'Thirteen Reasons Why' author Jay Asher responds to controversial anti-YA article: 'I got very upset'


The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece that criticized contemporary young-adult fiction for what the author sees as its overly grim portrayal of teenage life. “How dark is contemporary fiction for teens?” writes Meghan Cox Gurdon. “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”

The article sparked outrage in the YA community, with Sherman Alexie and even (very briefly) Judy Blume weighing in. Since we recently profiled one of the YA scene’s most prominent authors, Thirteen Reasons Why author Jay Asher (you can read that story here), we called him up to see what he thought of the article. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t pleased. Here are his thoughts on the whole controversy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It seems like everyone in the YA community is talking about this article. It doesn’t mention you by name, but…
They mention suicide. When I saw that word I was like, ‘Okay, I can take offense officially now.’

What went through your mind as you were reading it?
When I first heard about it I just rolled my eyes. I was like, ‘Here we go again.’ It seems like whenever a big newspaper or TV show talks about teen literature they focus dark books or vampire books. It’s kind of this cliché. It seems like the only time adults pay attention is with that angle. So it’s just frustrating. But then when I read it, yeah, I got very upset, just because I know what she was describing is not teen literature in its entirety at all, and yet it makes it sound like that. The frustrating thing is that you know that many parents don’t have the time to really see what’s out there. They read this Wall Street Journal article and why would they know to investigate whether this report is accurate or not? They’re just going to take it as the truth: that’s all there is. If they’re saying it’s a bad thing then I’m going to be more cautious about letting my child read it.

How do you feel about the word “dark”?
I always have a hard time finding the right word to describe the mood of the book.  It basically deals with this uncomfortable subject matter. It’s hard for anyone to bring up, even outside of fiction. But that’s why it needs to be talked about. I think that’s why teens read a lot of these things: because it isn’t talked about openly. Or if it is, it’s talked about in clichéd ways, like that article. You have to talk about these things openly and honestly and not just the clichés and the knee-jerk reaction. Just a couple of days after that Wall Street Journal article came out, I got this email from a mom that was amazing. It kind of connects to the woman at the beginning of the article who says she went to a bookstore and walked out without any books, because all she saw were dark books. This mom said that a teacher of her daughter had recommended [Thirteen Reasons Why] and she started reading it because she wanted to see what her daughter was reading. After the second chapter she was so enraged. She was going to go to the school and talk to the principal about how this book was pushed on her daughter. She was so upset. And then her daughter told her to finish reading the book first, before she goes and makes a scene. So the mother reluctantly read the rest, and now she says she recommends it to her coworkers and her daughter’s friends. I think as an adult, our initial reaction when we find out that teens are reading a book about suicide or one dealing with drugs or eating disorders — you get that initial concern. But these books are written for teens, from the teen perspective. That’s what a lot of these articles are missing. Here’s kind of a knee-jerk, instinctive reaction to these books, and then they write a whole article about it.

In the article, Cox Gurdon writes, “Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that 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.” How do you respond?
Yeah, that’s the one that really stands out. It is kind of this scary hypothetical that’s out there, and yet she throws it out there as a fact. That’s the thing that bothers me: it’s in the Wall Street Journal, and not only does she say, here’s this idea, she says, it’s “likely.” And yet she doesn’t support it [with any facts]. She doesn’t talk to anybody. She just runs with this. It’s scary to know that parents who don’t know about this literature are reading that. When me and my author friends who write about other difficult subject matter…when you hear from teens daily saying, Your book helped me or made me understand a friend better, what somebody else is going through, you see the positive things. And when you know that there are adults pushing this idea that these things are likely dangerous, it’s really hard for us to read. That’s why so many authors were upset, because we know what the readers are getting out of it.

If you ran into Cox Gurdon, what would you say to her?
Wow. [Laughs] I understand where she was coming from. [But] the tone in her article was very confrontational, saying that anytime people raise these issues automatically words like censorship get thrown around. But for writers, it’s not that. It’s that we see the positive things that come about because of these books. That’s what a lot of adults don’t understand. They don’t understand the power of books dealing with these subjects. To them it’s just scary. It’s scary to know that teens are being drawn to these books. But the whole idea of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes is a good thing. It doesn’t mean that your teen is going to be facing these things just because they’re reading about them.


What do you think? Are dark YA books dangerous, or just realistic? Should parents be concerned about the state of teen literature?

