The YA world responds to Gurdon, but are we preaching to the choir?

Last week, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article “Darkness Too Visible” denounced YA lit as trying to “bulldoze coarseness or misery” into children’s lives. Gurdon gets YA wrong on so many levels, and the kidlit world noticed. Massively. Most responses have been smart and heartfelt, but are we preaching to the choir?

I’d like to believe that the Gurdons of this world are reading some of these responses and rethinking their positions, but I think those in Gurdon’s camp are just keeping quiet… not necessarily being converted by our pronouncements. Still, the WSJ article has forced many of us to refine our defenses for the work we do as writers, teachers, librarians, and youth advocates. So even if we’re preaching to the choir, it’s still good preaching. 

Today I take you on a quick tour of my favorite responses to Gurdon, and I chime in with my two cents whenever I can’t resist. Be sure to check out the funnies after you’re done being outraged. And–of course–read the original article. It’s only fair to do so (and you have to if you want to enjoy the playful parody cited at the end of this post).

Why resisting Gurdon’s stance on “darkness” is such a big deal

Sherman Alexie’s post  captures the urgency of getting books that speak to marginalized teens (and all teens feel marginalized in some way) onto bookshelves:

Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read…

When I think of the poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager that I was, I can only wish, immodestly, that I’d been given the opportunity to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak.” Or Chris Lynch’s “Inexusable.” Or any of the books that Ms. Gurdon believes to be irredeemable. I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog post comes at things from a different angle. Like Anderson, I am “someone who loves a lot of conservatives,” so I share her interest in actually understanding where the Gurdons of the world are coming for, if most out of a desire to change their minds. Anderson works to think through what makes some parents resist books that are dark, concluding that it’s not really the books that they’re afraid of. Rather,

They are afraid of their inability to talk to their kids about the scary, awful, real-world stuff that is out there. And they know, deep-down, that even if their own children are blessed with violence- and trauma-free childhoods and adolescences, their kids will daily come in contact with other kids who aren’t that lucky. So they know they·should be talking about this stuff, but they don’t know where to start. And when their kid starts reading books about subjects that make Mom and Dad uncomfortable, the reaction is to get rid of the book, instead of summoning the courage and faith to have conversations that make them uneasy.

Both Alexie and Anderson provide clear demonstrations that what Gurdon calls “darkness” (and others of us call “reality”) matters in writing for teens.

Why Gurdon is crazy to claim that all of YA is dark

If you think I’m exaggerrating, check out Gurdon’s (troublingly gendered) list of recommendations for “young women.” Does she really think you have to go back to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) to find something that’s suitably sunny?

Lisa Von Drasek’s post highlights the diversity in YA lit with a special emphasis on what might appeal to teens (or parents) who shy away from too gritty offerings. Her recommendations range from serious to breezy (Meg Cabot), and she points out the merit in even the trendiest “dark” (by Gurdon’s standards) YA. I kind of wanted to give Lisa a hug or stand up and cheer at this point in her post:

For heaven’s sake give it a rest. There is as wide a range of genres in Young Adult fiction as in adult — mystery, chick lit, romance, historical fiction, adventure, trauma, survival, speculative fiction, sports, light humor, and books set in other cultures. Do you make your adult reading selections from the mass market rack at the Seven/Eleven?

E. Kristin Anderson stuffs reading recommendations into her open letter to the mother Gurdon features in her article, a mother who left Barnes & Noble bookless because she couldn’t find anything  that she could imagine giving to her thirteen-year-old-daughter. E. K. Anderson gets mad props for responding without condescending, as you can tell from the closing of her letter:

And if you’re looking for, you know, well-written, heart-felt, and intelligent replies to the article in the Wall Street Journal, I hope that you will look herehere, or here. Or, like, Google it — everyone in YA has something to say about the bias in the article, the anger, the ignorance, and the hate. I’m choosing the let the other voices say what I’m thinking about this part of your complaint, because they’ve already done it so well. I’m offering you my book shopping help instead. Because YA is so big. Kidlit is enormous. We have books for everyone!

Why laughing is part of what we must do in response to Gurdon

Okay, if you want to know how I really felt reading Gurdon’s article, just check out this Forever Young Adult post by Erin. Maybe this makes sense because a while back Erin confessed here that she and my character Marisa are secret sisters. I loved this retort:

It seems that Gurdon’s main complaint is that, well, YA books just make it sound like life is so hard, y’all.  And, as we all know, life is roses and cupcakes and if we expose our young people to depravity, they will become depraved.  Violence does not exist except where we seek to create it!  Rape is not common unless you insist upon hanging out with people who have been raped!  Parents do not abuse their children and, if they do, then we still shouldn’t have to read about it because I bet those beaten up kids don’t even know how to read.  And nobody would masturbate if you guys would stop telling them how to do it!

