Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dark Themes in Young Adult Literature

My friend Autumn posted a link to an article that addressed how dark YA lit has become. Well actually she linked to a response to the article. Here is the original Wall Street Journal piece and here is the NPR response. You should probably read them first to give yourself a little background.

I love YA lit. It is my genre of choice. Easy reading, jumps into the plot quickly, fast paced, interesting characters, and (formerly) no sex or swearing. I've found more and more language in my books lately. I had a student loan me a book (Rx by Tracy Lynn in case you wondered) and I felt totally sheepish returning it to her because it swore too much for me. Now I can handle some, especially if it is what I deem appropriate for the setting, and edit it out in my head. Like in I Am Number Four, the nerdy kid says "shoot" at opportune times and I have no problem with it. I even swear myself a bit at opportune times (but I've been diligently trying to stop because me husband hates it).

As for dark, we're talking about the increase of books about eating disorders, abuse, rape, drugs, alcohol, murders, violence, and more PG-13 content. As the articles pointed out, books with these things aren't new, but there does seem to be an influx of them lately. And while some kids aren't ready for this intense of content, I don't think the books should be banned from schools.

1) Banning books just increases the sales and interest

2) Kids like dark things.

Roald Dahl had some definite darkness and he was my favorite author in 2nd grade. The Chokey in Matilda was a closet kids were locked in that was covered in shards of glass so the kids couldn't move. Not exactly unicorns and butterflies. But reading and loving those books didn't make me into any less of a positive human being.

I think kids like a very concrete bad guy. They like to have clearly defined boundaries. This is the hero, this is the villain. While I'm not an expert in teenagers, I do feel I have some insight into their behavior. Teenagers are just desperate to feel something real and intense. Whether that feel comes from a first love, the rush of doing something illegal, winning a football, or getting high, they seek it out.

Many find that in books. A good book as an amazing power to draw you in and feel what the character is feeling and going through. I think some kids who will never get into drugs or have an eating disorder can experience it through a book and never need to go through it. Books can show them all the pain of where it leads and perhaps keep them from it better than a parental lecture. Others who have experienced the pain of abuse may be able to find some kind of comfort or validation seeing a character go through the same feelings under similar circumstances.

But there are some kids who may become inspired by these books. Cutting had never occurred to them but now seems like a good idea. Drug curiosity may be peaked even more after reading a detailed description of being high.

As adults, we want to protect kids and young adults. There is so much awfulness in the world we would like to shield them from. But teenagers are much more aware of the world than many think. They know terrible things are happening all around them and I think books can help them make sense of it.

That said, not every kid should read every book. Some books are not appropriate at some ages. But it is impossible to dictate which age which book is ok for which kid. That's where parental judgement comes in.

When I was 13, I had this amazing discovery that all of these adult books I had heard about where not above my reading level. After plowing through Lord of the Rings, I went for any book marked with the "Classic" brown sticker on the spine. The Three Musketeers and many of Dumas were read the summer after 7th grade along with Of Mice and Men.  Pride and Prejudice was devoured, albeit with a dictionary underneath it. Then I saw the Steven King wall and several titles I had heard of as movies. My mom saw my selections and was apprehensive. I told her I wanted to read one and if it was too scary I wouldn't read any more. In a brilliant parenting compromise, she said she'd like to read it first.

So she did. I picked The Green Mile because it was the shortest (at the time the book was actually broken up into 7 installments). She read it and told me she was uncomfortable with me reading it. I asked why and she gave me an honest answer. She told me what bothered her and why she didn't think I should read it, but I knew it was always my choice. In what I thought was terrible hypocrisy at the time, she finished the series. She was still hooked on the story. In explaining why, she told me all of the plot in depth after she read each book. Oddly enough, I was satisfied with that. I was able to find out everything without the icky. She also never told me I wasn't ready for it (100 parenting points to mom!). I would have resented so much at 13. She knew I could handle it, but simply didn't want me to.

And you know what? I've never read a Steven King novel. Not that I think they are bad, nor do I judge anyone else for reading them. I just figure I don't need that bit of icky when there are so many other books I've been meaning to read.

It's very individual and I'm glad my mom's literary discussions with me taught me how to pay attention to how I feel while reading a book. To me, the feeling you get is much more important than the content.

Both Skinny and Wintergirls go in depth into the characters' eating disorders but Skinny brought me down and Wintergirls didn't. I didn't even think of The Hunger Games as violent until someone else mentioned it. It didn't phase me. I can't handle rape in TV shows or movies very well, but I'd recommend Speak to almost any teenager.

Whew, after all that philosophical business, I think I'll go read something about dragons and magic :)


Emily Z said...

I have to say, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as an "adult."

And you heard my thoughts on the matter on Facebook. I love Steven King, but he is kinda high on the ick factor in some books.

jeanene c said...

Have you ever read the originals of fairy tales? The wicked step sisters cut off their toe or heel to fit into the glass slipper, the little mermaid kills herself, but can't go to heaven or hell so she becomes sea foam. Children love dark things. I'm not sure Disney does us any favor making everything end happily ever after. Unrealistic expectations ensue.


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