Follow me on twitter: @RobBrunnerEW

Why teen-suicide novel Thirteen Reasons Why is saving teen lives: An interview with Jay Asher
Exclusive: ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ author to co-write a new YA novel

Comments (101 total) Add your comment
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  • Amanda

    “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.”

    Sounds like the Grimm Fairy Tales to me. Or the Bible. Cox needs to stop seeing this as 1) new, or 2) dangerous. I have a lot more to say on the matter, but I’ll refrain.

    • Rachel

      Just reminds me of Elvis, really. Those dern teenagers and their crazy new things they do/sing/read! Please.

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      • Melinda

        Here go the EW hypocrites again.
        A thought-provoking book might be too much for kids?
        Yet, EW happily shills for gutter trash kiddie shows on a daily basis like Jersey Shore, Pretty Little Liars, and so on.

      • @Melinda

        Re-read the article, cause you totally missed the point.

    • M

      Also sounds like Shakespeare,which I read in my English classes starting in middle school.

  • kelly

    VC Andrews wrote about incest and I remember disctinctly reading a book about a pedophile in a book when I was a young adult and I am now 38. This isn’t new it’s just a way for people to have something to be shocked over.

    • DaniVT

      I also read VC Andrews when I was young, and although I am not a horribly twisted person I wouldn’t recommend it. However, there are many good, “classic” books that deal with difficult subject matter. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and countless others deal with “dark stuff” very well.

      • Captain

        I don’t think The Catcher in the Rye is very dark compared to modern teen literature. I completely agree that this is nothing new but when we’re talking about rape and incest and suicide, Holden Caulfield seems to have it easy.

      • AK

        Yes, but Holden Caulfield has an encounter with a prostitute. So maybe different taboos for different generations?

    • Zoe

      I wouldn’t call VC Andrews YA lit, though. This article and the issue is about YA literature–books specifically targeted at kids–not books that kids often read that are actually aimed at adults. I read Stephen King as a 13/14-year-old too but no one would call him YA.

      • KarlHall

        Love love love Stephen King. I would actually recommend The Last Rung in the Ladder to teens, because it’s short enough to get their attention span and is very well written. However I would tell them to distance themselves from the lead character in it.

    • Apikoros

      I had the same thought about the VC Andrews book. Aren’t moral panics fun?

    • Sara

      VC Andrews was published as adult back in the day but it’s obviously YA and was read by YA audiences. There was no real YA (for older teens) back then, YA basically stopped at 14 after that everyone flipped to adults. It’s also being rereleased as YA.

      And VC Andrews had it all, rape, incest ect. . . but it was far worse because those behaviors weren’t ever delved into or expounded into except in a “It’s all my fault” “I made him rape me” way.

  • Isaac

    As a teenager, I really appreciate the diversity of subjects in modern YA literature. The idea that books capable of stirring such powerful feeling in kids could be censored due to someone only getting half of the story is ridiculous to me. Authors like Jay Asher change lives with their stories, and no one should keep the world from seeing books like “Thirteen Reasons Why”. Some teen books deal with mature subject matter, but the fact is that there ARE mature issues out in the world with no easy, clean answers to be found. The sooner kids understand that, the sooner they can move around these problems.

    • Brandi

      Thank you Isaac. Well said.

    • Liz

      So true the world isn’t made up of roses and pretty colors. Some people live dark lives. And where some YA novels take you to distant worlds others snap you back to reality]

    • Sam J

      Isaac is far more mature than the average Twilight reader, let alone the average viewer of the films. Let your mind be herd brother Isaac.

    • tvgirl48

      Reading “Speak” as a young teen gave me insight into the horrors of rape and the very realistic struggle to speak up. I adored the “Animorphs” books as a child and those got really dark by the end of the series. But I loved them because I felt like I wasn’t being talked down to. The kids in the books dealt with grim situations and unbelievably tough decisions and, amidst all the murder and torture and mayhem, they taught some great lessons about responsibility, maturity, and selflessness. ‘Dark’ doesn’t always equal ‘macabre and trashy.’ Tackling dark subjects encourages insight and understanding so you can cope and rise above the tough stuff.

  • TQB

    Yeah, not talking about suicide, cutting or eating disorders totally makes them go away… Come on! That BS argument has been made for years.

    If you see these books as overly “dark” I would suggest it is because you’re seriously deluding yourself about the rosiness of teenage life. It’s not an awesome time. These books respond to that.