What’s funny is how Erin channels the YA world’s incredulity; her points in response to Gurdon, though, are serious. 

Finally, check out this parody of the “Darkness Too Visible” piece. I love how, taking the tone of many board books as the focal point, it lambasts Gurdon’s failure to recognize the importance of darkness for teens: 

The argument for such books is that they brighten the day of tykes and turn them onto reading, as well as instructing them on important topics like shapes, colors, parts of the body, and counting to ten. I think it sets expectations unrealistically high for the real world, simultaneous suggesting the demands of life are much lower than they really are. I worry that my son will expect the reality to be soft-toned, primary-colored, and full of smiling and well meaning adults and animals who never eat one another…

The whole post is a treat.

If you want still more perspectives and responses on this topic, there are long and growing lists of links at Cheryl Rainfield’s site (her book Scars was one of the ones slammed in Gurdon’s article) as well as on the School Library Journal blog here.

Twitter = instant editing

-19. Damn it, what else am I going to cut?

If you use Twitter, you know what I’m talking about. I’m one of those people who (think they) need a 1,400 character limit. But that’s exactly why Twitter is good for me–it tells me (with that annoying character counter) just how much more concise I need to be. And I always manage to get it done.

Concision and precision are the virtues that get the most press when it comes to Twitter and writing.There’s a great copyblogger article on twitter and writing here that describes some of the training benefits that Twitter communication offers:

Crafting a message for Twitter requires you to…discover a better, clearer and more concise way to say what you want to say.

Now most people won’t hit 140 characters right away. No, they’ll end up with 160 or 148 characters to start out with…It’s almost like playing a game; trying to write a 140-character message and still get your point across in a way that inspires your followers to take action, to click on your link or to “retweet” your post.

I like to think of it as a brainteaser, forcing me to think hard and dig deep down into my vocabulary to find a way to shorten my message.

Twitter has this effect on me most of the time. It doesn’t work, of course, if all you want to share is “Lard pops for dessert. Mmmm.” But if you have a bit more to communicate (whether personal, playful, or professional), chances are Twitter will crack the editing whip for you. Maybe I should start pasting troublesome sentences into my twitter composition box to see just how far the benefits might extend.

Consider this as permission to view Twitter as (moderately) purposeful, even beyond its networking benefits.

Twitter version of this post:

Twitter for concision, precision, clarity, and hook. Procrastination? Sure. But at least you’re being naughty in 140 characters or less.

(3 characters to spare)

Take to heart or shake it off? Two truths about handling criticism

George Thomas:

Know when to shake criticism off.

Two truths about handling criticism:

Truth #1: One of the BEST things you can do as a writer is to heed criticism from others.

Truth #2: One of the WORST things you can do as a writer is to heed criticism from others.

Well, which is it? The answer depends on who those “others” are. In my experience, the people to listen to are those who have a specific sense of what your writing is like when it’s at its best. That is, their criticism is not geared toward turning what you’ve written into “their kind of thing” but rather is committed to helping you make your work what it is trying to be. The very best workshop leaders have this gift–as do the best writing partners and editors. Listen to them. Listen even when the truth means lots of work for you. Listen even when they suggest that you axe that last paragraph you labored over. Listen even when it hurts. Listen.

What about Truth #2? Why is it so dangerous to listen to some (even well-intended) advice? Sometimes the feedback you get is not about doing a better job at what you are trying to do. Sometimes it’s really about a reader suggesting that your work should do something other than what it does, that your project should be other than what it is, that you should be other than who you are. (Full author disclosure: this is why NOT to read amazon reviews… one reader rejected What Can’t Wait because it was YA and not sufficiently “literary” for him or her.)

There are a lot of responses that fall somewhere in between that of the ideal reader and that of the rejecting reader who wants your romance to be a thriller or wants your literary short stories to be genre horror. But my point is to trust your instincts and, above all, to take the time to develop a sense of your own purpose for a given piece of writing. Weigh feedback carefully against that vision, and work relentlessly to learn from comments that will help you achieve it.

Don’t disregard the rest, but handle it with caution. And when it comes to crippling, cutting comments, do your best to be like a duck letting the water (or the criticism) roll off your back. 


Better than imagining them in their underwear: writers & kitties

The (in)famous V.S. Naipaul with a kitty.

