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Making the Darkness Visible

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

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.