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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!

Guys, you have to read this! The Wall Street Journal has made a stunning discovery — in Darkness Too Visible, we discover books with bad, bad things like “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation,” all done by the evil publishers and librarians and booksellers and others to deliberately “bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”

Clearly, the way to protect the innocence of children and teens is to prevent them from learning about the darker things in life. If you don’t know about it, it won’t happen to you! (Sadly, that is my half held belief about doctors which is why I rarely go to them. You’re not truly sick until the doctor says so.)

Is this true? Take a look at Hush by Eishes Chayil, which shows just what happens when a community embraces such a doctrine. Obviously, I’m of the belief that ignorance and innocence are not identical; and that keeping teens from the books that will help them with difficult things under the belief that this makes the difficult things never happen does more damage than good. I’m also of the belief that once it’s decided that certain things should not be spoken aloud — incest, abuse, suicide — and not included in books, it makes it that much harder for those teens who do experience those things in life, either directly or indirectly, and people end up thinking that those people who experience those things should likewise be hidden. Not talked about except in a whisper.

I’m also of a belief in having the reader — any reader — choose their own books. If tomorrow all the dark YA books disappeared, the need those books fill would not go away, and those readers would either a, decide books don’t have anything for them and stop reading, or b, look elsewhere for those topics — such as the adult fiction shelves — and so would still be reading “those” books. (Discuss amongst yourselves the difference between a teen reading a YA book about suicide and an adult one. I think part of a teen’s rich reading diet should include books outside of YA, but, based on my own teen reading, sometimes reading an adult book for a subject you’re interested in is like buying a “one sized fits all” T-shirt. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t quite fit.)

The sad thing about Darkness Too Visible is that there is just so much there that is off kilter that one could almost write a book in response. Let’s start with the “this is all new!” As an aside, one expectation I have of people writing about books is that they have depth of knowledge. I don’t care where or how they obtained the knowledge — they may be 18 or 48 or 81, with or without a PhD in literature, be a scholar or just a passionate reader. Which means that statements like “Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail” and “As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing” really bother me. Especially when the author points out that the book that changed it all was written in 1967. Which — wait for it — 44 years ago. So, technically, even assuming arguendo that the author is correct, should have been “45 years ago.” Six Boxes of Books lists just some of the authors who were writing books for teens before 1967. 

Some scattered thoughts: the article begins with an anecdote about a mother not being able to find any books for teens in a bookstore other than vampires, suicide, and self-mutilation. Other than the obvious –really? No Ally Carter or Meg Cabot? No Anthony Horowitz or Kirby Larson?– the moral of that paragraph: booksellers and librarians do matter, because they would have been able to point out such authors to the mother. As budgets are cut, as bookstores and libraries disappear, the connecting of the book a reader wants with the reader is just going to get that much more difficult. The mother and her child want books without vampires, suicide, self mutilation? Terrific! They exist. But they may as well not exist if we don’t have effective ways of connecting the reader and the book. As further evidence of the problem, the mother in question says in the comments, “I want to add that a B&N employee noticed me leafing through 78 books, and offered to help. (Because she had not in fact read any of the books for sale, she kind of kept me company more than helped, but it was still something.) She told me I was far from the first to complain.” What we have here is B&N’s failure to train employees, hire qualified employees, have subject area specialists, and, possibly, have a diverse selection (if, in fact, Ally Carter was no where to be seen).

The characterization that this is all new — that books like this have never existed! At least not at bad as this! Makes me want to reread Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play (1978) (which taught me if you run away to New York City, don’t talk to the nice stranger at Port Authority because in 24 hours, he’s your pimp and you’re walking the streets for money) and To Take A Dare (1982) (lesson: always take all your pills for a STD or it will end badly, and it’s OK to hitchhike as long as you carry a big knife and aren’t afraid to use it).

And then there is this: “ But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” and “If you think it matters what is inside a young person’s mind, surely it is of consequence what he reads. This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new,” and “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”

There’s this: “Foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers and booksellers as perfectly OK, provided that it emerges organically from the characters and the setting rather than being tacked on for sensation.”  So… the author is saying that books shouldn’t contain those bad, bad words. Yet, guess what? The WSJ, in a sexist sidebar (some books are for boys only, some for girls only), recommends a book that includes the “c” word. Maybe it’s OK for young men to read that word, but not the “f” word?

And, finally, this: “In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!” Here’s the thing. Make that distinction for your children and teens? Fine. The Duggars can decide what Jinger, Josie, and the Js read or don’t read. But they cannot decide it for other parents and guardians. And with the fearmongering in this article, the author is saying it’s a “dereliction of duty” rather than a parental judgment call about what their child reads or doesn’t read. That’s fighting words. And, yes, it does cross the line from “what is right for my child” to “what is right for all children.” This article is full of “no parent in their right mind would want a child to read such garbage.”

