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Making the Darkness Visible

I was at a friend’s surprise party last night when I myself received a huge surprise: a friend emailed me with the news that my book Rage was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, in an article called “Darkness Too Visible.” At first, I was ecstatic — I mean, hello, the WSJ mentioned my book! I was giddy with validation.

When I read the article, I got my second surprise: the article blasts darker-themed contemporary fiction for teens. Rage was used as an example to illustrate how “tame” issue-oriented books from the 1970s were in comparison — including Go Ask Alice, Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, and I Am the Cheese. Worse, after mentioning that the protagonist in Rage struggles with self-injury and quoting two lines from the book, the article goes on to say that books like Rage are likely to help “normalize” issues such as self-injury — and “may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue.”

That sound you hear is my blood pressure rising.

To suggest that Rage effectively glamorizes self-injury is both insulting and stupid. The entire purpose of the book — indeed, of all of the Riders of the Apocalypse books — is to raise awareness of issues such as self-injury and eating disorders and bullying.

Not everyone wants to raise awareness of such things, though. The article argues: “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. 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.”

Heads up: Life isn’t always beautiful and joyous. That’s not the real world; it never was. We just know more today about the issues that have been around for a long time — and we’ve come to a point where we’re not afraid to talk about these issues.

But then, not everyone wants to talk about them. The article laments, “Alas, literary culture is not sympathetic to adults who object either to the words or storylines in young-adult books” and goes on to suggest that “the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young.”

You want relevant? Let’s look at the numbers.

According to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults, “12% to 24% of young people have self-injured” and “about 6%-8% of adolescents and young adults report current, chronic self-injury.” According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “about 1 in 10 young people will self-harm at one point.”

One in 10. So in a classroom of 30 teens, 3 of them either are or will self-injure.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and another 15 million suffer from binge eating disorder.

I was one of those 10 million females.

CyberMentors indicates that “as many as 70% of all young people have experienced some form of bullying” and “1 million kids are bullied every week.”

Let me repeat that: One million kids, every week, are bullied. This is not okay.

These numbers show that issue novels such as Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars and Lauren Myracle’s Shine — two books also mentioned in the article — are not simply “relevant for the young.” They’re urgent for the young, and for their parents. Ignoring issues such as self-injury or eating disorders or bullying doesn’t make them go away. Covering our ears and shutting our eyes and going “LA LA LA” as loud as we can doesn’t make these problems magically disappear. The only things that go away if you ignore them are your teeth.

Maybe the notion of discussing these issues makes some people uncomfortable. That’s understandable; these are not comfortable topics. But that’s not a good reason to remain quiet. To those who insist that they’re protecting children and teens by not talking about these issues — or by banning books that discuss these issues — don’t you realize that the best way to protect children is to educate them about these issues?

The article concludes with the following: “The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”

That’s right: parents are there to raise their children. And that means teaching our kids about the world, the real world, not just some idealized fantasy where everything is joyous and beautiful. With numbers like “1 in 10” and “10 million females/1 million males” and “1 million kids,” it’s crucial that kids and teens — and adults — understand that when they’re suffering with conditions or disorders that might otherwise lead them down a path of no return, they’re not alone.

At the very top of the article, there’s a blurb that sums up the article’s tone: “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?”

Why? Easy. Ignoring ugly truths doesn’t make those truths go away. Silence is never the answer. Granted, there may be those who will always advocate censorship rather than frank discussion. But the more that people insist on limiting the books we read, the more those books need to be read.

Learn about the world. Read a book.

To everyone on Twitter who responded to the article with #YAsaves: Thank you. You all rock out loud.



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97 Responses to “Making the Darkness Visible”

  1. A.S. King says:

    Well said. You rock. And you’re right.

  2. Well said, Jackie! Well said. I am in awe of writers like you and Cheryl and many others who are courageous enough to put yourselves and your stories out there with love and compassion. I know that these were hard for you to write but you did it, and so many people will be better for it. The article claims that “Darkness [is] too Visible” … well it’s only by making darkness visible that you can bring light into it. And when you bring darkness into the light, it can’t hide. Nor can feelings of shame or unworthiness or ugliness. You just have HOPE and LOVE. YOU ROCK! I’m so proud to call you a fellow-writer and a friend. x

  3. chrystal says:

    Great post. Last night all I could think of was parents monitoring the books kids read if they thought they were too young for the subject matter.but really… you hitthe nail on the head…. EDUCATION IS KEY!

