We Didn’t Start the Fire: Young Adult Reading Controversy

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article decrying the state of Young Adult fiction, proclaiming that the whole genre has gone to the sewers with the graphic, the gruesome, and the crude.  The article has generated a firestorm of  response, and some pretty lively email amongst the Professors here and our associates, so we  thought it was about time that we got up a post about it so we could continue that conversation here!

The article’s author, Meghan Cox Gurdon,  relies heavily on the little story of a mother who couldn’t find an appropriate book for her thirteen-year-old at the bookstore, and then launches into a general condemnation of the entire genre of “young adult fiction.”  While she certainly has a point that young readers (and quite a few older ones) are often exposed to inappropriate material, what really caught my attention was the way in which she dragged The Hunger Games into the mix:

Every year the American Library Association delights in releasing a list of the most frequently challenged books. A number of young-adult books made the Top 10 in 2010, including Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy and Sherman Alexie’s prize-winning novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” “It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power,” Mr. Alexie was quoted saying; “There’s nothing in my book that even compares to what kids can find on the Internet.”

The novel is referenced nowhere else in the article, and seems to me to be nothing more than name-dropping to grab attention since The Hunger Games is the hottest ticket in town right now. Strangely enough, Gurdon apparently either hasn’t read the  novel or didn’t get it. Though there is plenty of violence in the trilogy, particularly Mockingjay,  Collins never glorifies violence, but rather criticizes the violence-saturated culture that is often the force behind many of the books  Gurdon holds up for examination in the article.

I was a little worried when I began using The Hunger Games with my college students (who range from 16-year-old dual-enrolled high schoolers to returning students old enough to be my parents). I feared some students (or their vocal family members) wouldn’t get it and would freak out based on criticisms like Gurdon’s. I shouldn’t have underestimated them. In the past year, not one student has complained, and no angry mother has called; rather, I have heard from numerous students who praise the book, who have become  readers or readers again after reading it, who have passed it on to their friends, and who (my favorite) have begun to seriously question what they call entertainment (a great number have given up watching reality television or playing violent video games).  Interestingly, reading The Hunger Games has caused more than a few students to lose their taste for the very books Gurdon discusses. Tossing The Hunger Games in with books that glorify violence, drug, use, sex, and profanity is like tossing the cure out with the disease.

Even those who criticize Gurdon’s article seem to miss this point. NPR published this rebuttal, which made me laugh, as the author just couldn’t resist taking part in a little Twilight-bashing, which was sandwiched in between two different spurts of praise for Stephen King, of all people. How amusing. Any quality in  King’s writing, for me, is indistinguishable amongst the gore, juvenile humor, and unnecessary profanity (I tried to read Pet Semetery when I was in high school, but I just couldn’t relate to characters who were supposed to be a sweet family but used words in front of their preschooler that I had never heard an adult utter in my presence). Of course, King isn’t supposed to be young adult fiction, but it was what all the kids were reading in my high school(except me, apparently), a reminder that “young adult” should not be equated with “childish.”

Strangely enough (or not), all this broo-ha-ha comes as many of us who are adults are finding that the fiction we enjoy most is often labeled “Young Adult” (stay tuned here for some conversation on some of these engaging books!)

In any case, let’s talk!

Is Gurdon right about the dearth of good stuff for younger readers (I’m sure we could all suggest about 50 books that harried mom could have chosen)?

Is the problem just lurid book covers (I’ve had a heyday lately with a friend who is a New York Times bestselling author going through the misery of getting a non-hideous cover for her newest book)?

Does Gurdon mis the boat on  The Hunger  Games?

Did she only mention it for the publicity?

What about Sherman Alexie’s response?

Into the arena!


  1. I’m looking for a definition for ‘Young Adult Fiction’ that goes beyond ‘those to whom the books are marketed.’ Unless we’re talking about Hop on Pop! readers and learn-to-read books, maybe serial fiction like Tom swift, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, the category seems meaningless. Is ‘Young Adult Fiction’ really books that feature ‘Young Adults’? That doesn’t tell me anything about genre, depth of language, even length. Now that the sexuality and violence barriers are really down, why does anyone other those who shelve books in libraries and at Barnes & Noble care about marketing categories?

