My wife, thankfully, is a voracious reader. I say, “thankfully”, because someone has to vet all the literature our children read; and they read a lot. The thing is, there’s a lot of ugly stuff out there, and it’s produced by a secular entertainment industry which cares nothing for the well-being of children. All they care about is pushing the envelope in order to tantalize young minds. In the end, it’s all about appealing to the basest of human nature in order to sell a product whilst promoting a worldview untethered from moral restraints. What’s worse is that the entertainment industry is propped up by secular critics who, quite frankly, are shills for their material (whether for ideological or for pecuniary reasons).
Not all critics, however, are quick to embrace the trend toward dark children’s literature. Meghan Cox Gurdon has made the case more than once for “good taste in children’s books“. You can read her well-argued position at the Wall Street Journal. Her arguments are so good that I can’t improve on them, so I’ll simply quote her to give you an idea where she’s at.
Gurdon observes, “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”
Some of her detractors have suggested that reading about such subjects does not lead one to participate in such things, to which she responds, “Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code. 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.”
Gurdon also notes that an “argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless.” Gurdon responds to this by suggesting that “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.”
When addressing the literary world’s view of this trend, Gurdon observes, “literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books.” Gurdon goes on to share about an editor who “bemoaned the need, in order to get the book into schools, to strip expletives from Chris Lynch’s 2005 novel, ‘Inexcusable,’ which revolves around a thuggish jock and the rape he commits. ‘I don’t, as a rule, like to do this on young adult books,’ the editor grumbled … I don’t want to acknowledge those f—ing gatekeepers.’ By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. 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!’”
In a recent Imprimis article (July/August 2013 issue) adapted from a speech given by Gurdon at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, she again shared about those on the secular Left who view her efforts as repressing freedom of expression. This objection is, of course, a hypocritical double-standard. In fact, Gurdon notes in her speech that such secularists “have their own list of books they claim are tinged with racism or jingoism or that depict [GASP!] traditional gender roles.” Gurdon’s larger point is that “the self-proclaimed anti-book-banners on the Left agree that books influence children,” insofar as they demonstrate this by preferring some books to others. This unavoidable elephant in the room is a damning indictment against irresponsible persons who would despoil children’s innocence by promoting an endless stream of material which presents nothing more than (if I can borrow from Dennis Prager) “a proctologist view” of the world.
Rather than continuing, I would invite you to search out Gurdon’s articles on the subject and read through them for yourselves. Allow me to share the ending words of her Hillsdale College speech:
“Let me close with Saint Paul the Apostle in Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.
And let us think about these words when we go shopping for books for our children.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.