I’m a writer. I’m a student of literature. I’m a teacher. In my literary bible, the words of Borges, Cortázar, Bishop, Hemingway, and company appear in red. (For you heathens, red-letter bibles have the words of Christ in red.)


Sometimes, though, it’s good to remember that even great writers and thinkers have (or had) to change their underwear and brush their teeth. They trim their toenails and take dumps. And they have kitties.

When I got the link to this site full of writers and their kitties, it changed my life. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. But it really does make a difference. Let’s take a recent example.

In an interview last week, the acclaimed Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul dished up a healthy serving of sexism, insisting, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” He attributed this inadquacy to women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world…she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” (Read more quotations from the interview here.)

That’s pretty inflammatory stuff, and we can have some good laughs at Naipaul’s expense–I started by taking The Guardian‘s gender and prose test. I also spent some time contemplating the irony of that “master of a house” comment… especially since A House for Mr. Biswas is all about a man’s ongoing failure to be master of a house.

But then I see a picture of V.S. with a kitty. And I just can’t stay mad. I start thinking of him trimming his toenails and clipping his nose hairs and being human. I mean, if he can pet a kitty, can he be that bad? (I’m sure this is dangerous logic.)

I’m also now considerably less intimidated by a number of authors. Here are a few of my favorite photos. Head over to Writers & Kitties for more.


Julio Cortázar and kitty.


Jacques Derrida and kitty.


Elizabeth Bishop and kitty.


Hemingway and kitty.

Mission Accomplished (or: how to read 184 books in 5 months)

These are the ridiculously detailed reading calendars I used to get through my PhD exam reading.

Two things I’ve loved about this spring: seeing What Can’t Wait on a real shelf in a real bookstore and seeing our little boy Liam crawl, walk, giggle, eat, and be.

One thing I didn’t always enjoy but love being able to write about now: reading 184 books in five months.

Me, a masochist? No, just your typical comparative literature graduate student trying to get to her dissertation. Yes, we really do read that much. From Walter Scott’s Rob Roy to Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi and Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración artificial, I’ve been reading across three continents and four languages to get ready for my PhD qualifying exams.

I can talk about it now without hyperventilating because today is the one-week anniversary of passing them! I also now feel free to tell you how I managed to read all these books while also teaching, promoting my new book, writing (at least a little), and squeezing in QT with my boys.

I have three not-very-secret “secrets” to offer you if you are going to be tackling an overwhelming task (reading or otherwise).

Make a schedule. You can see my reading calendars for the past five months in the picture above. I scheduled my texts with sticky notes so that I could move books around easily without accidentally “losing” anything.

Putting every single book I needed to read on a calendar in advance helped me stay calm because it showed me that–even if challenging–reading these books in the allotted time actually was possible. This was integral to finishing my elephant off one bite at a time (to find out what the heck I’m talking about, read this post.)

Be strategic. My biggest sneaky strategic move was to look for as many of the books as possible on audio. This allowed me to read over 30 books while I took care of my son, exercised, drove, and so on. That saved me a whole month of reading time. And while listening is not the same as reading, it’s sometimes better: the unabridged recording of Ulysses made the classic infinitely more accessible and enjoyable. I was also able to find quite a bit of literary criticism in audio form, which helped me to consolidate what I was reading.

Remember that your life is now. In times of stress, it is so tempting to try to just “get through it,” but I don’t like to think of myself as putting off my “real” life. Even when I was tired, I reminded myself that this–today, now–was my life and it was my job to make it productive and positive. I was getting to do something that I love, that no one was oppressing me, that I was reading books I wanted to read. I also resolved not to feel guilty about having fun with my son. No matter what.

That’s the dose of nerdy productivity advice for the day. Happy elephant-eating!

Interview and Review at Sarah Laurence’s blog

Hey, today I’m over at Sarah Laurence’s blog talking about What Can’t Wait, writing, and my nerdiness. Sarah also reviews What Can’t Wait today. Stop by and show some love in the comment section!

Rant: No accent mark for Liam

Another rant. Liam turns ONE year old in about two weeks, and since he was born, we’ve been trying to get his name recorded properly on his birth certificate. We’ve been all over the place and even had an ACLU lawyer helping us for a time, but it looks as though the state of Indiana refuses to spell his name correctly.

Our last name is Pérez. The accent mark is part of the name, not some cute add on. Indiana’s excuse for disregarding it? Their computer system can’t handle “special characters.” Really? Really? You’d think we were trying to spell our son’s name with a smiley face instead of an “a”.