    Maybe I should put my frustration and question differently. I read popular fiction pretty much for a living. Because of Harry Potter and Twilight, the most popular books of the 21st Century (and the preceding centuries as well), are discussed as Young Adult series, I am pigeon-holed as an apologist of sorts for taking juvenile stories seriously, i.e., “as literature.” I don’t lose much sleep over that, if being patted on that head was old back in 2002.

    I had another reason to laugh at the category ‘Young Adult Fiction’ (and thereby, at anyone decrying or defending the quality of books marketed as such) this week as my fifteen year old daughter loaded my new Kindle reading device. I told her I wanted her to ‘buy’ the free books she could find in the Amazon catalog by Dostoevsky, Dickens, Austen, and Robert Louis Stevenson, which she did in short order.

    Looking through these books while she taught Kindle basics, I was struck once again by the obvious. Swift, Twain, Chesterton, Conan Doyle, and Kate Chopin, as well as the authors Anastasia had put into my mobile reading device, if they were writing today, would be marketed as ‘Young Adult’ writers. They are accessible writers who were not writing straight genre pieces (Detective fiction, international thriller, historical romance) or the ‘literary novel,’ the name given psychological art pieces that are the only genre writing not considered ‘genre writing.’ Hence, because they didn’t write ‘Tropics of Cancer’ Masters & Johnson sex ed texts, their work almost certainly would have fallen into the remainder category of ‘Young Adult Fiction.’

    Until, consequently, I can get a better definition for what really constitutes the parameters of this marketing bracket, something more substantial than ‘features teens,’ I find it hard not to think the decadence or worthiness of these books is an insubstantial controversy those being paid by the column inch have elected to weigh in on.

    Elizabeth’s comments about the ‘Hunger Games’ aside in the first article and on the ‘Twilight’ observations in the rebuttal (sic) reveal that neither writer read either series, or, if by some chance they did, the novels’ themes and meaning escaped them. There’s always a good chance of missing much of a text if it is read with one’s nose high in the air.

    Genre revulsion is a silly game of de gustibus at its best. When the genre in question doesn’t even merit inclusion on the taxonomy hierarchy of books in the first place, as bizarre and useless as that categorization is for understanding what works and what doesn’t in fiction, we have moved from the silly to the nonsensical, an existential, Kafka-esque drama of the absurd.

    Let’s get back to talking about meaning and artistry. The daffy ducks wanting to be cultural gate keepers can play this game better than we can because we’re hunting bigger game than rabbits running down rabbit holes.

  2. revgeorge says

    Without going into it too much, I found Alexie’s response not so helpful & perhaps a diving off on the other side of the pool than Gurdon did.

    In fact, for the most part, I’ve seen very few reasoned responses to Gurdon’s piece which actually try to take her concerns seriously while not necessarily agreeing with her. Most responses I’ve read have been rather hysterical & seem to always throw in, either subtly or blatantly, the charge that Gurdon just really wants to censor or ban books.

  3. revgeorge says

    Best line I’ve heard so far in all this debate, aside from Mr. Pond’s quotation of MacDonald in some emails:

    The daffy ducks wanting to be cultural gate keepers can play this game better than we can because we’re hunting bigger game than rabbits running down rabbit holes.

  4. Great post, Elizabeth. I don’t think it’s quite right, though, that Gurdon ‘relies heavily’ on the little vignette (which I can empathize with, frankly, nearly every time I wander into B&N or Waterstone’s for a browse). It’s sort of the cheap Human Interest introduction relied upon by some journalists and some preachers (you know what I mean, revgeorge 😉 ). The article could have played just as well without out, and might have been stronger.

    And I’m with John that there’s much, much more out there under the penumbra of ‘YA Fiction’ than just Alexie (who has a professional reputation to defend, thus the vitriol and condescension of his so-called rebuttal) and Gurdon want to make it. I can only hope that ultimately, this broader conversation will relate to YA Fiction the way a discussion of slasher fanfic would relate to SF. It’s there, but it’s not really that central.

