On Innocence and Ignorance

When I first read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ article (more of an op. ed.), “Darkness Too Visible”, there was so much clamor that I didn’t bother responding to it. From the initial belief-straining anecdote about a bookstore with no YA books that weren’t about “dark, dark stuff” on, there was so much to take issue with. And thousands did (e.g., #YAsaves), many more eloquently than I ever could, approaching the matter from every possible angle. Sherman Alexie, author of Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one of the books Gurdon cites in her article, wrote a particularly moving response, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.”

Anyway, that was weeks ago, but yesterday Jen Robinson shared a link on Facebook to Gurdon’s response to the kerfuffle, “My ‘Reprehensible’ Take on Teen Literature”, in which she defends her original viewpoint. Which is fine—she is entitled to her opinion, though I feel it is in many ways misguided—but in reading it, I felt even more strongly that she just Does Not Get It. I believe that she is genuinely interested in “protecting” young people, but she seems to be coming from such a place of privilege that she sincerely (but falsely) believes that keeping dark content out of books will somehow keep dark content from young people’s lives.

In the outpouring of response to my essay, I’ve been told that I fail to understand the brutal realities faced by modern teens. Adolescence, I’ve been instructed, is a prolonged period of racism, homophobia, bullying, eating disorders, abusive sexual episodes, and every other manner of unpleasantness… I also don’t believe that the vast majority of American teenagers live in anything like hell. Adolescence can be a turbulent time, but it doesn’t last forever and often—leaving aside the saddest cases—it feels more dramatic at the time than it will in retrospect.

“A turbulent time” that “doesn’t last forever”? I get the impression that Gurdon believes most adolescents’ biggest worry is a zit, a chemistry test, and who’s going with them to the prom. If things are really heavy, maybe their parents are getting divorced.

A counterexample (or ten): I grew up in a largely white, working and middle class community. My friends and I were “normal” kids. I personally had a fairly sheltered life within a loving, nuclear family. Yet within my social sphere, there were kids dealing with just the things Gurdon seems to believe are rare “manners of unpleasantness.” One of my friends self-injured by rubbing at her arm with a pencil eraser until it wore spots off her skin. One had an eating disorder. I had friends who got pregnant, had abortions, gave the baby up for adoption. I had a friend who was raped by her older brother. Friends (and I) struggled with sexual and gender identity in a homophobic climate. Friends watched their parents die or helped care for disabled parents. Friends dealt with suicidal feelings. Friends dealt with racist remarks from classmates. Friends had alcoholic parents.

And those were just some of the things I knew about. I don’t know anyone whose biggest problem was whether they could borrow the car Friday night.

Yet would any of us have said we lived in hell? I doubt it. As I said, I think we considered ourselves to be more or less normal kids. Yet nor were these merely anecdotes from a “turbulent time.” These events were formative. They’ll affect us the rest of our lives.

It wasn’t hard for me to think of people who faced these “brutal realities,” either, which is what makes me believe so strongly that Gurdon is living in her own protective bubble, to think that the “vast majority of American teenagers” are actually living happy-go-lucky lives (even if they won’t appreciate it until a few years down the road). Her argument smacks of all kinds of privilege—the privilege of someone who has not faced “brutal realities” and believes that, aside from “the saddest cases,” everyone has had the same experience as she has. That or she wears some awfully rosy glasses when looking at her past.

She’s right that her article did continue to be discussed at last week’s ALA conference. At one of my sessions, UIUC professor Christine Jenkins made a comment, with regard to adults who want to “protect children’s innocence,” “What’s the difference between innocence and ignorance?” And the answer is, I’ve decided, nothing but the age of the person in question. What we call innocence in children, we call ignorance in adults. At some point, young people have to make that transition. Adolescence, when children mature not only physically but develop formal reasoning skills—the ability to “think abstractly, reason logically and draw conclusions from the information available”—seems like as good a time as any to do it.

Meanwhile, in Gurdon’s plea for the preservation of innocence, I think she’s demonstrated her own ignorance about both young adult literature and the lives of young people in America.

Yes, there are many “dark” books out there, or at least books with mature themes. But there are also many non-“dark” books out there, at least by my measuring stick. (Let’s face it, there has to be some “darkness,” or you’ve got a story without a conflict.) As someone who does collection development in my library’s junior high section as well as voraciously reading tween and teen literature, I absolutely don’t buy that anecdote about the mother in the bookstore—unless it was a really crappy store.

Books entertain. They educate. They provide means of escape. And, to use two more E-words, they encourage empathy.

When my friends told me about what they were going through—or when they didn’t, but I could see it with my own eyes—it didn’t “normalize” the experience for me. It didn’t make me want to starve or mutilate myself or run out and have unprotected sex. Instead it made me feel helpless. I wished I knew what to say or do to make things better. Perhaps if I’d read books about characters with these same problems, I would have known. I might have better understood what they were going through. At least, I know, it wouldn’t have hurt.

4 thoughts on “On Innocence and Ignorance

  1. Amen, daughter! As one–as you well know–who did her share of sheltering, I also maintained that “teen-age shouldn’t happen to anyone,” even though we know it is necessary for growing up.

    • Thanks, Mom. Too true. I also remember you promising things would get better once I graduated high school and went to college, and you were totally right about that!

  2. As one with a soon-to-be teen boy, I read all of this with deep interest. I think another piece of this discussion should be the individual “bent” or personality of the teen. Yes, we are shaped by our environment, and yes, my son has led a “somewhat sheltered life” compared to many, but his personality certainly has played into it as well–he does things at his own pace in his own way without being so influence by peers. Another piece of the conversation should be video media as it does play a role in influencing/exposing kids to things they may or may not personally have experience with. I believe the timing of the shift from innocence to non-ignorance involves the interplay of personality, personal experience, media influence, parental influence as well as teen literature.

    I do agree, at least in principle, that my son isn’t going to suddenly start doing/experiencing things he may listen to on audiobook/see in the movies etc. just because he’s experienced them and I don’t think it’s wise to keep him forever sheltered from the world’s ills or the challenges many his age may face.

    I am imagining that as he goes through what everyone promises me to be a “turbulent” time, it will be much like what he has told me with regards to gun/swordplay and its relationship to violence: “Mom, don’t worry, just because I like to play with guns, doesn’t mean I like war or am a violent person!”

    I’ll try and keep it all in mind as I face the next few years of change in my son….

    • I think you’re absolutely right that it depends on the kid. Different kids are ready for different information at different times. I’ve often noticed, though, it’s the parents who aren’t ready. :-)

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