There are real-world reasons for caution. For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
When you press a wonderful, classic children’s book into a 13-year-old’s hands, are you doing so in the belief that the book will make no difference to her outlook and imagination, that it is merely a passing entertainment? Or do you believe that, somehow, it will affect and influence her? And if that power is true for one book, why not for another?
The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped — among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.
Sharon Slaney, who works at a high school in Idaho, touched on this nicely in an online rebuke of her irate librarian colleagues: “You are naive if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school life.”
The problem with the darker offerings in Young Adult literature is that they lack this transforming and uplifting quality. They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way; they show an orgiastic lack of restraint that is the mark of bad taste.