    @Isaac is a perfect example of why we need these books: they create articulate, thoughtful young adults.

  • Rio

    I am a middle aged woman who always reads the same books my teenage kids read, whether they read them for fun or assigned at school. My 13 year old and I have had some great discussions about The Hunger Games. I think part of the role of a teen parent is to help prepare them to deal with life and some of the tough and “dark” issues.

    • Liz

      I’m a book worm and when I was younger I never got books my age because they were to simple but my mom always read along to make sure I understood what I read. Now I’m 21 and still enjoy some YA novels. Plus I don’t feel The Hunger Games is a YA novel(I guess the romance makes it so) because it has such a heavy satire of our society beneath it.

    • ks

      So true-I did as well, I had to defend books my kids read to their teachers. Onee was Hiroshima, ah history?!? It doesn’t hurt kids to see what real life is and not all sugar and candy. Music is another example.

    • rachel

      doing the same. great discussions with my very hip 8th grade girl scouts who were the ones who recommended Asher’s book to me..and others..I recommended My Sister’s Keeper to them…trading book recs and reading them has keep lots of solid discussions going in our household and among teen friends. Just finished Leverage and that tops dark/upsetting book for YA for me…but important…

  • Anne

    While I agree that the “dark” subjects the WSJ article complains about are nothing new to the YA genre (and fiction in general), and I also agree that the WSJ oversimplifies a lot… honestly, though, she is right that the majority of the books on best-seller lists and that get featured in book stores are “dark”. I mean, seriously, walk into a Barnes and Noble, go to the YA section, and all you will see are vampire, werewolf, and/or otherwise violent and dark stories being prominently featured. Now, I don’t have a problem with “dark” YA stories in general, but I do think the ratio of “dark” YA stories to comparitively “light” YA stories is disproportionate right now – especially in terms of publicity. I mean, when do you ever hear about a new Shannon Hale or Karen Cushman book, for example? Pretty much never.

    • JMB in FL

      Agreed. And it’s particularly difficult when you have a precocious reader (like my daughter) who is too advanced for books aimed at her age group but a little too young for what’s on the shelves in the Teen section. I have to be very careful about what she reads! Thank goodness her teacher turned her to the Anne of Green Gables books. She loves them and they are definitely great. They do deal with some dark events but there’s none of that “oh my life is so crappy woe is me” Twilight stuff. And yes, I read Twilight, so I know what I’m talking about. I happen to like dark fiction in general, but I’m not sure I want my child awash in it day after day. It’s a conundrum, because I teach literature and I am against censorship. As a parent, it’s hard to reconcile that philosophy with some of the stuff my kids want to read.

      • k

        My mom had the same problem with me when I was in elementary school. Books aimed at kids my age were too simple for me, but books aimed at older kids were often inappropriate for me. Our librarian recommended the “Cat Who…” series of mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun, and I remember really enjoying them. (And it helps that there’s a female who, if I remember right, is more or less the romantic interest for the protagonist, or the closest thing to it…and she’s frequently described as “a healthy size 16″ (these are middle-aged people, so the implication is she’s pleasantly plump in her maturity) and that made me feel better when I ended up hitting that size myself temporarily (as an adult). :)

      • c

        Hate the word “precocious”! My daughter is past Anne of green Gables-that was elemntary reading. Now that she is heading into 8th grade she is more than capable of picking out her own books. I trust her to know the difference between fiction and reality. Her reading reading time is her down time and I don’t believe in telling her what she can and can not read. She decided on her own she hated Twilight, but she loves lots of other fantasy. The “dark” stuff is just a fad right now and it will pass like everything else. Trust your kids to be as smart as they are.

    • c

      Love Shannon hale books!

  • Tracy

    Try reading fan fiction online. I kicked that hornet’s nest by accident and found some seriously dark, heavy stuff I didn’t even know existed. A large majority of it…written by females between the ages of 13-17.

  • Katyna

    I was thinking about all the things that I like, as an adult, that are teen related simply because it helps me connect with my children. I don’t think I ever would have started watching, “Avatar – The Last Airbender” if it wasn’t for my son. It DOES deal with “dark” issues. Abandonment, class issues, disabilities, child abuse, etc., but it was nice to watch a show and discuss what was actually going on. My kids get it. They understand this crap and it is not going away. Reading these books and watching edgy shows makes dealing with young adulthood easier. Someone else is struggling just like you are and it’s best to develop the empathy and compassion when you are young than to never realize that a friend is in pain or need.

