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Does YA fiction lead to dark thoughts, or do dark thoughts lead to YA fiction?

Lincoln Memorial/Washington Monument, Aug 2009 - 04

Which came first, the moody teen, or the YA fiction that moody teens often gravitate towards? Linda Holmes of NPR responds to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that criticized YA fiction for being “too dark”:

I’m more intrigued by the aspirational nature of the quaint but sad idea that teenagers, if you don’t give them The Hunger Games, can be effectively surrounded by images of joy and beauty.

While the WSJ piece refers to the YA fiction view of the world as a funhouse mirror, I fear that what’s distorted is the vision of being a teenager that suggests kids don’t know pathologies like suicide or abuse unless they read about them in books.

Do you remember being 15?

For some people, it was a breeze. There are absolutely, positively people who had a very easy time as adolescents, who feel a little guilty about the fact that they didn’t actually find youth all that difficult, and it’s unfair to declare their experiences invalid or uninteresting or inauthentic.

But there are plenty — plenty — of people for whom, if they are honest, it was a time of isolation and bafflement and plain old gutting it out until they got older. And even when it wasn’t miserable, it was often complicated, and a lot of kids who don’t experience abusive dating relationships or self-harm or eating disorders? They already know somebody who does. Surrounding them with books full of joy and beauty is fine, but confining their reading to those things because we are afraid that they cannot tolerate being exposed to the things they are already so often exposed to does them a terrible disservice. It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

Honestly, the kids who are reading the scary YA fiction — the dark stuff, the creepy stuff, the adventurous and weird and dirty stuff — are the same kids who, if YA fiction weren’t dark and creepy sometimes, would just read dark and creepy books for adults.

When I was a teen, I remember my mother sitting me down for a serious talk about the music I was listening to: she was concerned that it was “too depressing,” that it might be making me angsty. Okay, she had a point; it was pretty angsty stuff (hey, it was the ’90s, the era of bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana, where the anguished wail became an art form). But to my mind, the music expressed what I was already feeling. That was why I listened to it: it spoke to me.

So do young adults need to be shielded from “dark” YA lit? Or does it help them to express what they’re already feeling and convince them—crucially—that they’re not alone? I have to say I’m with Holmes on this one.

Join the Discussion

  • Jessica

    Actually, reading YA fiction really shaped me as a young girl, and not in a good way. But it wasn’t dark stuff–that was after my time–it was the seemingly-innocuous bubble-gum books like Sweet Valley High and Girl Talk, which projected an idealized version of young femininity that was at once physically flawless and also straight-laced, with no vices or self-esteem issues to speak of. I felt bad about myself because I’d never be that kind of perfect, and then doubly-bad because Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield never had ugly days or, God forbid, sexual urges, so what was wrong with me? At the same time, I was a voracious reader in a family of non-readers, so I had no idea there were other options out there. That meant I read probably 4 or 5 of those books a week. Yuck. I shudder to think of it.

    Honestly, I feel like the rawness of the YA books discussed here is a step in the right direction, because it gets closer to the true adolescent experience and away from an expectation of perfection. And actually, some of the sentence-level writing in the examples given here are sharp and intelligent, which is definitely something Sweet Valley High can’t claim.

  • Good discussion…! I think that reading dark material helps people find their own orientation in relation to challenging themes. A dark book forces the reader to take a stand, to evaluate her own self-destructive/angry/antisocial urges, to question “what would I do in that situation?”

    Aristotle called it “catharsis.” Did the writers of Greek tragedy worry that male viewers of their plays would go home and sleep with their mothers or murder their brothers?

  • Lee Thomas

    In much the same way that really young kids like to be scared (looking at you Grimm bros!) I think teens appreciate reading books that tackle the world’s contradictions and stickiness. It’s a safe venue – like the Greek tragedians you mention, Helen – to hold the thing up to the light and examine the different facets.

    I’m a bit too old for the big wave of YA, but there was no surer way to ensure teenaged me reading a book than for some adult to declare, “No, that’s too mature a subject for you” and put it on a high shelf. I read countless books based on such well-intentioned “protectionism.” It’s not like a 14-year-old doesn’t know the world has dark elements, and I think literature provides a lens through which we understand …

    Transgressiveness is such an underrated motivator.

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