  5. Since revegeorge was kind enough to mention it, here’s the quote from George MacDonald (Sir Gibbie, 1879–this discussion is, like anything, not so new under the sun):

    I admit that the best things are the commonest, but the highest types and the best combinations of them are the rarest. There is more love in the world than anything else, for instance; but the best love and the individual in whom love is supreme are the rarest of all things. That for which humanity has the strongest claim upon its workmen, is the representation of its own best; but the loudest demand of the present day is for the representation of that grade of humanity of which men see the most—that type of things which could never have been but that it might pass. The demand marks the commonness, narrowness, low-levelled satisfaction of the age. It loves its own—not that which might be, and ought to be its own—not its better self, infinitely higher than its present, for the sake of whose approach it exists. I do not think that the age is worse in this respect than those which have preceded it, but that vulgarity, and a certain vile contentment swelling to self-admiration, have become more vocal than hitherto; just as unbelief, which I think in reality less prevailing than in former ages, has become largely more articulate, and thereby more loud and peremptory. But whatever the demand of the age, I insist that that which ought to be presented to its beholding, is the common good uncommonly developed, and that not because of its rarity, but because it is truer to humanity. Shall I admit those conditions, those facts, to be true exponents of humanity, which, except they be changed, purified, or abandoned, must soon cause that humanity to cease from its very name, must destroy its very being? To make the admission would be to assert that a house may be divided against itself, and yet stand. It is the noble, not the failure from the noble, that is the true human; and if I must show the failure, let it ever be with an eye to the final possible, yea, imperative, success. But in our day, a man who will accept any oddity of idiosyncratic development in manners, tastes, or habits, will refuse, not only as improbable, but as inconsistent with human nature, the representation of a man trying to be merely as noble as is absolutely essential to his being—except, indeed, he be at the same time represented as failing utterly in the attempt, and compelled to fall back upon the imperfections of humanity, and acknowledge them as its laws. Its improbability, judged by the experience of most men I admit; its unreality in fact I deny; and its absolute unity with the true idea of humanity, I believe and assert. (ch. VIII, emphasis added)


  6. Kathleen says

    In America, most “young adults” and adults have complete freedom to walk into a library to check out a book or wander into a book store and buy what they like. Include the internet in that and the choices are limitless. What is driving this sanctimonious expression of disparaging books that are out there for young adults? Is this just so someone can have an opinion, or say they have standards(which everyone should follow)? Isn’t part of the idea for people to be exposed to good and bad books so they can be critical and distinguish for themselves? Do these same people who come down on The Hunger Games Trilogy also comment on Lady Gaga and her music and choice of shoes on American Idol?

    The first time I read the trilogy was for the story. The second time I was able to concentrate on what Elizabeth said above, about Ms. Collins not glorifying the violence but rather causing us to question our appetite for that sort of entertainment.

  7. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for posting that fantastic quotation, Mr. Pond! And thanks for catching my over-exuberant use of vocabulary! It just seemed to me that Gurdon extrapolated one woman’s bookstore frustration (which might have been easily remedied by a helpful employee) to an epidemic, and thus, I think you are right in pointing out that it actually weakens her case. It does serve as her little human interest lead-in, but, she makes this mom the “poster-mother” for book shoppers, without balancing her story with ones of thoughtful parents who read a couple of book reviews, talk to their kids’ friends or their parents about what they’ve liked or, gasp, actually read a book itself before choosing it for their child! I would have rather heard more from the younger readers themselves, especially ones who have had both positive and negative experiences with the labeling of books as “young adult,” since, as Kathleen very aptly points out, most readers over 8 (and some under) pick their own books.

  8. miles365 says

    Teenagers are at the age when they are realizing that the world is full of problems, and that people are not either good or Death Eaters. They’re going to be dealing with isolation, popularity, bullying, dating and sex, drugs and alcohol, suicide, war, politics. They’re at the age where they are deciding who they are and who they want to be. It makes sense that teens both need and appreciate stories that portray these truths and present ways of dealing with them.