  4. Cameron says:

    “To those who insist that they’re protecting children and teens by not talking about these issues–or by banning books that discuss these issues–don’t you realize that the best way to protect children is to educate them about these issues?”

    Thank you! I honestly do not understand why parents are so afraid to answer the “big” questions that kids have. I understand the childhood is short and all, but seriously, not teaching children about these issues only causes more harm then good.

  5. Gaby says:

    Great response!

  6. RKCharron says:

    Hi Jackie 🙂

    I was offended when I read the sly use Mrs. Gurdon made of your excellent book RAGE. As well as Cheryl’s SCARS & the others.

    Thank you for providing those startling stats! I had no idea it was so widespread.

    With love & best wishes,
    Rob

    PS- I hope it didn’t ruin the enjoyment of your friend’s surprise party!

  7. Jen P says:

    DaNang said, “The world is within me because I read.” That means all the world, not just the pretty parts. It’s the ugly parts that end up teaching us why the pretty ones are valuable.

  8. Kim B says:

    Great Rebuttal!

  9. Cat Johnson says:

    Jackie-
    Great response by you to a ridiculous article by a newspaper that should do better in choosing contributors.

    You’re right–the world is not all kitties and rainbows–and the fact that back in the 80s during my teen years I personally knew 3 teens who committed suicide proves parents cannot ignore the dark side of life.

    You know we love you and I hope this article boosts your book sales through the roof!

    Cat

  10. Ali says:

    Well-said. Thank you for writing this. It’s perfect, in all its honesty. I retweeted a link. 🙂

  11. Josin says:

    Bravo. Well said.

    It’s appalling, and saddening, that a person who bears the responsibility of providing information about children’s and Young Adult literature has so little understanding of the material herself. The author of that piece not only stubbornly (or ignorantly, which is worse)refused to acknowledge the large chunk of YA that’s at the other end of the spectrum, but by linking vampires and cutting the way she did implies that the two are of equal importance.

    I’m not sure if that means she thinks vampires are actually out there stalking teenage girls in their sleep or that she thinks cutting is development of fiction rather than fact. Either way, it’s a skewed viewpoint.

  12. As a middle school librarian I applaud YA authors who put it all out there. Ignorant, short sighted articles like this one only confirm what I already know…too many adults are completely out of touch with the reality of what teens are faced with everyday and that just makes me sad.

  13. Melissa says:

    Hey Jackie. Well said, as I knew it would be! I already said this to you last night on Facebook, but it is worth repeating here:

    “Exactly! Having worked with teens that have the very issues that you describe in your Horsemen series, that article has it SO wrong. A cutter is going to cut because the stress in his/her life becomes so great that they see that as the only outlet to the pain that they have. A Bulimic is going to binge and purge because in their mind, that is the only way to get to that “perfect” image. Reading a book about it is most likely pretty damn low on the “that’s going to make me” list of things that these kids deal with (real or imagined) in their every day life. Life is about *choices*. We may not always realize we *have* those choices, but we do. And I think your books exemplify that beautifully.”

    Ignorance is NOT bliss. It’s usually a precursor to repeating mistakes– or creating worse ones.

  14. JD Rhoades says:

    I hope that dimwitted WSJ article boosts your sales into the stratosphere. Selling well is the best revenge. 🙂

  15. Angie S. says:

    I applaud you. I wish that I could express the way I felt when reading that article as eloquently as you have done. And I second what JD said – I hope your sales skyrocket!

  16. As a self abuser for the better part of 40 years I’ll say that silence was the biggest contributor to the continuation of it. I never dared talk about it because it was a taboo subject.

    These people are morons. That’s a fact, not up for debate. I thank you and authors like you because I started talking about it after I read about it in a book. I identified with the character and didn’t feel alone. I searched the internet and found people like me.

    I don’t do it any more because of a work of fiction. The pills make me worse. The book didn’t make me obese and hate myself. The book didn’t cost the taxpayers money. The book didn’t talk down to me. The book did what doctors and psychiatrists couldn’t because it allowed me to feel like I wasn’t the only one.

