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Kids Reading "Lurid" Books? Say It Ain't So!

Oh Wall Street Journal, bastion of cranky conservatives. It's like the Andy Rooney of print media, and the latest bout of crankiness is no exception. Meghan Cox Gurdon checked out some of the offerings on the Young Adult book stacks, and is clutching her pearls in dismay (metaphorically speaking).

Ms. Cox Gurdon asserts that "contemporary fiction for teens" is "Darker than when you were a child, my dear." That is true in the literal sense. There was precious little "fiction for teens" when I was one. For the most part, we had to make do with grown-up books. And let me tell you, they were plenty dark.

I wonder if Ms. Cox Gurdon realizes what young adults were reading, before there was such a thing as a Young Adult fiction aisle? I was a young adult in the 1980s, when the world was new, and Rubiks Cubes roamed the earth. I and my fellow young adults, lacking a targeted aisle in the book store, read whatever caught our fancy in the Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror shelves.

By the time I was 15 I had read everything Stephen King had written to that point. I had read "lurid and dramatic" works from Interview With a Vampire to the works of Jane Auel. (But mostly those couple few pages, the ones that you can locate in any copy of Clan of the Cave Bear just by setting the book down flat on its spine. Inevitably it will fall open to The Good Parts, its spine long since broken by eager readers.)

If Ms. Cox Gurdon spent her younger years exclusively within the realm of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Marguerite Henry's horse novels, then more power to her. I loved those books, too. But I particularly loved books about how wrong life could go, when life went wrong. Teenagers have a taste for the lurid and distressing, perhaps because they are only just beginning to realize how very lurid and distressing real life can be.

Surely it must be better for those topics to be brought to the YA section, than to have young adults seeking them out in the other book sections. It's the same reason why we teach sex education at school. Do you want them to learn about these things under relatively controlled circumstances, or out on the street where any author will do?

When I think back to some of the stuff I read as a teen, I cringe in horror as an adult. I'm tempted to do a bit of pearl-clutching, myself, except that I'm the one scandalizing myself, and I'm not really sure how that works.

On the other hand, maybe it's better that I grew up before the explosion of YA literature. My friends and I, always on the look-out for the newest, edgiest thrills, read some amazing books when we were teenagers. Bukowski, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Clive Barker… our teenage taste for the lurid led us to some pretty incredible corners of literature. What dangerous books we read, and what… non-pathological adults we became.