    Now, are there going to be people taking advantage of this need and appreciation? Yes. If violence, sex, foul language, and gore seem to be popular, then people are going to use those things as a way to sell books.

    However, I find it encouraging that the most popular YA books seem to be ones like HP, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Books that portray some ugly truths but also ask important questions.

    I think this may be another instance of adults underestimating kids.

  9. Indirectly related, just today I read an article written by a parent about the difficulty of avoiding Harry Potter spoiler alerts for an 8 year old who is still reading Book 5.


    As a parent of an eight year old hyperlexic child who is on the Autism spectrum, I struggle with how to manage this one. On the one hand I think my third-grader is academically ready to read Goblet of Fire, plus he’s seen all 6 Star Wars films, so the previous exposure to Darth Vader will help with any introduction to the concept of Voldemort. Though I recall that last summer, when we came to the end of Star Wars Episode III, I decided to watch the Jedi slaughter on fast-forward mode, which eliminated the sound and allowed my husband and I to effectively narrate. We are watching & reading The Princess Bride now, in which the story’s narrator often does that kind of thing.
    Still, my son’s questions persist and while I have temporarily put the dilemma at bay by introducing him to Narnia, I am half afraid that with all the Harry Potter/ Deathly Hallows hoopla, he’ll be spoiled.

  10. Bruce Charlton says

    Age stratification of books is a genuine phenomenon – but gets blurred by differences in intelligence and ability to concentrate bteween children – as well as preferences concerning subject matter.

    Books that have a larger vocabulary, require more general knowledge as background, move more slowly and are longer tend to require more mature readers (on the basis that intelligence and the ability to concentrate, and general knowledge, all increase with age).

    Books written for the average 14/16 year old may be read avidly and with full comprehension by some advanced 10/12 year olds – and younger kids capable of concentration, or particularly interested by the subject matter may get a lot from them even without full comprehension. This would be about the level of the Harry Potter books – although clearly the level of difficulty increases throughout the series. Clearly adults often like these books too – and it is possible to layer such books to have a surface level for children plus extra depths for adults.

    Picture and rhyme books for reading aloud (mostly) to pre-reader kids are often very popular and become ‘classics’ – Dr Seuss, The Gruffalo etc. To become a classic seems to require appealing artwork and deft light verse – both of which can be appreciated by adults.

    But it is interesting that ‘first novel’ books read by kids from about 6-9 years almost never gather a significant adult audience – Enid Blyton, for example.

    I would regard Blyton as a very good writer of strong, clean prose; a tight plotter and someone who structures her stories extremely well. (She does tend to repeat herself between series, however.) But she wrote for a younger age group than any of the ‘classics’ of children’s lit – her books are intended to be fully comprehensible and gripping to an 8 year old, and to have an 8 year old’s comprehension of character and motivation – and she gets unreasonably criticized on that basis as naive, simplistic etc. But Blyton’s continued dominance of that particular niche market (6-9 yr olds) shows how difficult it is to write for.

    Indeed, Blyton was clearly a writer of genius (for 8 year olds) – and this is reinforced by Barbara Stoney’s biography which reveals that she wrote in a self-induced trance state with a very rapid perfect first draft (more rapid than most people’s typing speed); rather like some prodigy-type composers of felicity such as Mozart and Rossini (Rossini composed faster than his copyists could transcribe).

  11. John I find your question of what constitutes YA fiction interesting given that the definition “features teens” seems to be exactly the characteristic that led to the categorisation of Twilight as a YA novel, despite Meyer’s original writing being for an audience a decade or more older (that is, herself and then her sister). It also seems to be the reason that The Host was not classified as YA, though it could be described as a coming-of-age novel. It does seem that “Young Adult fiction” is not so much a genre as it is a marketing category.