What this article ignores is the questions of why people read what they do — one of the areas I find fascinating just because, and also because it helps with readers advisory. Some kids in terrible circumstances read about kids in terrible circumstances and find comfort and hope, even in the bleakest book; others live it, so don’t want to read it. Some read for windows; some, for mirrors. Some kids in crappy circumstances want to read about kids who have it worse off, so they can think, “at least my life isn’t bad as so and sos.” Some teens love literary books; some teens get so much literature during the school year that recreational reading is all about the popcorn. Each reader’s “popcorn” is different; for some it’s vampires and horror, for others it’s books that make them cry, like books about suicide, for others its books that talk frankly about what is whispered around school, like self-mutilation. Often, the full diet of what a person reads, teen  or adult, cannot be judged by one or ten books, or one month, or a summer. Readers get obsessions — my Sylvia Plath obsession lasted years.

Trying to identify what a reader wants from a book, so recommending the right fit, is one of the hardest things about readers advisory and one of the things that is least respected. It’s not as simple as similar plot points or the same author. It can be both about giving a child what they want and what they need. To use an anecdote from my own childhood: I was reading the Oz books like crazy cakes in about third or fourth grade. So my mother “upped the game” by seeing what I wanted (adventure fantasy about made up lands) and upped the literary level of what I was reading by handing me The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which I never, ever, would have picked up on my own because, really? Wardrobe? Boring. The result was a lifelong love for C.S. Lewis.

As for the other bleak books — if a kid doesn’t want to read it, don’t make them. But if a kid does want to read those books, is reading those books, and the adults in their lives are concerned, talk to your child. There are so many reasons for that teen reading that book (interest, a friend with a problem, their own problem, rebellion (you don’t want me to read it so I will), fascination with something that doesn’t exist at all in their world, wanting sad books, etc) and each of those is so different and each starts a different type of conversation, including “well, if that is what you want to read, you may like (insert title of other book.)”

What other folks have to say, in no particular order other than when I read them. Link to your own posts in the comments; I will do my best to edit this and add those posts during the coming week.

The Twitterverse became enraged and responded, using the #yasaves hashtag. Have a few hours? Search for those tweets.

Stephanie Lawton, YA Under Attack: Heaven Forbid We Address Reality. Some gems: “because it was not discussed 40 years ago, we should not discuss it now. This is sound reasoning if ever I heard it. Examples: showing pregnant women on TV; couples sleeping in the same bed; anything related to “menstruation.” OH GOD! MAKE IT STOP!”, “As a relatively conservative parent of young children, I take offense to this. There is a difference between being the gatekeeper for your own children and telling everyone else’s what they can and can’t read,” and “A better approach, in my opinion, is to let these books open a dialogue among children and parents. Discuss the issues. Read the book along with your teen.”

Steph Su Reads, The Only Thing I Really Hate. “Again, there’s not much being said that hasn’t been said before, so I want to focus on what I believe is the real “enemy” here: the attack on change and progress, and the lack of openmindedness.”

Online, WSJshares @LibbaBray’s response. Far as I can tell, there is no link to Bray’s response at the original article and no indication that WSJ’s print readers will get that rebuttal.

Zoe Marriott, Responding to the Wall Street Journal Article. “The world has never been bright, cheery and happy and uncomplicated. Kids have always been abused. They have always suffered in silence, hurt themselves and others. Children have always, always, always partaken of the pain and agony of humanity. They have always had to live with the same darkness, the same wars, the same nightmares as adults do.”

Bookalicious Pam, TMI – YA Saves. “People ask me all the time why I read and love YA. Why I spend my time championing children’s literature. I usually say “I like the low page count and the stories are interesting”, or some other noncommittal dribble. I never say what I should that “I wish so much these books would have been there for me.”

Edited to add:One of the really outrageous things in the article was the treatment of Cheryl Rainfield’s book, Scars. Here is Cheryl’s response. “There’s so much societal judgment about using self-harm, being queer, and often about being an incest survivor. People tell us not to talk about it, or blame us for what we’ve been through or what we feel. And that makes the pain so much stronger. I wrote SCARS to let other teens with those experiences know that they’re not alone, and that they can find healing, and to encourage people who didn’t have those experiences to have more compassion for those who did.”

Edited to add: Dr. Teri Lesesne (aka Professor Nana, The Goddess of YA literature) responds with How To Save A Life. “Those stories are wonderful and remind us how YA can save lives. But I want to talk about the other ways books can save. . . . IT ALLOWS READERS A SAFE HAVEN IN WHICH TO TEST THEMSELVES. … IT GIVES KIDS A CHANCE TO SEE THEY ARE NOT ALONE… IT DEVELOPS READERS. …IT DEMONSTRATES THAT, JUST BECAUSE THE BOOK IS WRITTEN FOR TEENS, THAT IT CAN INDEED BE A LITERARY EXPERIENCE.”

Edited to add: Salon, Has Young Adult Fiction Become Too Dark? “And no, not all of it is great literature. Remind me again when there was a time when there was nothing but great literature from which to choose? Critics like Gurdon are forever holding the dregs of the present up against the best of the past, which is an unfair and highly loaded argument. You can’t compare what’s crowding the shelves now with a tiny handful of classics that have endured.” “in the name of protecting teens, we can’t shut them off from the outlet of experiencing difficult events and feelings in the relative safety and profound comfort of literature. Darkness isn’t the enemy. But ignorance always is.”

