Y So Dark, A?

You may have seen this already on my Facebook page or Twitter, but recently the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about how dark Young Adult literature is these days. It’s called “Darkness Too Visible,” and the thesis is basically that YA literature is too dark and disturbing, that we shouldn’t be exposing our children to themes of rape, suicide, self-mutilation and the like.

Of course the Young Adult Lit community (and the thinking person’s community) exploded with responses. Here’s one from NPR: http://n.pr/lxmwKa

The general tenor of the response has been that a) being a teen is hard, b) reading novels that frankly depict dark themes is actually comforting because it lets teens know they aren’t alone, c) literature in general often depicts these themes and teens could read it in Shakespeare (my favorite argument), d) teens that aren’t already unhappy aren’t going to suddenly want to try cutting themselves, etc. etc. etc.

I agree with all of these points, and just want to chime in with my own experience.

I love Young Adult fiction. I still read it avidly and I’ve written about a novel and a third in the genre. I think that there is incredible potential in literature with protagonists in the 11-18 year old range, because those ages are a time of possibility and change and growth and transformation. And in our teens it can be very difficult to negotiate our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the realities of the world, especially if we feel alone. Literature, especially literature already aimed at addressing what it’s like to be young and in flux, can be a tremendous tool and comfort.

I wouldn’t be the person I am without Young Adult literature, hands down. You read enough, you begin to notice patterns–that it’s better to trust yourself and what you love, rather than let others sway you to what they say you should do, that when things get really bad there’s potential to save them, that good communication can save miles of heartbreak. And you find role models, characters you wish you could be more like, and because you have a 200-page guidebook of what that person would do in certain situations, you’re armed in the fight to become more like them. I remember training myself not to scream when surprised and not to constantly complain when I, say, twisted an ankle, because I wanted to be more like Alanna of Tremaine. Super useful? Maybe not, but it did make a difference in how annoying I am to be around (a positive one, I hope).

I’ve taken chances in my life and pushed myself to do the things that scare me because of Young Adult literature. I realized by living vicariously through characters that the worst that could happen to me if I went to that far-away theater camp or chose to study in India or auditioned for that show was pretty tame, and that people could get through worse. A lot worse. And it was through reading books about rape and war and suicide and drug abuse that I came to see how good I really had it at the same time as I felt a little more prepared to help friends when they encountered something horrible.

I think that adolescence is a prime time for people to start exploring the darker side of human nature. There’s still a measure of safety to life for most of us (the lucky ones who still have their needs taken care of by parents, who don’t have to worry about supporting themselves), so there’s a safety net, but at the same time we’re coming face to face with primal emotions and needs amplified by hormones and pressures from all sides. It’s validation to see the thoughts that scared you, that you couldn’t control, on the pages of a book, and then to see how another person–even a fictional person–dealt with them.

Anyway. I don’t need to go on and on about it. I love YA, I think that sometimes we need to look unflinchingly at what people are capable of, I think teenagers can handle that kind of looking and I don’t like the idea of censorship “for the good of” young people. My least favorite thing, as a teen, was to be patronized, and that’s what I think the first article is doing. I’d like to give our young adults the benefit of the doubt.

They’re “Young Adults,” after all.








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