    Linda Holmes wrote in her rebuttal “no-one is suggesting you give Twilight to your seven-year-old” and yet this book, if not the entire series, contains a bare minimum of the gruesome gore that Gurdon was complaining about. Twilight has less graphic violence in it than the average Ben10 episode that my 4yo son watches, and my 8yo son is presently reading about in a graphic novel. From this perspective, I would be quite happy to have my 7yo daughter read Twilight. Of course, it wasn’t written for her age group, and the original article wasn’t even considering the prospect of these books being sold to children this age. Young Adult doesn’t mean pre-teen, or even ‘tween, so Holmes’s inclusion of this remark, along with her thoughtlessly common derision for Meyer’s books, looks to me like another example of “name-dropping to grab attention”. And yes, Elizabeth I’d agree that Gurdon was name dropping, or perhaps just being lazy using statistics to pad out her story. Describing The Hunger Games as “hyper-violent” without acknowledging the anti-violence and anti-war message of the author indicates Gurdon has limited personal knowledge of the trilogy.

    The author of Matched was recently criticised by fellow YA author Gayle Forman for making the dystopian setting of her novel too utopian, so I cannot agree with Gurdon’s premise that there is a dearth of “light” fiction for the YA market.

    However, Gurdon should get praise for using the word “thwarted” in her first paragraph. Along with “dwell”, “thwart” is one of my favourite words, FWIW!

  12. As I have already vented my feelings and researched and basically shot her whole article to pieces and stomped on them, I’ll just point you to where I’ve already done that, instead of re-writing it here.

    I agree with what the original author of this said, that The Hunger Games basically mocks the violence-loving, trigger-happy culture that is our world right now.


  13. Thecelticchimp says

    It is a little disturbing that in an article decrying the uninformed criticism of books that are described as violent, you casual inject that you are delighted that some of your students have stopped playing violent video games. As both an avid reader of all kinds of book and a gamer I find the statement ignorant. I have played some games which had a gripping narrative, well devoloped characters and were violent. It is a little difficult to tell many stories by leaving out things like violence. Games are not just about the story as a book maybe but have the often excellent and immerse idea of allow you to determine what kind of person you are in the world. A few games have dealt with ambiguous moral reasoning and the ideas of conseqences of moral actions better than many books. It is also worth noting that many of the violent video games you refer to were never intended to be played by childen, they are rated for adults and such ratings are clearly displayed. Too many parents are still under the impression that video games are for just for kids. This has not been the case in many years.

    On the topic in general, violence is a part of life. Trying to shield children from it indefinately is just bad parenting. Teaching children to differenciate between kinds of violence would be more worthy. You seem inordinately concerned with things which might be described as “crude”. Swear words, unnessecary violence, drug use, sex etc.
    Sex is something every teenager should well understand. Sex is also not something to be described to young people as dirty or seedy, doing so all but guarantees an unhealty attitude towards the subject. Swear words are as common as people in the world also, even if you wanted to shield a child from it, you can’t. Most children will hear the most graphic of language at school at a far younger age than most parents would be confortable with. As an adult, I don’t find it at all offensive. If another adult wants to use what essentially functions as more expressive language I have not problem with it. Unless the target audience is very young children, a little course language will do them no harm and does add a realistic element to many stories. Some of the best books I read as a child has considerable violence, mild sexual themes, and some course language. I think this kind of gentle introduction to these topics is psychologically heathly.
    Even a child I had no problem, I’m sure most kids don’t, in distinguishing real violence from fantasy violence.

    The best thing about books is that when the setting is not contemporary the stories themselves often don’t or very slowly age. A book need not have been written last year in order to be excellent. The very best stories, be they in book, game, movie, play or other form are stories about human nature. These things don’t age at all.

  14. @Thecelticchimp, I think you missed the point of the article, and what it was trying to say. Go and read Mrs. Gurdon’s article, then read this one again. Most of your comment has nothing to do with the article itself. What you said is actually essentially the same thing this author is arguing, and the same thing many of us opposing Megan’s original article are opposing; the attempt at blanket-banning and open contempt for a genre and type of book that is simply reflecting the state of the world today in simpler terms.

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