NPR, Seeing Teenagers As We Wish They Were: The Debate Over YA Fiction: “Look: Once you’re talking about older teenagers, they read whatever they want from the world of YA and adult books anyway, if they happen to be readers, and if they aren’t readers, they aren’t reading the tough books about abuse and the apocalypse to begin with. They have already decided they don’t care about reading for pleasure. They have moved on. And with younger kids, like 13-year-olds? If they’re interested in dark themes, they’re going to find them, whether it’s in YA novels or something else. Curiosity about death or illness or suffering doesn’t have to be grafted onto 13-year-olds by fiction writers. ”

Blue Rose Girls, Darkness in YA LiteratureI loved books that made me cry, and I loved books that made me think. I also liked books that made me laugh, that simply entertained me. I loved the classics. I also loved the fluff. Personally, I think that pretty much “anything goes” in YA lit, because before YA lit existed, teens were reading adult books. They still are. There is a need and a market for all kinds of books.”

Read Roger, Again? “Give me an author who is truthful and talented; spare me an author who writes to save lives. . . . 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.”

LA Review of Books, Better to Light a Candle than to Curse the Darkness “You know what, taste is a funny thing. What might be to your taste might not be to mine. But you can’t CHOOSE what my taste is. (I like caviar. I hate pineapple on pizza.) And teenagers have their own tastes.”

Barry Lyga, On the WSJ, YA and Art “I refuse to justify my art. Yes, my books are my occupation. My career. I don’t do them for free; I get paid. But I don’t write them because I get paid. The money’s a nice benefit. And I don’t write them to help kids or change them. That, too, is a nice benefit, one that I adore, one that humbles me every single time I think of it or see evidence of it. But I write because I am compelled to do so. Because to do otherwise would be to hack off my limbs and put out my eyes. Because the stories I tell chomp and chew and gnaw at my soul until I let them out. As long as there has been art, there have been naysayers and lack-a-wits jeering from the sidelines, mocking the efforts of those who create. I’ve dealt with these nincompoops my entire life and I’m just too old to give a damn what they think or say anymore.”

Laurie Halse Anderson, Stuck Between Rage and CompassionI find myself shaking with anger. Why? First and foremost because this is opinion (badly) dressed-up as journalism. I expect better from the Wall Street Journal. Second, because I know how ridiculous and harmful the statements are.”

Indiscriminate Writes, Call for blogs/articles supporting Meghan Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” article “I would like to add some links to blogs and articles that support Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article.”

Mud, Mambas, Mushrooms and Machines, Brightness Too Visible. “I was recently at the bookstore looking for board books for my son, and left feeling thwarted and disheartened. It was all barnyard animals making noises and counting and going to bed on time. It was light, light stuff. I left empty handed. How light are board books? Lighter than you think, sweetie. Insufferable lightness that would have been considered too sentimental or educational forty years ago* is now the norm: fluffy bunnies who don’t get into mischief, well-behaved children who love learning manners.” “* I assume. I haven’t researched this”  parody

Teaching With Zest, Navigating the Darkness: In Defense of Young Adult LiteratureLife is not a fairy tale, and adolescents seldom want to pretend that it is.  Life for them can be tumultuous, and literature that acknowledges that tumult does not, as Gurdon suggests, normalize it  Instead it normalizes the fear, anger, and uncertainty that accompany tumult.  YA lit gives readers a way to step outside of themselves to think about tumultuous experiences.  These books offer a safe means of exploring the darkness, and through this exploration, adolescent readers can find a light to illuminate the joy and beauty that lie beyond the darkness.”

Sonderbooks, YA SavesLibrarians are knocked in the article for giving dark books to teens. We’re actually quite good at finding the right book for the right reader. And we could even find a book that would make that mother happy. And if she let her own teen pick a book, we could find a book that would make her happy.”

The Insane Scribblings of a Madwoman, YA Books: Too Dark or Hitting Too Close To Home?Trust your kids. Talk to them. Read with them. Read before them if you feel you have to. Don’t criticize an entire genre just because they’re exposing reality for what it is through artistry and fiction. And mom, thank you for trusting me with my reading.”

I Read to Relax, The WSJ, “Age Appropriate”, Censorship and #YASavesYA is an age group…not a genre. Which means…huh…there are about a hundred different types of YA books. That means that there IS a book out there for every teen reader. I swear!”

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Whoa.
    Just… whoa. I am going to not only quote you on the bottom of emails (aren’t you proud?) but I’m going to continue thinking about this. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. This sentence: “the moral of that paragraph: booksellers and librarians do matter, because they would have been able to point out such authors to the mother.”

    So, so, so true. And so sad because we’re cutting both librarians and bookstores out of our lives.

  3. tanita, I think being quoted on the bottom of an email is way better than even blurbing a book! blushes. thanks.

  4. Melissa, I’ve asked for other authors/titles on Twitter and (time willing) will do a follow up “there’s more to YA” post. I would have added bloggers as a great way to connect books with readers, except that there are still plenty of people who get books the traditional way — by looking at shelves in stores and libraries, rather than going online.

  5. Great response, Liz. Why are YA books under attack so much lately? Why do YA authors have to defend our very existence? Is it because the success of books like HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT have brought us to the forefront? I agree that booksellers and librarians are the champions here, the ones who connect books with readers, and it seems the best responses to these attacks come from those same people. Thank you!