A thoughtful post about a similar problem in California gets right to the heart of why “pesky” details like accent marks really make a difference (they’re part of the language for a reason, folks):

“It’s not wrong, they’re just missing,” said a spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services, referring to birth certificates with the missing Spanish markers.

Well, it is wrong. Those little marks aren’t decorations. They’re part of the Spanish language. In Spanish, ñ is not just an embellished n, but a distinct letter of the alphabet. “If names don’t have the accents or the tildes, they are not spelled correctly,” said Al Camarillo, director of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

On any third-grade Spanish quiz, a word spelled without counts as a spelling error. That’s because leaving them out can change a word’s meaning completely. So, for example, caño means pipe, while cano means gray-haired. Mamá means mom. Mama means mammary gland. Pañal means diaper. Panal means honeycomb.

Sure, the accent mark has been missing from Arnie’s name on his official documents in the U.S. and he’s not scarred, but we wanted to get our name (as it appears on birth certificates and documents from Mexico) back into the system. And that name is Pérez. With an accent mark.

Women Writers Rock the Caribbean


Check out this guest post I did on women writers of the Caribbean for Color Online. Read the post and then cruise around the site to find amazing resources and perspectives.

Bookdrum awe: where have you been all my life?

Full disclosure: I’m one of those people who obsessively looks up every little reference in a novel. In the old days, this meant (gasp) looking at the footnotes and using actual reference books. The Internet has made this much, much less tedious. But makes it even easier. And more awesome.

Let’s say you’re reading The Kite Runner (which in my humble opinion is the To Kill a Mockingbird of this generation). If you toodle over to, you will find this page to give you background on the text. There’s the usual stuff like a glossary, summary, and review, but the coolest thing is the bookmarks function. Basically readers can add a quote from any part of the book and provide context or commentary on it.

The bookmark section layout looks a lot like a wikipedia article, but all information is linked to specific phrases or passages from the book. For example:


Page 3. ” a face like a Chinese doll chiselled from hardwood

Hazara Boy

Creative Commons AttributionHazara Boy – Credit: Steve Evans

The Hazara come from the central region of Afghanistan, calledHazarajat or Hazaristan. Hazara are predominantly Shi’a Muslims and speak the Hazaragi dialect of the Persian language. They have been the victims of discrimination for many years, based on religion and ethnicity.


How cool is that?, where were you when I was teaching The Kite Runner? Well, at least we’ve met now.

Teaching writing through weakness

Brooke Novak:

I’m a big fan of the building-on-your-strengths school of thought. I can expend energy trying to be someone I’m not (e.g., a humorist), or I can put that energy to work in a direction that’s natural for me. But when it comes to teaching writing, sometimes the educator’s greatest asset can be his or her own insecurities.

Recently I gave a talk for a group of pre-service teachers taking a course in writing instruction. My biggest message to them was to be real with their students when it comes to writing. I asked the future teachers how many of them felt challenged or frustrated by writing–at least some of the time. When hands went up, I promised them that this was a good thing.

Make mistakes and let your students see the mistakes. The job of the writing teacher is not to teach students a particular “proper” form of writing but to help them find their process to do many kinds of writing. This can only happen when teachers present themselves as students of writing as well.

I don’t know about you, but as a beginning tennis player, I’d much rather practice with someone who’s got tricks I don’t know but who is still learning as well. The same goes for students. It’s time to ditch the notion of the teacher as “pro” and start thinking of the teacher as a partner who can still miss some serves.

And it’s critical for students to see that–in writing–sometimes what seemed to be missed serves can turn out to be aces. I often show students how writing that I thought was “trash” had the seeds to important scenes in my novels.

Now, nothing is scarier than being vulnerable with students, especially when teaching older kids (or, worse, teachers themselves!). But this is critical if we want the writers we’re working with to take risks and to do writing that actually matters. Until students see the teacher as a fellow writer and learner, they will simply write to fulfill requirements and see that teacher as an arbitrary judge of a product that they (the students) don’t really care much about anyway.

When teachers also engage in the writing process and share the imperfect work that they are doing, students become willing to invest in their writing.

P.S. The idea of showing weakness and talking through how we deal with challenge applies in other spheres, too. As Liam has just turned one, we are realizing that one of the best ways we can help him deal with challenges and struggles (mostly related to self-control) is to model outloud our own dealings with frustration. Arnulfo and I walk around saying things like, “Darn it, I can’t find my keys. It’s so frustrating when this happens. I really want to get mad, but I think it will be easier for me to solve this problem if I stay calm. Hmmm, what can I do to change what’s bothering me. I know, I’ll ask for help…” This is pretty dorky, but I hope it will be effective eventually.

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