    I know I’m not alone because a few survivors said that’s what happened to them when I spoke about it in a meeting

    Rock on and keep writing. Don’t let ignorant people stop you from being part of the solution. They have an agenda. I know that too. Their agendas kept me in a closet. Yours opened the door. Thank you

  17. THANK YOU! Books like Rage would have been a godsend for me as a teenager. I started at age 9. Not cutting, but other self-injurious behaviors. I’ve overcome it today, thanks almost exclusive due to one friend who recognized it for what it was and helped me to re-evaluate my need for it. Today i don’t even have the urge to do it, but if I do, I’m armed against it. She helped me realize that when I felt that way, I could simply bake something from scratch. Today I’m planning to attend culinary school and become a professional pastry chef. Not only did it help me find another way to cope with the emotions that brought on those urges, but she helped me discover the love of taking simple ingredients and turning them into something that spreads warmth and happiness and comfort to others.

    I wish I’d had YA books to turn to as a teen. I might have realized what i was doing and going through years sooner. Thank you for giving others today an opportunity that took me many more years and finding the right friend with the right childhood background to understand.

  18. Thank you! A beautiful answer to the ugliness that is the WSJ article!

  19. I agree with what others have said here. I hope that ridiculous article sends sales through the roof.

  20. Patti Larsen says:

    A freaking Men. As a YA writer of all things darkness my goal is to help kids understand and talk about what they’ve gone through or are going through, not shove sugar and light down their throats and pat their backs–there, there, dear. Seriously.

    FANTASTIC POST.

  21. Patti Larsen says:

    A freaking Men. As a YA writer my goal is to help kids understand and talk about what they’ve gone through or are going through, not shove sugar and light down their throats and pat their backs–there, there, dear. Seriously.

    FANTASTIC POST.

  22. Thomas Amo says:

    Dear Jackie, I’m so thankful we do live in a time where the social networking allows YOUR voice to be heard along with all of us who stand with you! As a child of divorce and siblings who did drugs, books were my salvation! WSJ and their elitist arrogance will probably try to ignore us, but the world is READING!

    #YASAVES!
    Cheers Tom

  23. Thank you for this! And for your book, Rage. I can say that last night and still today the YA community taught me something amazing; we won’t back down from the issues that affect teenagers.

    This idea of Evil Dark books is not new, and it appears to be something that we will have to fight against, time and time again. My dad’s parents gave the following advise to my mother when I was 9 an avid reader. They blamed books for my dad’s schizophrenia. My mother knew better. She knew that books helped my dad cope, and writing, he was like me, an aspiring author, it gave him the freedom that he needed to cope with his disease.

    I have to say that if it weren’t for YA books, I wouldn’t have learned to deal with the grieve over losing my dad. It’s not gone, but I have managed to learn to deal with it, and thoughts of suicide or self harm were quickly put to rest by reading YA books where the protagonist went through similar situations.

  24. Here’s what she said about RAGE:

    “In Jackie Morse Kessler’s gruesome but inventive 2011 take on a girl’s struggle with self-injury, “Rage,” teenage Missy’s secret cutting turns nightmarish after she is the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. […] Missy survives, but only after a stint as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

    Here’s what I took from it:

    “The freak manages to get an un-deserved happy ending.”

    THIS is the reason books like RAGE are so relevant for teens. It’s bad enough to struggle, to know you have a problem but not tell anyone because deep down you know you’re a freak, you don’t fit in. To have an apparently educated adult perpetuate that sentiment is painful. For WSJ to publish it as is without some kind of side-by-side rebuttal is frustrating.

    I get it, we resist censorship so we can’t outright request that WSJ stop from publishing such tripe (because that WOULD be ironic) – but it’s not okay that they didn’t provide some kind of rebuttal. It was a tacit agreement with her opinions. To that , I say “Boo!”

    Jackie – thank you so much for doing what you do! You inspire me (among so many, as evidenced by the comments here and on twitter). Please don’t stop.

  25. Celeste says:

    Bravo! Well said.

  26. Elizabeth Clark says:

    I wish there had been books like yours when I was a child, but there wasn’t. I’m 48 and still remember my days of self injury. No one asked, no one noticed and no one helped.

  27. Carrie says:

    FUCK YEAH.

    What the hell, Wall Street Journal? You’re not just advocating censorship, that would be bad enough, but for some of the WORST reasons imaginable. Shading kids’ eyes from real-life problems that could easily affect them whether they know about them or not? Isolating “freaks” and keeping them unaware that others suffer from these problems? Promoting ignorance? Really? Why is THIS okay?