  6. I have to disagree with the comment about the B&N employee. Understand that there are just too many books for them to read them all and they have their favorite subjects like anyone else. Just because they hadn’t read a book doesn’t mean that they can’t be helpful. Does somebody at a grocery store have to know how to cook? Very few jobs require an employee to know the content of the product. Does a salesperson at a clothing store need to know the fabrics in a blouse? A person working in a DVD store watch every movie? For some reason we expect the world of these people in the book industry and treat them poorly when they don’t have an answer to provide on the one book you are asking about out of the millions available. Have you read every book in the teen sections? Well if not, give the booksellers a break. At least they give you their time.

  7. I read the article a few times last night and it was so full of ignorance, I couldn’t really find anything to say. But then, around midnight as I fell to sleep, things came to me and I am so glad you’ve included them here. Thank you!

    First: This entire WSJ rant was fueled by one woman’s quest to find a book at a B&N bookstore? Didn’t anyone explain to the author that the B&N YA section is limited by its buyers and it is not a representation of 100% of the YA out there? Second: I know handfuls of booksellers and librarians who could have found a 13-year-old a great not-dark book. Third: The same politically-driven ignorant that made wide and false declarations about the entire YA genre in this article are slashing budgets to cut out…librarians who could help the woman from the article find a book and not just “keep her company” in the stacks. (Side note: I want to see the footage from the store cameras. 78 books would have taken at least an hour.)

    What I found most disturbing was the recommended reading list–which was made of books which are plenty dark whose authors would likely disagree with the article. The bizarre need to genderize it was the perfect irony. If our society would stop being so obsessed about sexuality, gender and sex roles maybe we’d have some time to talk about and work on the real problems which cause real darkness in 1 out of 3 people’s lives. And maybe the WSJ would print articles about the startling teen rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence statistics that our country boasts.

    Or, we could just ignore it and you know, go back to talking about bedbugs and the weather.

  8. Wonderful response. The YA community is so great!

  9. Amen, Liz. The world can be tough. We don’t want to scare our kids, but they deserve truth, especially when they’re seeking it out.

  10. Loretta, YA books certainly get more visibility than they did years ago. That may be one reason we see these OMG articles.

    Joe, if the butcher at the local grocery store cannot answer my questions, yes, I go elsewhere. Speaking for myself, do I read every book? No. But I read about the books, reviews, blog posts, etc; I know how to use catalogs and other search titles to find books. So, yes, it’s a failure of B&N if their staff cannot handle a simple RA interaction. On twitter, a few booksellers have pointed out that this is a reason to go to indies rather than the big box.

    A.S., I know, 78 books! And no David Lubar, etc.?

    Julia, thanks!

    Adrienne, exactly. “when they’re seeking it out.” Ironically, IHMO, many times the YA books handle these issues with more grace & sensitivity to teen readers than adult books.

  11. Veronica De Luna says

    I totally agree with you! It’s just funny that these people consider these books to be the worst things their children can read when life itself is never “pretty”. Do they really believe that if they don’t talk about it then it doesn’t exist? As a parent myself, I don’t understand how another parent can ignore the “ugly” things in this life. How can you not prepare your children for the world if you don’t teach them that 1. life isn’t always fair & 2. sometimes bad things do happen to good people but no matter what, we must overcome these sometimes harsh circumstances. Just because their kids have never experienced these “dark” events does not mean that another teen hasn’t. Not all kids are blessed to be so ignorant of reality. I honestly believe that these YA books help a lot of teens cope with their own problems. Of course, the WSJ forgot to mention that while some of these books do speak of some very brutal things, they also speak of hope & the ability to overcome those harsh yet nonetheless real events that sometimes happen to people.

  12. One of the things that is so appalling to me about the WSJ article (of the many, many, many appalling things in that article) is that I love YA for the hope it brings to the dark subjects. I vehemently hated the HS reading curriculum because it was filled with dark and horrible things… Tess of d’Urbervilles, Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, Our Town, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies… if it hadn’t been for the books I snuck in and read under the desk I wouldn’t have made it through HS. Also, I wasn’t actually reading YA until after I had completed school (I was reading “adult” fiction under the desk), finding it as an adult didn’t make it any less amazing to me.

  13. When I read the article, the first thing I thought about was: When did reading become a bad thing? Shouldn’t we be happy that more and more people are picking up books and reading? Regardless of content, it’s the fact that people are taking the time to sit down and read (especially teens) that tell me everything is more than okay.

  14. Veronica — bad things do happen to good people. It’s a sad, frightening, fact of life. As you say, it’s not that bad things happen, but how we react. See Elizabeth Smart as an awesome, amazing, inspiring real life example of how the worst happens yet good survives. If her story were a YA novel, people would be upset by it, no doubt.

    Cassandra, I totally agree that YA can be appreciated by those of us who are no longer YA.

    Kate, good point. Reading is threatening — to be controlled.

  15. I have a response, but it’s really long, so I’m just including a link to it. I hope that’s okay. Long story short: I’m really mad.

