Subscribe to The Horn Book


I have a few thoughts regarding the Wall Street Journal article about YA that has everyone, uh, a-Twitter.

1. Why does the author have to reach back FORTY YEARS to talk about “dark YA” when our last big go-round on the topic was just fifteen years ago? The generation of Sarah T., Go Ask Alice, and Je Suis le Fromage is not the parents of today, it’s the grandparents. If I’m recalling right, the WSJ made this same argument back in 1997, when such books as When She Was Good, The Facts Speak for Themselves, and pretty much anything by Chris Lynch were the New Thing in YA and equally decried by worried adults. This article is missing a lot of history, as well as any sense of the breadth of YA today, citing Lauren Myracle for an atypical book, ignoring Ellen Hopkins (queen of the kind of book Gurdon is appalled by), and recommending A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a “Book for Young Women” while not seeming aware of, say, the best-selling Sarah Dessen, whose books exemplify all that the article wants to find good.

2. Gurdon’s argument about why gritty YA books are published is classic straw-man stuff:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Who actually believes this is how reading works?  It was Sheila Egoff who pointed out that the audience for Go Ask Alice was not drug-crazed runaways but nice little middle-class junior high girls with a taste for melodrama. People like reading about people like themselves whose problems are more interesting than their own. Unfortunately, the Twitterati are buying into Gurdon’s thinking from the other way around, claiming that “YA saves,” and that YA writers are brave and heroic and helpful, none of which qualities being particularly useful for a writer. Give me an author who is truthful and talented; spare me an author who writes to save lives.

3. If you’re a teen who is running your reading choices by your parents, grow up. If you’re a parent who feels compelled to approve your child’s reading, shut up. The books and the kids are all right.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. suzi w. says:


    Thank you for some wise words. The end.


  2. >Right on. The best part of this post is your tag 'this is stupid'. WSJ seems to have go at YA every few years. I'm recalling their 2005 "You're Reading What?" But come on, you know it's true: Books Save. They just do, even when that's not the goal. Books save because books of every kind represent the journey and, if we're lucky readers, the one in our hands gives us the light or nourishment or pocket knife or soft pillow we need to keep on keeping on.

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think READING saves, for sure, Gigi.

  4. James McQ says:

    >RE: #3 above, how about this option: If you're a teen or a parent who regularly engages in meaningful dialogue about YA or adult books everyone in the home has read or is reading, bully for you!

    I'd suggest that's a healthier option than the two ends of the spectrum you invoke above. Sure, it's probably rare, but we have it in my home, so I won't apologize for suggesting it as a possibility.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >I'm completely down with discussion, James, when it's based on true sharedness (is that a word?). It's the looking for or granting of approval that I have a problem with.

  6. Ellen Hopkins says:

    >I wondered why she ignored me, too. But I'd have to argue that the truth in books, which you ask for, saves lives. You may not appreciate that, but lots of readers, including mine, do.

  7. kathleen duey says:

    >I love you. And you are right. Books save, but it is rarely (or neverly) the books that were written in an effort to save that actually do any saving. It's the books that came from the author's own human confusion. So thanks. We can all go back to writing now.

  8. Rebecca says:

    >"Amy Freeman, a 46-year-old mother of three" should be encouraged to get out of Barnes & Noble and head to her local independent bookstore. Meghan Cox Gurdon should do the same.

  9. >Great response.

    You are so right that the article misses out on acknowledging the huge variety of stories told in YA lit. It also feeds into the notion that YA lit is "supposed to" teach lessons rather than, say, tell ripping good stories.

    And, yes, let teenagers find their own books — and remember that Barnes & Noble face-out titles represent only a fraction of what's available.

  10. Blythe Woolston says:

    >Have you seen what Gurdon wrote about Hiaasen's "Hoot"?

    "You can almost imagine Cox Gurdon sneering as she offers up a summary: Hoot is “a book for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls.”

    Read more:

    Truth is, I don't think WSJ gives two hoots and damn about children's literature. This anecdotally-sourced trend piece is just evidence of that.

  11. Melissa W. says:

    >But melodrama is bad. We're not supposed to like it.

    When I was a teen, one of my favorite books was May I Cross Your Golden River by Paige Dixon, about a boy slowly dying of ALS. I certainly didn't have ALS, didn't know anyone with ALS and other than a grandfather, hadn't really experienced death close at hand. And I didn't come away from this book with any great insights into ALS or premature death.

    What I did get was a marvelous good cry every time I read it. And I read it a lot because I liked to cry. It was emotional porn, like most everything I read for pleasure. The books I read provided me with a private place to take out my feelings–some I wasn't allowed to admit I possessed–and play with them without anyone telling me I was wrong or weird.

    But that's hardly a noble purpose, is it? For all of how we decry any suggestion that YA should have a moral or teach a lesson, we still like it to have a noble purpose.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >Melissa, I think why things get written and how they get read can be very different. Richard Peck clearly had a didactic intent in writing Remembering the Good Times, about teen suicide, and the book was certainly recommended for its "noble purpose." But people liked it because it was a classic four-hankie read. I'm guessing Ellen Hopkins might not agree with me, but I suspect the bulk of her readers are young girls who enjoy melodrama. This is not to take away from the serious issues Hopkins addresses or her integrity as a writer, simply to point out that people can read how they like despite the author's best intentions!