  28. I have four teens living in my home. On weekends we often have at least six others visiting. I have had the honor of getting to know a multitude of teens from our hometown, as well as the one we live in now. From personal experience (not statistics) it is safe to say at LEAST have of them have at least one scar from cutting on their arm.

    At my son’s birthday party two weeks ago, two girls in middle school both spoke to me about the sexual abuse the endured when younger, their mother’s abandoning them in lieu of drugs, and their therapy sessions.

    Another boy cringes when my husband is near him. He has suffered sexual abuse and is afraid of men in general.

    Two teen boys have told vivid stories of past drug abuse.

    THIS IS REAL LIFE! These are real kids who go to school with my kids. They are children in a small, oblivious town. They hurt. They suffer. And because of YA books that tell it like it is, they are no longer alone.

    To all parents, WATCH YOUR KIDS! Depression, abuse, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, etc. is often hidden from you. Learn what is out there and TALK TO YOUR KIDS. reading YA books along with them and discussing them is a great way to open communication learn to look for signs. Save your kids, don’t shelter them.

    Thank you for a wonderful post and a great book. Don’t ever stop telling teens what’s out there and helping them deal with the dangers!

  29. Trenda says:

    Thank you for writing this response. As a 37 year old survivor of child abuse, I have discovered many doors to healing my younger self by reading today’s YA books. I shared my own response to the WSJ article on my blog today. It felt good to let the little me use her Voice.

    With gratitude,

    Trenda

  30. Joy A. Ball says:

    Ha! I just wrote about writing scenes that can be viewed as controversial in novels on my blog.

    The world is gritty~ to portray it as anything else is a lie.

    Portraying it as being full of rainbows and unicorns is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand.

    Knowledge is power and books that broach the gritty less than pleasant aspects of life are NOT the villain. Our kids are exposed to drugs, sex, and all the other low lights of life in school, in the movies, on television. Maybe books that discuss these things will actually help kids see beyond them, see a way out as the characters dealing with the same issues find a way to overcome.

    WSJ is full of it.

  31. Meg says:

    I haven’t read your books, but I think I will now.
    I read the article and disagreed with it completely. I am an older teen and the books I enjoy most deal with REAL issues that REAL teens face in REAL life. Just because you don’t read about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I can’t believe that there are still people who wish that teenagers would be kept in the dark, hidden away from what really happens in life. A lot of the issues that I read about in books are things I have never experienced, but I learn from them. Thank you for writing about the real issues. I will be adding RAGE to my list of books to read.

  32. Well said. A million times YES.

  33. Jena says:

    Can I just say, THANK YOU. God, I have friends that self mutilate and most of them feel alone. The WSJ is indeed full of it.

  34. Lori says:

    While I understand that many people believe children wont try things if they never hear about them, its never been proven to hold true. It is our responsibility as parents to provide the best environment we can for our children. Its our responsibility to make sure they are completely educated on the world before they enter into it. Everything needs to be age appropriate sure. I am still a person who believes in reading my child’s book before I let my child read it. I do this for many reasons. I know the content. I can discuss the book with my child when He is done. I am ready to discuss any sad or angering subject material that the book may contain. I have had to discuss things with my child that is difficult but its my job. NOT the schools and not his friends. If I wait for them to do it, my child is doomed. Thank you for writing wonderful books everyone. Thank you for not being all marshmallow fluff and puppies. Thank you for letting me see that I am never alone in my life. WSJ was completely wrong.

  35. Jess says:

    As someone who HAS been triggered by SI in YA books, one of WSJ’s Cox Gurdon’s concerns, I must say that your response in brilliant. The simple reality is this: until reading YA fiction well into my twenties, I had never read about another person struggling with SI outside of substance abuse. Cox Gurdon makes the mistake of assuming making a topic approachable is normalizing it, which is not at all true. It was these stories that made a “successful” 20-something realise that cutting isn’t so taboo I can’t reach out and get help, but it never made me feel like it was the only option; just the opposite in fact. The reality is this: yes, cutting in books triggers me, but before the books, EVERYTHING triggered me and I felt helpless to resist and completely alone. I’d take the former over the latter any day.

    The bravery and progressiveness of YA fiction isn’t just good for youth, it’s good for western society as a whole. These problems are there, and the more we talk about it, the less isolated people feel, and all forms of pain and violence thrive in isolation.

  36. Beth Kephart says:

    So well reasoned.

    So smart.

  37. Amber says:

    I think you are doing a great job! Keep it up!