  16. Melissa H says

    I am going around reading all of these rebuttals to the WSJ article which I also read last night. I think that the response this article is getting should show them that the premise of the WSJ article is at the very LEAST one sided, and at the most? Well, I’m not sure I have an adjective to adequately describe the most. It’s definitely offensive. I’ve worked with teens who cut, who are bulimic or anorexic, suicidal, and just plain *angry*. Reading is WONDERFUL therapy for these kids, especially if what they are reading is relevant to them. It doesn’t want to make them cut more, or binge more, or– god forbid– kill themselves, it makes them think: I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE. Hopefully, these books can be the first step AWAY from that darkness. But are these kids going to change in a heartbeat because, “Thank god I don’t have any books to read out there that make me feel bad”? No. Their problems will (sadly) always be with them, it’s how we show them that those problems are not bigger than they are that can help. It’s how we show them they aren’t alone that can help. It’s how we get them to START TALKING that helps.

    Go out. Read more. Start a hard discussion with someone. Don’t back away from it. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. TALK. Thanks Liz, for posting about this!

  17. Thanks for this post, Liz! I posted my own response in the middle of the night during the 48-Hour Book Challenge: So it wasn’t nearly as well thought out!

    You know, I would never expect a B&N employee to be as good with Reader’s Advisory as a Librarian. We get Master’s degrees and have a calling, not just a job. We study to be able to do this well. What a shame that Mom didn’t think of talking to a Librarian about a good choice.

    The #YASaves tag reminds me what a noble calling it is to be a librarian. Matching the right book with the right reader can definitely change lives.

  18. Liz,
    Brilliantly stated. You articulated so well my take on the subject. Thank you for such a thoughtful blog post. Reading YA does save lives. As a foster mom way past my teen years I found so much in some of the grittier YA lit of a generation ago that helped me parent. When kids that were cutters and huffers moved in with us I was able to see and address their issues while DHS was oblivious. Just knowing that others out there have some of the same problems and were able to survive them is huge for kids in bad situations. I also love one of the comments one of the Bistro Book Club teens made once when defending an extremely edgy book to his mother — “would you rather I learned about this by reading about it or by doing it?”

  19. Thank you so much for this response! As a middle school librarian who read the WSJ article this morning (and has been stewing ever since!), I really appreciate that you said everything that I have been saying to myself all day in my head! I just wanted to reiterate the point that you made that this shows the importance of librarians and informed booksellers. When I read the story of the mom, I just kept saying “But did she ask anyone for help?” There should be someone there, or she could she have asked her daughter’s teacher or librarian or even consulted a book review website; there are great ones out there! The WSJ article was such an unfortunate post; I’m glad that it has sparked a lively debate though.

  20. Samantha, thanks for the link. I’ll add it tonight.

    Sondy, thanks for the link.

    Melissa, thank you!

    Diana, I agree that books can be a way for kids to experience something without any risk. Well, that should be “for anyone.” not just kids. correcting myself.

  21. Brandy, there is so much diverse YA out there that I’m frustrated on behalf of the 13 year old who didn’t end up with a book.

  22. Thank you for well-articulated answer to the WSJ article. Your statement that “ignorance and innocence are not identical” is such an apt response. I’ve moved beyond my initial anger at the article to consider why it’s so important that we provide adolescents with quality literature. My assertion is that YA list shouldn’t deny the darkness but help readers navigate their way through it.

    My blog response:

  23. Penny Horwitz says

    It’s the same old, same old. I remember when it was Judy Blume that they wanted to ban, then J.K. Rowling. While I haven’t read either The Hunger Game or Twilight series (the former I haven’t had time, the latter, I’m just not crazy about the author as personal taste). However, my husband and I handed our eight year old the Hobbit about a month ago. Daddy read it to her, and now she’s reading it on her own. I also plan on introducing her to the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, and the Tortall series by Tamora Pierce later this summer. She’s already been to Hogwarts for year one and two.

    It’s making my daughter a better reader to be exposed to all of this and she’s already shown a tendency to want to write her own stories. That the WJS has taken up the fear mongering banner says more about the WJS than it does about the state of YA books these days, many of which I still enjoy at 36.

  24. Loved the comment that far from destroying innocence for those readers not experiencing a specific issue, reading about the “dark subjects” builds empathy and understanding for those who are not like you. That is why a wide variety of topics, cultures and styles are what makes a genre great.

    After all, I had a lovely childhood and a normal teenage life but boy did I go through a set of christian fiction books for teens in which teens experienced to every problem known to man (drug use, prostitution, etc…) and in the very last pages, found god and were redeemed. They were like popcorn. Poorly written but interesting because they were nothing like my life. So glad there are even better books and more diversity now for teens.

  25. It wasn’t just a bad argument, it was one of the most obviously one-sided arguments I’ve ever read. I had to give my take on it as well (Darkness and Light in Young Adult Books). I’m not much of a YA reader, though I do speak to my “revelatory” periods.

  26. I have to speak for the booksellers. I hadn’t seen the comment from the customer–was trying not to look too closely at them lest my brain explode again (as it has many times since Alybee930 emailed me the article link). It’s booksellers like that that give booksellers a bad name! I’m a diverse reader–I read YA, adult fiction, picture books, math books, science, and literary criticism. I read books on wordplay, cookbooks, and psychology. I read mystery and graphic novels, as well as computer books!

    The training piece we provided our booksellers was this: know your co-workers. We hired people who love not just books, but music, film, medicine, religion, art, sports–you name it! When confronted with a customer who wants a golf book, and you don’t know a tee from a 9-iron, you got on the walkie and called Gene, who would be right over. Need an obscure mystery identified by 2 characters and the color of the book cover? That’s Henry. Which test prep book does this nursing student need? Karly could help. She could also assist a person in choosing a particular version of The Bible, even if they don’t know a KJV from an NKJV or an NAB. And when you needed a YA book, you called me.