  13. R.J. Anderson says:

    >And the thing is, if YA books are forced to conform to an enforced standard of optimism and squeaky-cleanness, teens (and tweens) will end up looking for what they want in the adult section instead. When I was in sixth grade back in 1980, our public school library was full of Judy Blume and Lloyd Alexander and John Christopher, but the book being talked about in eager whispers and passed around by my peers was V.C. Andrews' FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. And compared to that, a lot of the "dark YA" being decried is positively wholesome… not to mention better written.

  14. Elizabeth Fama says:

    >I discounted Ms. Gurdon's essay as soon as she wrote quantifiable statements without including scientific backup:

    1. "How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear."

    2. "Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it."

    3. "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. "

    and my favorite:

    4. "…publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into…. children's lives."

    In the language of actual, contemporary YA readers, I say to Ms. Gurdon, "Citation needed."

  15. kellybarnhill says:

    >Books don't save kids; kids save kids.

    I think that writers do themselves and their readers a terrible disservice when they step towards the slippery slope of self-aggrandizement. (oh! we think! It feels so good! Just one more time, with feeling).

    The point is that something magic happens in the relationship between reader and book that has nothing at all to do with the author's intention – whether the catharsis of the four-hankie-cry, or the insights into the peculiarities of love or hate or human joy, or the clarification of illness and healing – books are what the *reader* makes them.

    Twitter hashtags like YASAVES make us feel very good about ourselves because, in the constant self-doubt that defines the writer's life, we like to be reminded that our work is important. And it is. To a point. But the *real* work, the *important* work comes from readers, and how our readers transform themselves, again and again and again.

    Our job, in the end, is to forget our placement in the Order Of Important Things, and just write books – good books, smart books, funny books, sad books, scary books, whatever, and leave them at the doorstep of the world.

    Also, our job is to tell the WSJ and the rest of the pedantic know-nothings who don't know two figs about kids books to go and screw themselves. Actually, that's less of a *job* and more of a *perk*. 😉

  16. Ginee Seo says:

    >Roger, I love your tag for the article. Another could be THIS IS BORING. Who really cares? Not the people who really matter, who are the teenage readers who love the books. I hereby out myself as the profane "unidentified publishing executive" in question. And I'm amused to see my feeling about taking out the profanity in the book–which I didn't see as profanity per se but as a question of tampering with the authenticity of the main character's voice–described as "grumbling." I wasn't grumbling, I was pissed off. But shades of meaning and overall intent seem to be totally lost on the writer of this article, as it does with so many people who write these sorts of pieces. Ah, another reason not to subscribe to the WSJ.

  17. Steven Withrow says:

    >Great points, Roger, and others here.

    Child, teen, and adult readers often play-act the stories of their favorite literary and dramatic characters. We see and do this all the time. Literature is as open to roleplaying as games, music, movies, and sports are.

    That said, only a small minority of people will actually confuse or conflate a story’s metaphor with their own reality and “copycat” a character’s harmful actions.

    If we remove the potential for harm as a protective measure, we deny the pleasure and challenge of all kinds of fiction for the vast majority of us who are able to navigate the borders between metaphor and equivalence. Most babies learn to do this instantly.

    Story is conflict, and writers will always seek out the conflicts that surprise them, that disturb them most deeply, that they can’t shake off even through the act of storytelling. This is part of being human, no matter our age.

  18. Victoria Wells Arms says:

    >I am loving all these comments, both as an editor and as the parent of three not-yet-even-tween girls. But really, is anything new here? The other night I picked up 100-year-old classic, The Secret Garden to read to my nearly 7-year-olds, thinking it would be a sort of romantically enchanting, summery read. How wrongly I remembered this book! It opens with the cholera-induced death of two hateful and neglectful parents, a whole load of very grumpy servants (some of whom also die), a man with a dead wife, cold moors (“its like a scrubby, huge, brown sort of field, honey”), a cold, closed-off house, no toys, a miserably lonely, racist, classist, pissy child and a mood of utter winter. I thought to myself, I should re-read this before I go any further (I know, I know, it does end up ridiculously upliftingly wholesome)…but before I could do so the girls opened the book after lights-out, read ahead themselves, and of course, wanted me to read them more—Will she find the garden? Who is the boy? What is the door? Come on mom, bring on the misery!

  19. Roger Sutton says:

    >I love the way you guys remind me I have the best blog commentators on the planet.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >I had to laugh at the part of the article when they suggested A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN [one of my all time favorites btw], which contains: one parent that dies of alcoholism, the other parent shoots [with an illegal gun] the child molester who was attacking the teenage main character, a neighbor she describes as a child bride with a brutish and violent husband, and the sexual promiscuous polygamist aunt. And more!

    Oh right, it doesn't have any huffing or cutting, so it is OK.

