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Originally published Friday, June 17, 2011 at 5:00 PM

A new chapter in debate over suitable books for teens

Kids' books: The debate over what books are appropriate for teens and young adults flared up again with the essay, "Darkness Too Visible," in The Wall Street Journal. Here's look at the debate and responses from authors. Plus, a link to a list of award-winning books for teens.

Scripps Howard News Service

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The often-contentious relationship between parents and teens is mirrored in the decades-old debate over what constitutes appropriate reading for young adults.

This debate was first sparked by the 1967 publication of "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton, which is considered the first book truly aimed at teens. Many parents were horrified by Hinton's picture of violent, disillusioned young adults, but teen readers loved the book — and still do.

Since then, the debate over appropriate reading for teens has continued, as adults have attempted to ban books by numerous young-adult authors, including Robert Cormier, whose novel, "The Chocolate War," is considered a seminal teen book; Judy Blume, author of books like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." and "Forever"; and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of the "Alice" series.

Now, the debate has flared up again with the June 4 publication of an essay, "Darkness Too Visible," in The Wall Street Journal. In the essay, Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Journal's reviewer of children's and teen books, contends that contemporary fiction for teens is "rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.

"If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is," Cox Gurdon writes. "There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader — or one who seeks out depravity — will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds."

Cox Gurdon's examples include the "hyper-violent" "Hunger Games" dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and author Lauren Myracle's newest book, "Shine," which tells the story of a teen girl living in a small town who overcomes her shyness to investigate the brutal beating of her best friend, who is gay.

Both "Hunger Games" and "Shine" have received excellent reviews from professional reviewers. Collins' three "Hunger Games" books are best sellers with both teens and adults and also were among the top 10 most-frequently-challenged books in the country in 2010, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Myracle's books, which include "Ttfn" and "Ttyl," also are hugely popular with teens and also are among the most-challenged books in the country, according to the ALA.

Cox Gurdon's essay triggered an immediate and angry response by young-adult authors, as well as from librarians, booksellers and teen readers themselves. Maureen Johnson, author of a popular young-adult novel titled "13 Little Blue Envelopes," created a Twitter campaign in support of contemporary teen fiction, using the hashtag #YAsaves. (With Twitter, users tweet messages of up to 140 characters; a hashtag is used to mark and categorize topics in a tweet).

In her initial tweet, Johnson — recently named by Time magazine as one of the 140 top Twitter users to follow — asked: "Did YA help you? Let the world know how!" Within hours, according to an article in Publishers Weekly, "YAsaves got 15,000 responses from regular readers and from such big-name writers as Judy Blume and Neil Gaiman."

Many teens wrote about how reading books of the type criticized by Cox Gurdon helped them make it through the darkness in their own lives, or understand the kinds of challenges faced by other teens.

Sherman Alexie, author of the National Book Award-winning novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," formally responded to Cox Gurdon in the June 9 edition of The Wall Street Journal in an essay titled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood."

Noting his own background as a sexually abused child, Alexie wrote: " ... there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books — especially the dark and dangerous ones — will save them."

In her essay, Cox Gurdon acknowledged "the argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience. ... If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. Yet it is also possible — indeed, likely — that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them. ..."

Writing for Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams agreed that part of a parent's job is to protect kids. But she added: "There's something almost comical about raising them with tales of big bad wolves and poisoned apples, and then deciding at a certain point that literature is too 'dark' for them to handle. Kids are smarter than that. ..."

Other critics of Cox Gurdon's essay noted that she focused on only a small slice of the burgeoning teen-fiction market. With one exception — this year's winner, "Shipbreaker," by Paolo Bacigalupi — she also ignored winners of the Printz Award, given annually by the ALA to the best teen books (to see the winners, go to: www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/booklistsawards/printzaward/previouswinners/winners.cfm).

David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic and the author of several well-reviewed teen novels, told Publishers Weekly that Cox Gurdon's essay actually has rallied teen-book lovers.

Cox Gurdon "is entitled to her viewpoint," Levithan said, "but what she inadvertently released is all of this profound evidence of the worth of what we do."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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