    Sorry folks–my Borders-inflicted wounds are still festering, and I doubt they will ever heal. Can someone please write a cathartic novel about a good bookstore going under? Preferably with a happy ending. Thanks.

    @Liz, thanks for adding your post to my Linky. I’ll come back and read it again whenever I let my eyes stray down the WSJ comments page (which inevitably leads to brain explosion)

  27. sylvia mcadam says

    As a mom of a teen boy who HATES what school has him read, I am THRILLED when he will read anything even if it is about zombies and aliens among us. Currently, he is reading Rot and Ruin and is loving it. Frequently, he asks me why they don’t read ‘good’ books in school and wants me to send ‘my list’ (actually it usually comes from you!) to school for reading. Our school no longer has a librarian, she is a “media specialist” and the books they have are the books that were there when I was in high school. Most have not been checked out since and I can tell because they still have the ‘fill out’ card in the back and mine is the last entry. We no longer go to the bookstore to browse, we search websites like yours, Liz, for books that will interest him and then order them online from the library. Atlanta has a great library system but each branch has precious few young adult titles and no librarian to help you choose. Thanks for your constant help and encouragement to a mom who loves to read and despaired when her boys quit.

  28. Forgot to mention. I doubt anyone reading this page hasn’t met a good bookseller who really knows their stuff. I’m lucky to know so many of them. We don’t have Masters degrees but we live with books every day. We’re up to date on the newest releases, we read ARCs, we write reviews. We spend our lunches perusing Publisher’s Weekly and circling books that make us drool in the Ingram catalog. I used to wallpaper my cubicle with snippets cut out of IPG and publisher catalogs (back when we used to get them, and were still allowed to influence the items stocked by our store. That ended about 10 years ago.)

    There are good booksellers out there! Chains have them as well as indies (hard to believe, I know). They need to come out of hiding and customers need to ask the right questions. “Do you have an employee who is an expert in ___?” If you can’t find one in your store, we’re online. Google us.

    Sorry, Liz–I’ll stop hijacking your comments area now. XD I love you guys. We’re on the same page.

  29. Liz, thanks again for giving us a clearheaded view of the latest controversy. 🙂 I don’t have too much to say that hasn’t already been said, but the sweeping assumptions the WSJ article makes about YA and children’s lit are specious and insulting, and the gender distinctions downright distasteful.

    The author seems to be buying into the continuing ghettoization of YA and children’s lit…this is yet another routine, broad dismissal of the entire field without displaying sufficient knowledge of it to make such a judgment.

  30. Liz,
    Thank you for this brilliant post. I’ve been sputtering ever since I read it and haven’t been able to pull my thoughts together yet but I will. So much of my scattered thoughts have been already said but I also wanted to say that book-buying adventure would likely have had a very different ending if that mother had walked into an independent bookstore where a bookseller could have put the perfect book into her hands.

  31. Thanks SO MUCH for posting this, Liz, so I don’t have to and can continue to talk about dogs on my blog. Seriously, my first thought when I read the article was what a shame this theoretical woman appalled in Barnes and Noble had gone to Barnes and Noble rather than a good indie bookstore or, even better, her local library where the staff actually are TRAINED in reader’s advisory! Any librarian (or good indie bookstore staff) could very easily have suggested tons of “appropriate” titles and authors to this woman. In my other life, I’m a librarian as well as a published author. I’ve been in the library business for well over 25 years. I’m pre-internet, pre-vampires, pre-Hunger Games. But there has always been young adult literature. What the heck did the author of the article think The Outsiders was? Go Ask Alice? Lisa Bright and Dark? And my favorite as a teen, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden–a book that, as a bipolar teen, saved me. And wasn’t there a whole generation of teens who secretly read Catcher in the Rye? Had she come to me in the library where I work and asked for a good suggestion for a book for 13-year-old boy that didn’t necessarily deal with those “dark” subjects, I could have easily suggested to her the adventure stories by Will Hobbs or sports stories by Mike Lupica or a TON of high fantasy. There’s a book for every reader, but not every book is for every reader. Thank the writing gods for diversity.

  32. It was destined to come out. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Anyone who tells the truth is bound to be found out eventually.” This should be the YA writer slogan.

  33. Kathleen says

    Great post, Liz! What I find interesting about the bookstore anecdote is that there is no mention of the woman’s daughter being with her to select books. What would the 13-year old daughter have to say about what she likes to read and why? Also, I am amused by the inclusion of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on their “safe” recommended reading list, since we recently had a complaint about the language in that book.

  34. I don’t have anything original to add, but I wanted to say that this is a great response to the article.

  35. I also felt the need to share my thoughts on Meghan Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article. You can read “…this dark, dark stuff.” at Thanks for allowing us to post our own links.

  36. Dan Verdick says

    What nonsense and drivel from a paper that has defended the Wall Street sociopaths who dismantled the economy, literally costing millions their homes, and have argued in support of unneeded wars, which kill hundreds of thousands of people and displace millions. We need to be concerned about the violence and immorality in books! What an epically-failed institution from a tired, departed age. Goodbye to you Wall St. Journal.

