Sunday, June 5, 2011

YA Books: Too Dark or Hitting Too Close To Home?

Aghast. Astounded. Flabbergasted. Shocked. Disheartened. Dismayed. Utterly mind-frelled.

HOW is this considered accurate, let alone responsible?

For those of you who are part of--or at least tangentially aware of--the writing community, you'll understand what I'm talking about. Even if you disagree with my very obvious opinion on the matter. And I acknowledge that it really is just that: my opinion. It is shared by many MANY people, but I won't go so far as to say that makes it FACT.

For those of you who are unaware of why my outrage is about, allow me to enlighten you.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal posted an article blasting the YA (Young Adult) genre of books. We're all aware, thanks to Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, that the current trend in Teen interests isn't that far off of the adult ones. Vampires, and Werewolves, and supernaturals (Oh my!) abound. The Wall Street Journal has not only criticized but admonished teens, parents, publishers and authors for the existence and participation in this current trend.

Frankly I find it disgusting. When I wasn't a teenager, I was an avid reader. What did I read? In school, I read things like Island of the Blue Dolphins, which made me cry because the ending was so sad. Out of school I read the Sweet Valley Twins series. People might think that's a great, light and fluffy series, but I remember it differently. Sure there was some of that. But I also remember the books that dealt with child cruelty: children were being abused by their parents and didn't know how to speak out and get help; twins had been separated at birth, and the book dealing with their eventual coming together was a very dark themed book, full of suspense and mystery; the traditional April Fool's prank where the leading twin girls dressed as each other each year to fool everyone--but in that book they chose to dress as themselves and all manner of bad things happened which had the best friend sisters very angry with each other--and let's not forget about the book where the circle of friends decided that it would be great fun to have the twins pretend to actually be triplets with the new girl in school. They played other pranks on this girl, too, all because she was new and they thought being mean would be funny. It made me terrifed to move and go to a new school--which turned out to be a valid fear, as I went to 4 different high schools.

As a preteen, my mother handed me The Hobbit. What could be darker than a wizard forcing a hobbit to go on an adventure with 13 dwarves he'd never met and had no desire to accompany across a land frought with danger in order to recover their treasure? Anyone who's read The Hobbit knows it's not a light and fluffy book. It's incredibly dark, filled with things like battle, death, capture, escape, terrifying monsters that will torment you and play with you before finally eating you (those spiders are enough to make the most stout-hearted warrior take pause). My own mother admitted to me at that age when I asked her if she had read the book that she hadn't and never would because as a child she read one of Tolkein's books and it gave her nightmares.

Read that last sentence again and then read the first one of the same paragraph. That's right. My own MOTHER gave me a book by an author who gave her nightmares as a child--before I was 12 years old, by the way--all because she thought >I< might like it. Does this mean my mother was a bad mother, an irresponsible parent? No. It really doesn't. What this means is my mother knew me well enough to know that:

1. I wouldn't have nightmares from it
2. I wouldn't turn around and start acting out the things I found written in its pages
and probably most importantly of all
3. I would enjoy it.

Guess what else I read? The Red Badge of Courage, a story about a guy who enlists in the Army during the civil war. His "red badge of courage" was a wound to the head he suffered while RUNNING AWAY FROM THE BATTLE AND LEAVING HIS FRIENDS AND COMMRADES TO DIE. First off, how is a book about war aimed at children not dark? Second, cowardice! Hello! how is this an acceptable book, but vampires--widely acknowledged to be works of fiction and the imagination--not? When people expressed outrage about the military and "our children fighting an unjust war" (there's another post about my feelings on this; go find it), why wasn't this book held up for condemnation?

I've seen a lot of outrage and anger about this article, and I feel it's well deserved. One of the major poins the article expresses is that this kind of stuf... well here, I'll give you a direct quote:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? 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.
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

Maybe the reason that they went undescribed 40 years ago was due to the same mentality that makes people afraid to ask someone if they're thinking of hurting themselves or *gasps* commiting suicide. I'm subject to annual training on Suicide prevention and awareness. More often than not, I get "looks" because I dare to raise my hand and speak out. I contradict trainers who are only following a prepared set of slides with old data. I answer questions that no one else has the answer to, or simply doesn't believe the answer because "it doesn't make sense". Most people would just rather get through it. I'd rather get the right information out to people who just might need it some day. It's long since been discovered that asking someone if they are thinking of hurting or killing themselves doesn't "plant the idea" in their heads. What it does is show them that someone pays attention to them. Someone cares and wants to help. It gives them a chance, a way, to get help.

Let's also remember that Pathologies described today are done so in a very real way. Not over exaggerating for the sake of shock and sensationalism. Not underplayed to get the credit for touching on it, but doing so in an unreal manner. People who have suffered the same atrocities and traumas in those books can see that they aren't alone. They can turn to friends, family, other people for help or advice. It gives them hope. It gives them the strength to fight on. Some of these books even give teens considering killing themselves JUST TO ESCAPE THEIR REALITIES the courage and fortitude to stick through it, to grow up and pass on the message that what happened to them was not okay. How many of our outreach programs were started by, are currently populated by, people who went through things portrayed in these novels?