  • Mandy

    I realize that Jay Asher is talking about suicide, as that is what his book focuses on, but in reading this article, it made me think about sexuality. Alot of young readers read books to find out about things that aren’t talked about, whether its suicide, incest, homosexuality or any other taboo topic. This is a good thing. And just because they are reading them, doesn’t mean they are going to commit suicide or be gay or experience incest or anything else covered in a book. It lets a reader put themselves in someone elses shoes and it lets them learn about a topic without every having experienced it.

  • Moo

    I think its silly to encourage teenagers to be even more angsty than they already are. If its well-written and not unduly angsty, I support it fully (i.e. The Hunger Games). I think if you can discuss difficult subjects without being angsty about it, that’s good. But I also don’t think teens need to be dwelling on suicide, incest, violent crimes, etc. in their reading material. Yes, that stuff happens in life, but teens don’t need to read novels about it to be able to understand and deal with those things in life. Reading should make you feel happier, or at least it should make you appreciate a skilled author’s craft. If the writing is poor and the story is angsty, I think it hurts kids more than helps them.

    • Sarah

      What if the writing is good and the story is angsty? The aim of reading is not always to make you feel happier – it is also to allow you to understand issues from somebody else’s perspective, or, occasionally, to make sense of your own issues when you are struggling with them. Reading books like these, at any age, can help you to feel like you’re not alone, which I would say is an admirable goal, regardless of how “dark” the issue may be.

      • c

        The aim of writing is not to make you feel happy!! “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Old Yeller,” “Anne Frank,” “A Tale of Two Cities”. Those books were all amazing and all made me cry.

    • sara

      no, writing should make you think. writing is not there to make you happy. does romeo and juliet make anyone happy? oliver twist? some of the best novels/plays/movies are tragedies. i think saying that teenagers shouldn’t read about suicide is like saying teenagers shouldn’t know what sex is. it doesn’t help the issue. books don’t kill people. perfectly happy teenagers don’t read a book about self harm and think gee that sounds fun. if a troubled kid reads a book about suicide and gets ideas, maybe we should look at WHY the kid is troubled to begin with. i think dark fiction has it’s place. and fyi, twilight isn’t really that dark. harry potter’s darker than twilight, yet that’s never mentioned anywhere, because it’s loved.

  • Meg

    Yes, many of the YA books are and have always been dark because often that’s what teens relate the most to. Emotions are extreme at that age and often very dark. Many feel that no one understands the passion or struggles they’re dealing with. YA books cater to these kids. I certainly was helped by all the books about people dying when I was a teen and one of my parents died. That had not happened to most people I knew and in books I found others who “got it”.

  • RevRunner

    I just got home from a mission trip with a group of teenagers, where one night at Bible study, we ended up talking about a lot of “dark” and difficult issues. It turned out that a bunch of the kids on the trip had a mutual friend who had been making suicide threats for months now. They had no idea how to deal with it. If the adult leaders on that trip hadn’t been so open to addressing these really difficult issues with them, we would have really lost an opportunity to have some meaningful discussions and offer some help. At the end of the day, our teenagers are dealing with issues that aren’t “age appropriate.” Parents, read along with your kids and don’t shy away from the hard conversaions. Let the kids read these books along with you. In doing so, you might be creating an environment for them to deal with and talk about the difficult things.

    • Birdman73

      Thank you Rev – I was going to post the exact same thing. If you are concerned with what your kids are reading – or watching or listening to – do it with them. Show that you are interested in what they are interested in. Have those hard conversations with them. If you feel uncomfortable with the topics or the language, many times your child is as well. If you feel what they are reading is inappropriate, create a “book club” where you alternate selections and you pick the books you read growing up and talk about how life is different now than it was then.

    • SpockMom

      Thanks for posting, Rev. You’re spot on about this subject. I think the key thing is to read the books along with your teens, like you said. It gives you a good starting point for those hard conversations, and maybe a “language” (since you’re talking about the book characters) that makes those things easier to approach.