  37. I was seething as I read this yesterday. I also found it very interesting that after reading about how horrible YA fiction is, that at the end of the article she quotes the the owner of the bookstore with the “PG-15 nook” as saying that teenagers don’t read YA books anyway. So not only are YA books bad, but they aren’t read either? Huh? What’s the point of the article if teens aren’t being turned to the dark side of the force because they aren’t reading the evil books anyway? I also love the fact that the bookseller came to this conclusion because the only 3 of the 18 teens at a private school claim to read YA. 18 teens at 1 private school. Well, that seems to be an fair baseline for all teenagers everywhere. Personally, I think that this kind of math adequately sums this article up as a complete hack job.

  38. In response to Sondy and Alethea, some of us booksellers DO have Masters degrees. In Children’s Lit no less. I know for a fact I’m not the only one who meets both those criteria. I agree with Alethea. I think knowing your coworkers is as important as knowing stock. It makes you a better bookseller and leads to better customer experiences. I’ve worked for a B&N and two Indies so I speak from experience when I disagree with you Sondy because not all B&N employees just have “a job.” Some have worked with the company for years because, like Indie booksellers, they’re passionate about books and love their work. It just so happens that the one who helped the customer referred to in the article wasn’t the best bookseller out there. And I’m not defending B&N; they should staff better but like most companies in the book business, they’ve been slashing budgets. But If you dismiss all B&N booksellers for being people without advanced degrees with just a “job” you may as well dismiss all booksellers, big box and Indie alike. And as someone who has chosen bookselling as a career, with not one but two degrees in literature that is a major disservice to anyone who loves being a bookseller like I do.

  39. Sheryl, thanks!

    Penny, love the Prydian books. I confess I never got into the Tamora Pierce books but I know plenty who adore them. My sister has been reading the Rick Riordan books with her kids.

    A Librarian, great observation about building empathy. It’s also about building knowledge of the world. Sometimes, bad things happen; we cannot control the universe. A person can do everything right — yet things not work out. If books reflect only that good comes to those who do good, what message does that send to them the first time something bad happens?

    Adam, thanks!

    Althea, and there is plenty of library staff that would give librarians a bad name. I keep wondering / second guessing — was that really a staff person? What training did they have? My local B&N has had some great people when I ask questions and some who cannot find Graham Greene on a computer because they spelled it “Green” and didn’t know better. I’ve seen library staff do similar things. I see one difference between booksellers & librarians is that libraries have stuff that is now OOP, so at times can provide a different type of “deeper” RA, by going to the OOP books. Meanwhile, bookstores often can have more new books (and quicker!) than libraries, including more paperbacks.

  40. Sylvia, I’m so glad to hear that you are succesfully finding books for your son, especially since you don’t have the school / public library resources out there. On the plus side — you have the Internet & those resources that a parent wouldn’t have had 20 years ago to find books for their kids.

    Althea, thanks for the list of resources — there are so many ways to “know” what is on the shelf without having to read each book! For chains, I’m sure it’s dependent on local hiring and corporate policies for training, & how well its done locally. Some will be good, some not so good. I confess, every now and then I think “what about working for a bookstore” because then it is all about the books!

    Sarah, yes.

    Kurtis, thanks!

  41. Susan, I know.

    Bobby, yes — a book for every reader, but not a reader for every book. Exactly.

    Selene, I adore Oscar Wilde.

    Kathleen, I know for CURIOUS INCIDENT, especially since here in the US at least the C word is viewed as worse than the F word. Also, I thought SHIP BREAKER much bleaker than HUNGER GAMES. Not to mention, as anyone who glances at the authors website knows, ship breaking is currently going on. It’s not a nifty future adventure. It’s the life of some children, today.

    Sheila, thanks.

    Blakely, thanks.

    Dan, I wonder how many of us reacting subscribe to or read the WSJ other than when they write about YA.

    Amber, if they’re not bought and not read, why does the bookstore carry them? Yes, I noticed that and have wondered if that store agrees with how they are represented in the article.

    Sarah, thanks for sharing even more background on bookstores and the variety of people who make that their profession.

  42. I just looked up the age recommendation for Young Adult Fiction and this if from Wikipedia:

    Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA)[1][2] is fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, roughly ages 14 to 21.[3] The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as “someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen”.

    My 11-year-old just started reading Young Adult. Many books are appropriate for her. We both loved Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell and she started the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.

    I do not think topics including rape, incest and torture are appropriate for her nor would she enjoy reading about it. I do not think this will be appropriate for her at age 14 either. Frankly, I do not like to read about these topics which is why I like kidlit.

    I am now just starting to read YA — it didn’t really exist when I was 14-21, but there does seem to be a wide range of books categorized as YA and it would be useful for the category to be separated into two buckets because what is appropriate for a 12 year old is very different from a book meant for someone who is 21. Maybe YA Youth (ages 12-15) and YA Adult (ages 16-21).

