the contextual life

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On the Shelf: YA Fiction Gone Wild, E.B. White and Animals, and This Week’s Picks

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Early in June an article in the Wall Street Journal set off a firestorm of debate within the literary community. Meghan Cox Gurdon, a regular children’s book reviewer for the paper, argued that young adult fiction today has become far more gruesome and shocking than the books of S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, the authors who started the trend in the 1970s.

I know plenty of adults who read YA fiction on a regular basis. Aside from reading The Golden Compass a few months ago, I haven’t read them since I was the target age so, I can’t claim to have firsthand knowledge of what’s in these books these days but the article captured my attention nonetheless.

Gurdon, speaking of the horrific events now prevalent in these novels, says, “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.” To the argument claiming that kids are exposed to far worse online she says, “If young people are encountering ghastly things on the Internet, that’s a failure of the adults around them, not an excuse for more envelope-pushing.”

I’m sympathetic to her perspective, I remember being shocked by a provocative cover a few years ago, which sounds like the milder of the objections, and while neither of us supports book banning—her last few paragraphs discuss this issue—it sounds like having some sort of label on the back of a book detailing the content, as a heads up to parents, might be in order.

In response to the overwhelming push back the article received, NPR’s Talk of the Nation had Meghan Cox Gurdon on to discuss her piece along with one of the offending authors mentioned in the article, Lauren Myracle. It turns out Myracle had called Gurdon’s thoughts “idiocy” in a blog post right after the piece ran in the paper. NPR called their discussion “Author Apologizes to Wall Street Journal Critic” but after listening I’d say that was generous of them. Her “apology” went like this: “I should welcome people who aren’t on the same page with love and generosity.” Nonetheless, it’s worth a listen if you were interested in the recent kerfuffle.

If you’re interested in young adult fiction there are plenty of thought pieces going around lately. In an article in The Atlantic, From ‘The Giver‘ to ‘Twilight,’ Young Adult Fiction Helps Teens Grow Up, pop culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg has an interesting piece on what trials and tribulations of young adult characters teach their readers.

And back to basics, author Michael Sims has just written a book about how E.B. White came to write Charlotte’s Web, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. In his essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sims discusses his research:

“During my research into the inspirations for and the writing of Charlotte’s Web, which took me back to White’s early childhood, I was intrigued by many aspects of his personality: his anxieties and hypochondria, his passionate defense of free speech and civil liberties, his one-man campaign for world government. But nothing else about him caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.

In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb’s tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey.”

Listen to (or read) NPR’s Fresh Air review. They’ve also included an excerpt.

Do you read young adult fiction? If so, do you think it’s become too dark? What were some of your favorite books growing up? What do you read now and why?

On my shelf:

Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Anyone who thinks of themselves as a science fiction fan has at some point read Philip K. Dick. Whether it be his most recognized work, Bladerunner, or some of the lesser known stories, Dick is one of the giants of the genre. Jonatham Lethem recently compiled a three-volume boxed set of Philip K. Dick novels for the Library of America. He spoke about Dick on PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge and when asked which book is a good place for people to start, he included Ubik on the list.

Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
This one’s been on my list for a while. George Saunders is known for his humor and intelligence and I’ve heard nothing but great things about this collection of essays on literature, travel, and politics. He was recently interviewed by BOMB magazine: part one and part two. Here’s an interview with Saunders from 2007 on PRI’s The Sound of Young America with Jesse Thorn. You can also visit his website.

You are Free: Stories by Danzy Senna
I remember reading Senna’s Caucasia when it came out in 1999, the story of a biracial girl growing up in 1970s Boston and struggling with the breakup of her parents. Her new one, You are Free, is a collection of short stories—I’m curious to see where the years have taken her fiction writing. Here she is in 2010 at the LA Public Library discussing “Truth in Fiction; Navigating History”.

What’s on your shelf this week?

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Written by Gabrielle

July 14, 2011 at 6:06 am

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