across the blogosphere are already starting to point that out. (And by the way, if you want to find any dissenting commentary about this article, stick to the blogosphere and Twitter, because as of this writing--which is 13.02 on Sunday the 5th of June--you won't see much disagreement in the comments of the original article, which is a stunning fact in itself.) I can't let this article pass unnoticed either, so I am going to comment on the anecdote which opens the article: the story of a woman who "popped into [Barnes and Noble] to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." She left the store empty-handed."

My question is this: if she wanted a book recommendation, what was she doing at Barnes and Noble?

No offense to the many fine folks who work at B&N stores all over the world. There's one in the town where I work, and they do a great job of reaching out to the community and promoting literacy and making books and reading as fun as possible. But let's be honest--Barnes and Nobles is a big-box chain store. If this woman wanted to ask a knowledgeable professional for book recommendations, why didn't she go to her public library? At my library we have all the dark lurid stuff--because some people actually want to read those books for whatever reason that isn't mine or yours to judge--but we also provide alternate titles (because that's what libraries do.) And more importantly, any library worth its salt is going to have someone who can talk to the woman, determine what she is looking for, and steer her in that direction. One of the comments at the end of the article is by this particular woman herself, and she indicates that the staffer at B&N who was trying to help her didn't know anything about the books, and really was no help at all. Was she unlucky to have happened in on the one day that there was no one knowledgeable to help her? Again, no offense to Barnes and Noble, but the answer is--no. Because cashiers and book stockers at B&N are not librarians. They may be book enthusiasts, but are they professionals who can talk knowledgeably and reliably about a range of books even if they are not in their particular department? Probably not--because they are not librarians. They have not made it their business--their vocation!--to be able to recommend titles to any person on any given day who wants any type of book. That's what you get from a good librarian, and it is probably the most under recognized and under appreciated facet of my job by anyone who assumes that a library is just a building to store books.

It seems to me that publishers follow trends as much as they dictate them, so if any given Barnes and Noble is full with only a certain type of book, there's a reason for that--it's a popular type of book. Yet another reason to visit the library, where many different types of books are available for many different types of reasons and readers. I wish the author of this article had focused on that. But I think she had her own bone to pick. Evidently, instead of being helpful, librarians--by sheer virtue of their association with the big bad American Library Association which comes in for a lambasting as well--are, like publishers, trying to "use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives." I don't know. Yesterday it looked like The Wall Street Journal, with their strident article, written by their regular children's book reviewer, was the one driving the bulldozer.


Anonymous said...

Amen, amen, amen and again, I say amen. Okay, one more time, just for good measure, and because I wholeheartedly agree with you: Amen. This is definitely the talk of the book blogosphere: heck, I even talked about it over on my blog. Who hasn't discussed it? As well as it should be discussed -- and put down as the ridiculous piece of crap writing it is. :)

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I saw it on your blog this morning. While it is YA literature that has come under fire, this piece is wrong on so many levels that it has ramifications for readers of all ages and genres.

I know a lot of the outrage is focused on the way YA--particularly dark YA--has been pigenoholed and misrepresented, but the flaw that bothered me the most is how a disapproval of "bad" books is really a clarion call to dictate to kids how and what they should read. No one should ever have to justify why they read what they read. End-of.

The1stdaughter said...

Thank you! I absolutely agree with the sentiments regarding this "mom/shopper". Why wouldn't she be asking the "right" people for book recommendations instead of giving up so quickly, obviously basing her judgement on a few covers & back of book synopsis? This was the frustrating thing for me.

I'm a mom, and this was the entire reason I started my blog, because I couldn't find the right books for my kids. Yes, granted my kids are much younger, but still. I experienced that frustration of walking into a "big box" store and having no clue what to pick up. Well, instead of giving up...do something, ask someone and by all means perhaps try reading one or two of the so-called "dark" YA books. This was entirely a pot shot at YA and nothing more.

Excellent write up! Thank you!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thanks for the kudos, Danielle. One point I didn't get to make was about indie bookstores. While still in the business of selling books, just like B&N, owners and workers at indies have a personal investment in the books that I don't see at chains. Also, I have seen authors mention on Twitter that they can't get their books into chain stores--Mitali Perkins is an example. And no one could dispute that her books are uplifting and positive and suitable for any YA reader (or adult reader, for that matter.) Don't I wish I could have put a copy of "Bamboo People" in that mother's hands!

Sara said...

I just don't understand how she couldn't find anything, there should have been lots of books with pink and light blue covers (to indicate that they were for younger girly girls) and a whole section of Meg Cabot.

I do agree about librarians knowing more than a random minimum wage worker at the big box store.

Isa said...

Kara, indeed the lack of comments on the original article is puzzling. Why don't you post something? You are articulate and know your stuff. If you notice, most reader voted for "helpful" for dark YA literature instead than "Hurtful" Maybe she'll answer you and you can engage in a helpful conversation

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