  38. Amanda says:

    YES! *applause*

  39. Jaclyn says:

    Why is it that people feel they need to censor everything. Those idiots think teens are so stupid and impressionable. When I was in High School I read Go Ask Alice and you don’t see me ever popping pills or anything of the sort. Grrrr. People who make articles like that makes me want to bash something.

  40. Sara says:

    I cover age appropriateness in the blog that I write because I think it helps parents of kids who read above their age. I say in my piece about age appropriateness that a caregiver should never ban a kid from reading a book (unless it’s a young child and it’s erotica) but they can let them know what the story is about and TALK to them about the content while they’re reading.

    I rarely see books that are inappropriate for the age group that they’re written for. Are some a bit inappropriate for the age group below, yes but those generally don’t interest that age group (and it’s not like anyone was harmed by a book), those are generally happy drunk party books and not ones that cover difficult topics.

    These social issues books are important for teens so they can learn that they’re not alone or learn the warning signs or learn to empathize with others. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.

  41. Catie Rhodes says:

    One silver lining: Before WSJ, I had never heard of you. Now, I want to check out your books. 😀

  42. Ty Drago says:

    WSJ has always lived in a bit of a fairy tale world where the arts have been concerned. Anyone who dared to write, paint, publish produce anything suggestive of a world other than that which Rockwell would have portrayed is labeled “destructive”.

    Oh that list, btw, is Rachel Carson. Take heart, Jackie. You’re in good company!

  43. Hannah says:

    I am so impressed by what you put here you are so right. I went through a tough time and pulled back from everyone you know what got me out living again i picked up a book read about someone suffering more then me and it reminded me that it could be worse and that it will get worse unless i change.
    I am so glad you responded and fought back this guy who ever he is, is just a scared little man who will amount to nothing outside of his work.

  44. Heidi Angell says:

    It would have been nice to have a link to the article, for those of us who have not read it and don’t know everything that was said.
    I will be honest, I have not read your books, but given this article (which I linked to through Richelle Meade, the author of the Vampire Academy series) I very well might. One of the things that I LOVED about Richelle’s books was that she addresses these types of issues.
    I think every parent has the responsibility to read anything their children are reading and that they need to be responsible for discussing any questions that their children have about the material. I think parents are the best gauge for what their children are ready for and in my house we do not ban books, but we do have the “when your older” shelf.
    You should be allowed to publish whatevber you want. If people don’t buy it, then you won’t keep writing it. People are buying it for a reason, so keep writing. The wall street journal is not as proud and good as it used to be!

  45. Michelle B says:

    Get response…

    In the 80’s when I was a teen growing up things like this were hush hush and not in the open…Awareness is key and the more education kids have these subjects the better…Kids then know that they aren’t alone and there is help and education out there…You rock!!

  46. Michelle B says:

    Great response…

    In the 80’s when I was a teen growing up things like this were hush hush and not in the open…Awareness is key and the more education kids have these subjects the better…Kids then know that they aren’t alone and there is help and education out there…You rock!!

  47. We Heart YA says:

    We agree 110%. And we don’t know how anyone can disagree when #YAsaves is sweeping through the blogsophere and proving, with every post, every tweet, every word, that these “depraved” books are helping people in need. People of all ages.

    We’ve read every single post written in response to this situation (that we can find) and we’ve been keeping a running list on our FB page. It’s amazing how much YA has affected people, and how brave these people now are in sharing their stories. We have been moved to tears.

  48. Misty price says:

    So well said, this is exactly what I thought when I read the article to.
    It’s so bizarre that this came about this morning for me after just last night I posted on my own blog an article about my own experience with cutting and depression (http://bookaholicsbkcl.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-life-as-book-how-entangled-inspired.html <—– if you want to see it.) because I think it is important to get this kind of thing out there to teach more understanding and help people, be they kids or adults, who are or have gone through simliar and for them to know they aren't alone in their experiences. Sweeping it all under the rug helps no one

  49. Sarah says:

    As a child psychologist, writer, and reader (who has read RAGE), I was so happy to read this! When I read the WSJ article, I was thinking along similar lines–what about the 20% of teens with mental illness? What about their peers? Silence leads to ignorance. Ignorance leads to stigma. Amazing post, Jackie.

  50. Rafael says:

    Bravo! Well said. You can not shelter kids from reality but you can teach them how to deal with it. But it always boils down to censorship and control.

    See No Evil….

    Nah, it doesn’t work and it never will.


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