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Dystopian YA lit panel at MIT

mit panel

moderator Marah Gubar with Kristin Cashore and Kenneth Kidd

Last night MIT hosted a Communications Forum, “Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction.” The discussion was moderated by associate professor of literature Marah Gubar, with panelists Kenneth Kidd, children’s literature scholar and author (Freud in Oz) and literature department chair at the University of Florida; and YA fantasy author Kristin Cashore (Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue), an alumna of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (aren’t we all?! well, no, but two-thirds of the Horn Book staff did go there; and now we’re their down-the-hall neighbors).

The panel kicked off with a discussion of that polarizing 2011 Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible.” Cashore gave fair warning that she might not be able to contain her rage re: Gurdon’s argument that YA literature was somehow “too dark” and that that’s a bad thing. Kidd gave some background on the history of young people embracing literature with un-cheery themes (“It’s always been there”), and Gubar asked us to think about the use of the word “dark” as a synonym for “bad,” especially in the context of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement.

The conversation continued with discussion of Cashore’s series and other YA dystopias — among them Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books, M. T. Anderson’s Feed, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now — and the highly quotable Cashore’s assertion that “Every writer has the right to write about the essential fucked-up-ness of the world” (though as a white person she recognizes her own privilege in being able to do so).

During the Q & A portion, Cathie Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, asked about adults’ anxiety — bordering on pathology — regarding young adulthood (“That’s a complicated and hard question,” began Kidd’s answer; “I’m not in your class anymore, Cathie,” said Cashore, before engaging thoughtfully in the discussion).

We found out some of the panel’s favorite non-dystopian YA books — Kidd: Boy Meets Boy; Cashore: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks; Gubar: the President’s Daughter series — and Kidd urged the audience to start a “What Is Adult Literature?” campaign.

An audience member made the point that as a teen he and his friends liked reading “dark” books — Stephen King, for example — because they saw them as hopeful, wish-fulfillment; the grownups were the ones effing up the world, and once they destroyed themselves, the next generation could start fresh. “Bleak stories are not necessarily bleak reading experiences,” agreed Kidd; and Cashore talked about readers’ choice, saying she never gets complaint letters from teens, only adults (someone once wrote: “Getting to the end of Graceling [sex scene] was like finding a cockroach in my ice cream.”

An actual *teen* in the audience asked a question about characters inspiring readers, and a young woman of color asked about diversity. All in all, the evening was entertaining, thought-provoking, and energizing. Thanks, MIT!

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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