  • Birdman73

    Are many young adult stories dark? Yes, the stories described here are much more violent, darker, and graphic then the YA novels I read in my time (a lot of the Judy Blume mentioned in the WSJ article, as well as movie novelizations and Shakespeare).
    However, I do believe we live in a darker, more graphic time. The curtain on graphic sexual depiction was lifted during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when oral sex and stained dresses became part of the public domain. In media, graphic violence became more prevalent with the rise of Quentin Tarentino and Marilyn Manson.
    But I believe the darker tone in YA literature – and literature itself – is still an after effect of the 9/11 attack. In the course of a single day, every person was touched with the horror of the day’s events. For the first time in our history, the spectacle of the deaths of thousands of people, people we knew and related to, because they were average Americans, was broadcast into our homes and schools. Yes, there have events of mass death – from natural and unnatural causes – in our lifetimes. But, for the first time, children and teens watched the tragedy unfurl before their very eye – in their homes, their daycares, their schools. We all live in a darker time, and YA literature has changed to match the time we live in.

    • Sam J

      The Human Condition has not become “darker” post 9/11. Technology has allowed our civilization to show the horrors of today with video cameras, video phones, 24 hour news channels and internet to access all this on a continued loop. My grandfather’s generation would have watched the D day invasion if it was available. Humans have and will always be fasinated by “the dark”. The YA tone of today is accepted b/c it is accurate. It has always been this way.

    • Arizona

      Oh, yeah, ’cause NOTHING violent, dark, or graphic happens in the works of Shakespeare.

      Sorry, but just the fact that you trotted out the anxious-parent battle standard of Marilyn Manson makes your comment utterly irrelevant. Time for a reality check: while, sure, 9/11 kind of upped the ante of modern American discourse, I’m pretty sure that the teenagers who lived through, say, the Black Plague, or the Holocaust, or the sacking of their village by any number of foreign marauders, or, or, or (I could keep coming up with examples ad infinitem, but that’s more effort than I feel like putting into this) would laugh pretty hard at your assertion that “for the first time, children and teens watched tragedy unfurl”—that is, if they had any time left to laugh after being raped, beaten, starved, orphaned, sold into slavery, etc. And people in the here and now are worried about a stain on a blue dress and scared to talk to their kids about suicide and incest. Gimme a break. The world sucks, life sucks, you suck, your kids suck, and the sooner you prepare them for it, the better off they’ll be.

  • Cygnus

    It’s all simple really: WSJ is a conservative rag. Anyone regularly reading it and taking advice from it probably already home schools their kids, and learns more from their preacher than from text books. Asher probably realizes that, but shouldnt be surprised that a portion of the populace thinks he’s the devil now. That’s conservative human nature. Ignore them, and their ignorance. I doubt they read EW anyway. Keep on writing as creatively and in as thought provoking of a way as you can. Screw the naysayers.

    • Birdman73

      Conservative human nature does not neccessarily reflect ignorance. Across this nation, there are millions of “conservative”, faith-based families who believe in tolerance and compassion. Faith does not lead to ignorance, blind faith leads to ignorance.

      • suzyq

        uh…I’m homeschooling my kids and I’m not a conservative, brainwashed idiot.

  • Bug

    While I do agree that an entire genre should not be painted with one broad brush, I can’t say that I really disagree with this WSJ article. It gets major points wrong, though. First off, YA fiction has been this way since I was a teenager, which was not that recently. Even as far back as gothic romances, novels aimed and younger readers have been like that. A lot of it is doom and gloom. What I think is the bigger issue here is not that writers need to stop writing books like this, or that well-written books like the one discussed in the article don’t need to exist to help young people through terrible times. They do. I think there does need to be some variety, though. There certainly need to be well-crafted books for YA readers that deal with very adult subjects. They maybe just don’t need to be ALL the YA books available.

    • Sara

      There is plenty of variety. Go in any bookstore and you’ll see a shelf full of Meg Cabot and another of Sarah Dessen and another of Ali Carter. I could go on and on. There is so much light stuff out there. And not all of the paranormal stuff is that dark, most of it is normality with some excitement and a little action.

      • Lisa

        Oh, trust me there is a lot of light stuff. If you want to give your kid watered down stuff about trying to win county pumpkin contests or playing for the local symphony where they replace “sh$#%t” with “sugar,” but a lot of it is terrible.

        That said, I would recommend Gary Paulson or Scott O’Dell, which are more adventure stories that get intense but never emo. Louis Sachar is also pretty awesome.

        Or you could just send your kid to the classics, which contain just as much graphic violence and troubling psychology as most YA books, but Shakespeare has more tonal variety and knew how to mix comedy and tragedy.

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