Ignoring these topics won't make them go away. Does cancer go away because you refuse to acknowledge or treat it? Did HIV miraculously fade from the planet because people refused to acknowledge it in the 80's? No. Today awareness about HIV is in the forefront of everyone's minds. Prevention and education are talked about. It's become common place. Is that wrong? Should we go back to the says when it was called GRIDS? Of course not. So why is YA wrong?

Ultimately it comes down to parental responsibility. If you don't like what your kid is reading, talk to them about it. Find out why they're reading it. Maybe you've got a great kid who is of the mentality that in order to adequately discuss why they don't like something they feel they have to have read it first. Like politics. The best way to unravel an opponents arguments is to be armed with facts and knowledge about the issues. Maybe your kid feels peer pressure to read it... in which case the conversation shouldn't be so much about why they're reading it but about the acceptability of saying "no" to their friends. Maybe they find it funny that people would actually believe in vampires, werewolves and faeries. If you think the books might be too dark or too violent or too something for your kid, read it first. TALK to your kids, and maybe then you'll understand.

In all fairness, here's the link to the entire WSJ article:

And here's the link to a very good rebutal:

If you're on Twitter, check out the conversation about this topic: #YAsaves.

I read a lot of dark books as a kid, and I didn't feel the need to start doing all the things I found in those books. I was reading sexually explicit books before I was 16 years old. Guess what? I was in college before I had sex for the first time. I was legally an adult and had already voted in my first election. I had already agreed to serve in the military. The books I read didn't make me feel as though I had to run out and have sex, that I was missing out on something. They showed me the complexity of the act itself, the emotions that accompanied it--and often the consquences that I knew I just was not ready to deal with. They reinforced my decision to wait. My friends started having sex at 12.

Yeah, you read that right. 12. I was a hold out, and very nearly bowed to peer pressure a few times just so I could fit in with my friends. And every time, I just couldn't do it. I've never regretted that, and my friends didn't abandon me. They might have made fun of me when i wasn't around, but none of them told me about it. I didn't feel any less loved by them because of it.

Reading about drinking blood, getting violent, hurting yourself--killing yourself--isn't going to put the idea in a kid's head. If the idea is there, it's already there. What it will do is help them to feel less alone, less afraid. And if you've talked to your kids, if you've shown them that you trust their judgement and are willing to talk to them about anything they find questionable or they don't understand--or most importantly, if they need your support and help because one of these books has shown them it's okay to come forward about something they might be going through--guess what? Your kid will feel more comfortable coming to you to frankly and openly discuss what they're reading. You'll probably find that you were right to place your faith and trust in your kids, either because they were free to be mature about it or because it gave them the courage they needed to talk about a very important thing. Would you really want to find out your kid was being hurt in some way (like abused) because they felt they couldn't come to you, and as a result something far worse happened and brought it to light?

Trust your kids. Talk to them. Read with them. Read before them if you feel you have to. Don't criticize an entire genre just because they're exposing reality for what it is through artistry and fiction.

And mom, thank you for trusting me with my reading.


  1. Haha. Hell I was reading Dean Koontz at 14. That was straight-up thriller/horror. I really get tired of reading articles blasting entire genres just because someone doesn't understand or because of a few bad examples. Great, detailed blog post.

  2. I'm with you, Carrie. It's horrid that this person is a "children's book reviewer condemning an entire genre. First of all, YA is now a separate genre because years ago the industry realized the need to separate out more mature books for the older teens. "Children's" books are not YA. not even close. So a reviewer of children's books should not tear down an entire genre--which is not her own--based on a few books. As a parent, writing a comment on an article, a letter to the editor, or on her own personal blog, sure. In her official capacity as a journalist for a widely heralded, national newspaper? I don't think so.

    She tore down Jackie Kessler's Rage because of its portrayal of self-injurious behaviors. I wonder how surprised the author of that article would be to discover that it's far more prevalent than she realizes. That what makes it "infectious" is not reading a book about a girl who STRUGGLES with and eventually over comes it. Denying it even happens does. Finding others who use it as a coping method and having no where to turn to refute its validity does.

    I speak from personal experience.

    If all it takes to be a book reviewer for the WSJ is Google, Wikipedia, and an opiniion, then hire me. I'll read and rewview books all day long for them. I'm really pissed about this, but I'm trying to stay somewhat polite.

  3. All of these responses are why YA is RELEVANT to our children, hell to us adults too, these days! Ignorance is NOT bliss. Read. Talk. Be open. But most of all, don't just wish it to go away. It hasn't yet, and it won't because you want it too.

    GREAT response.

  4. I'm glad you wrote this post, you said most of what I'd say and I just don't want to allow myself to get too mad. People who are over-controlling and attempting to abolish whatever doesn't personally appeal to them are ruining the US. Yeah, that's a blanket statement, and it applies to more than just teen novels. Does it directly and personally infringe on your freedom to choose how to live? No? Then shut the hell up and let other people decide for themselves how to live. Ah, I got mad anyway. Great post, though.

  5. Samantha, I added you to the linky on my blog post--Everyone else who has a YAsaves story, please feel free to do the same. Thanks for sharing this.

    I think I learned more about good and evil from The Hobbit than I did in 6 years of Catholic school. Always a favorite!