  43. Whenever there’s some controversy about a book/movie/video game/whatever that’s too violent/sexual/corrupting for youth, I roll my eyes and wonder if the people complaining were ever actually young adults themselves. Seriously, I remember what it was like to be a YA and I remember adults telling me that I shouldn’t read certain books that I read anyway and… nothing bad happened as a result of that. Young adults and teens aren’t as fragile as some people seem to think, and, as you pointed out, it’s dangerous to hide the gritty reality of life from young adults who are thrown into the battlefield of living regardless of what their parents do. Further, it strikes me as disingenuous to suggest that writers/publishers/librarians/etc are pushing violence and whatnot on kids: why can’t YA fiction be a genre just like all the others, read by people across all ages and dealing with all sorts of topics?

    Great blog post!

  44. When my mother’s helper who was 14 at the time helped me compile a list of books that she and her friends loved (both boys and girls in middle school), they came up with this list:
    Best Books for Middle Schoolers

    Though they are in the age for YA, they prefer middle grade books. I think that is the crux of this tempest in a teapot. The YA readers driving the sales are ADULTS! Yet, YA is defined as preteen and teenager-ish. As more and more adults read YA, it skews to adult.

    So my question is: if YA is intended for YOUNG adult, why are adults who are not young flocking to this genre? And if this makes YA actually Adult, why not make up a new category by splitting YA into two groups?

    Truly, do you think books that appeal to 12-14 year olds would also appeal to 15-21 years olds? And if books appeal to 12-14 year olds, why are adults flocking to them? This doesn’t make good business sense.

  45. Pragmatic Mom, thanks for the list! When I have the time (hysterical laughter at the idea of free time because I have none right now) I do want to put together / link to some of those resources for the books like your 11 year old may like. My 11 year old niece is a young 11; she reads The Warriors, David Lubar, and is at the stage that when I tell her a book has kissing, she says “no thanks ewww.” At the same time, she had a classmate this year who was cutting and my heart just broke for her and her friends.

    As a reader, I would have loved more book options available for me as a teen instead of going to adult books that didn’t always work. But also as a reader, Some books do have a wide appeal — HATTIE BIG SKY, for one. Others, not so much. Since most “J”/ childrens sections are “chapter books” (beyond easy reader, not YA) that can cover readers from age 5 or 6 (we all know kids reading on their own at that point) to 12 or 14 (depending on the system). I like the idea of sections having an “overlap” for tweens — so some books in the childrens, some in the YA, depending on the reader.

    You may laugh, but my personal reasons for reading YA instead of adult outside of work — well, I also read adult — but they are shorter and (IMHO) when issues like sex, drugs, and moral choices are made, YA takes it more seriously than some of the adult and, when its included, it means something to the plot rather than being gratuitous.

  46. Brandon, I think there is much in YA that can appeal outside an age group. A future post needs to be done (with that free time i was telling Pragmatic Mom about) about what is YA.


  1. […] There’s Dark Things In Them There Books! « A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy Says: June 5th, 2011 at 6:25 am […]

  2. […] [Another good take is this post by Liz Burns, “There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!”] […]

  3. […] I also feel compelled to link to one of the best responses I have read thus far, from Liz B. of “A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy”: […]

  4. […] are other great reactions to the article at: A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Malinda Lo, and a slew of others rounded up by Bookshelves of Doom. All bring valid perspectives, […]

  5. […] Street Journal‘s ignorant article on young adult literature that was published this weekend. Plenty of people have done an amazing job of writing about it, including YA authors and book bloggers who […]

  6. […] Burns’ ‘There’s Dark Things in Them There Books‘ from the Online School Library Journal in the US (great list of links to further thoughts on […]

  7. […] of the resulting discussions from the Wall Street Journal Darkness Too Visible article is what Young Adult books were around “back when I was a teenager.” I’ve […]

  8. […] has been running high in response. Melissa Rabey, writing for A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy (School Library Journal’s blog), hits all […]

  9. […] Whisperer and Teri Lesesne @ Professor Nana; librarian and ALA award committe member Liz Burns @ A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, with a long set of links; and author Cheryl Rainfield (whose book -among others – was […]

  10. […] of people have picked out the article’s faults (see the growing list of responses at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy). Among the first to respond were authors like Laurie Halse Anderson blogging about how YA […]

  11. […] but the poor mom and the author who was pointing out her dilemma. Here are a couple of responses: There’s Dark Things in Them There Books by Liz B. at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy. Salon: Has young adult fiction become too dark? by Mary Elizabeth […]

  12. […] An article in the School Library Journal adds: Some kids in terrible circumstances read about kids in terrible circumstances and find comfort and hope, even in the bleakest book; others live it, so don’t want to read it. Some read for windows; some, for mirrors. […]

  13. […] week-long love fest for contemporary young adult literature. Since this came hot on the heels of a certain newspaper saying today’s contemporary is “darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark […]

  14. […] in defense of young adult fiction that tackles difficult, but real, problems. See articles by Liz Burns at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Donalyn Miller at The Book Whisperer, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Cheryl Rainfield for more […]

  15. […] Some kids will want that darkness reflected in their reading material; some won’t. Liz of A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy expresses this mix well: What this article ignores is the questions of why people read what they […]

  16. […] A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy She makes a great point about letting the reader make his or her own choice. As for the case of the mother in the article unable to find the right match, she laments the ability of qualified sales people or librarians to advise. This is a good point! […]

  17. […] resisted entering the fracas, mostly because I feel my opinion is unnecessary (because I’ve read some other excellent responses) and because I don’t feel terribly […]