  21. >Rachel Krueger has written this response to the original article.

    I once had a conversation with a Newbery-award-winning author, who berated me for my love of Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War." She said it was too nihilistic, too dark, too hopeless. I responded that the book was a joy and a balm for me, because it was the first book written for young people I'd read that showed the cruelty, brutality, and despair teens often encounter. Somone, an adult, understood!

    This author claimed that "The Chocolate War" would fade and be forgotten because of it's darkness. I'm so glad that, twenty years on, it's a classic. The other author's book is one of those which teachers have to assign in order to get kids to read it.

  22. Lisa Yee says:

    >Well said, Roger.

    I wonder if she also screens the TV shows and movies her teen watches, too?

  23. Steven Withrow says:

    >I think back to a few of my own favorite books from 1989, when I was 15: Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Thomas Harris's Red Dragon

    Pretty dark stuff, some of which was not marketed directly to my age group, and very little of it reflected my daily experiences. (My parents weren't thrilled with all of my choices, but they thankfully let me find my way.) If you'd asked me then, I would have said, "The darker, the better."

    But once I hit college, my reading interests expanded enormously, though I've never lost my love for the horrific.

  24. Anonymous says:

    >My guess is that many of the helicopter parents who would screen their child's contemporary YA book are simply not likely to slog through a doorstop like Tess of the Durbervilles, or other commonly assigned super-bleak melodramatic classics, so current YA can get unfairly singled out as inventing the teen problem novel.

    Another aspect is also just The Past vs now. Suzanne Vega has a song called "Last Years Troubles" about how people find waifs and pirates [and so on] charming and romantic now, while the homeless and criminal of today are of course deeply disturbing. I wonder, do parents complain as much about newly written "gritty YA" set in the past, like Octavian Nothing, or is it mainly very contemporary teen experiences that seems to set them off?

  25. Elizabeth Law says:

    >My favorite part of your post is when you say "It was Sheila Egoff who pointed out that the audience for Go Ask Alice was not drug-crazed runaways but nice little middle-class junior high girls with a taste for melodrama."

    I did an interview two weeks ago with Egmont's author Allen Zadoff on Cynthia Leitich-Smith's blog. I mentioned Go Ask Alice by name–both how very much I was attracted to the darkness of it, and how a neighbor (in reality, my Girl Scout leader) called my mother up to complain that I was reading it. In 1973.

    The interview also ran a photo of my looking exactly like what Sheila Egoff describes–a middle-class junior high school girl who loved melodrama. But I was also pissed off–in that photo and in my life. I felt a helluva lot of pressure from my own well-intentioned parents to achieve and fit into their standards, and Go Ask Alice and Dinky Hocker and a great, nearly forgotten book of Rosemary Wells', None of the Above, showed me kids who were bucking the getting good grades and achieving trend. I didn't *really* want to be any of them, but I was happy to admire them from the safety of my comfortable, well-heated suburban home.

  26. >Hi, Roger: I appreciate you describing the WSJ's previous "YA is too dark" article in 1997, particularly the mention of Chris Lynch (who I love). And I too wondered where were the mentions of both Ellen Hopkins and Sarah Dessen.
    Didn't we discover years later that Go Ask Alice was fake? I mentioned this once at a writers conference and some young writer in the front row looked so crushed. Man, Go Ask Alice was incredibly juicy. We passed it around in middle school.
    We also read lots of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and that is some dark crap.

  27. Anonymous says:

    >There were very few YA books when I grew up. Instead I read Crime and Punishment, The Mill On the Floss, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Lord of the Flies. A whole bunch of light, wholesome reads.

  28. janeyolen says:

    >Hey, anonymous, you stole my post! I was going to say there were NO YA books when I was growing up, outside of a few Sweet Sixteen books. And I read a lot of Dostoyefsky, War and Peace, all of Joseph Conrad, as well as Sorrows of Young Werther, Edgar Allen Poe, and as an antidote to all this lots of James Thurber.


  29. Melinda says:

    >I have an idea that the WSJ was just trolling us again. But it's always so fun when authors put the smackdown on 'em. Then I start thinking that maybe the world's going to be okay after all.

  30. Anonymous says:

    >I read this depraved book where the parents abandoned their children to die, then a cannibalistic predator lures them into captivity, and when one of the siblings was going to be killed the other sibling [who was enslaved] murdered the captor and they escaped. Oh wait, that wasn't contemporary YA, that was Hansel and Gretel.

    When I read this book to a child recently and got to the ending, she looked up at me, beaming, and commanded: "AGAIN"

  31. Anonymous says:

    >Jane– I am the anonymous who unwittingly stole your post and also forgot to sign my name. Ditto on Thurber, especially THE 13 CLOCKS.


  32. cathiesue says:

    >I polled several teens regarding thei article. They just don't care. They read what they want.

  33. janeyolen says:

    >I should have guessed Leda, since you're my sister and we're almost twins.


  34. sally apokedak says:

    >I was with you up until point 3.

    Good post, though. The best I've seen on the topic. Point 3 notwithstanding. 🙂

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind