YA Too Dark? I Think Not. YA Saves.

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Recently, an article on dark themes in young adult books in the Wall Street Journal rocked the YA community–and not in a good way. Rebuttals are popping up everywhere on blogs run by YA authors, book bloggers, and YA readers (teens and adults alike). The hashtag #yasaves was trending worldwide on twitter over the weekend. Read it. It will make you cry.

Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

The article talks about how a mom recently went into a bookstore to buy her thirteen-year-old a book and she walked out, no book in hand because there was “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.”

The article then goes on to condemn YA as a whole as nothing but dark, depressing schlock that’s going to make teens do horrible, terrible things.

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.

Um, what YA are you reading?

Please don’t disparage a whole genre based on your opinion that there are too many “dark” books, especially since terms like “too many” and “dark” are so subjective.

Certainly there are plenty of dark books out there dealing with tough issues like drug addition, rape, and abuse. But that doesn’t mean that because a teen reads a book about self-mutilation they’re going to cut themselves.

That’s like saying because I watched Bugs Bunny as a kid I’m going to smack people with mallets and drop anvils on their heads.

Books are fiction and teens know that.

Teens are smart, give them some credit.

As a mom, I can see the flipside.  I would feel uncomfortable with an eleven- or twelve-year-old reading my book, Innocent Darkness, because I wrote it with older teens in mind. Though set in a Steampunk world, it deals with issues like poverty and abuse.

But just because it’s aimed at older teens does not mean it shouldn’t be written. I also know that even if I’m careful to never, ever market it to younger teens that some younger teens may still pick it up. I can only hope that a parent, librarian, or teacher will be there in case they wants to talk about it.

It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

Parents, please, by all means pay attention to what your kids are reading.  The books your teens read can give you an insight into their interests and possibly what they–or their friends–are going through.

I only wish my parents noticed exactly how many books I read (both fiction and non) about eating disorders.

As a parent I want to know what my kid and teen are reading. I want to be able to keep an eye on their books and talk to them about what they read because there are books out there that might be appropriate for an older teen but not a younger one.   I totally understand feeling like you need to shield your young teen or tween from certain issues.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to tell other teens what they should or shouldn’t read–or make it impossible for them to even have the choice. What’s appropriate or inappropriate for my kids may or may not be appropriate or inappropriate for someone else’s.

Certainly, I’m not going to shun an entire genre simply because I may object to certain subjects being written about.  That would be like saying “all cartoons are horrible” because I don’t like certain ones.

Graph by @alexkost19

Each and every teen is different, with their own tastes, own issues their dealing with. They’re all at different places.  Because teens are so different I feel there should be a variety of books for them to read:  clean books, gritty books, dark books, light books, contemporary books, fantasy books.  Then they have a choice.

And believe me, that choice is there.  The YA section is not devoid of mortality.  Every single book on the shelves in the teen section is not all “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation.”

My first thought in response to the mom who walked out of the YA section in disgust was  why didn’t you ask someone in the bookstore for a recommendation? There are plenty of amazing books out there that don’t have sex, swearing or darker issues in them. There are blogs devoted to YA books for precocious readers and reviews from a parent’s POV.

The world is not always a pretty place.  A high school is not without dark and twisty issues of its own.  YA books give teens the chance to explore dark and sensitive issues safely.

I wish today’s YA had been around when I was a teen, when I felt like no one understood.  When I quite literally shut everyone out for nearly two years because I couldn’t deal with the stress, the pressure, the hormones, all those things I felt inside but couldn’t verbalize.  When I quietly dealt with eating and body image disorders for years all on my own, and no one ever noticed.

No one. Not a soul. Not even my parents.

I’m not saying YA could have saved me from all those things that happened to me in high school, though YA has saved many–just read these posts by Nicole and Julie. But maybe if I’d felt like someone understood, like I wasn’t alone, I wouldn’t have spent most of my adulthood trying to forget how miserable my teen years were.

Many, many people have chimed in with their own rebuttals including Kyle Cassidy, Jackie Morse Kessler (whose book, Rage, was blasted in the article),  and Bridge to Books. Publishers Weekly also ran a brilliant rebuttal by an independent bookseller.

So, is YA too dark?  No, I don’t think so–because there are so many different stories out there.

Also, every story–regardless of how dark it is–has a right to be told. And you, as the reader, have the right not to read it.

True, today’s YA can be often be dark and gritty, but it’s not all misery and despair. Just like in life, in YA oftentimes the brightest light can be found in the darkness.

YA does save, because YA understands.

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25 thoughts on “YA Too Dark? I Think Not. YA Saves.

  1. Now a 40 yo mom, I can distinctly remember my dad taking me to a proper bookstore for the first time around 1980/1981 and my choosing my first purchased YA fiction. It was about a vampire in highschool.

    The books I regularly chose at the library at that time were horror novels aimed at adults that had some sexuality in them. I was drawn to it because I was starting to explore my own sexuality and sex in literature – not explicit by any means, but implied or promised or off-screen and tame in its scope – was about the safest way to explore sexuality.

    Reading teen vampire novels at 10 years old was fun and thrilling and a tiny bit naughty. Everyone I knew as a pre-teen and early teen was reading the Flowers in the Attic series. Talk about dark and deviant! But, none of us turn into deviants. We all have families, are happy people, hold down jobs or started businesses…

    I think that young people really love to explore dark and dangerous topics as a way to learn what the boundaries are. If we raise our kids to healthy self esteem, they will read about dark issues and define that as an extreme boundary, one they likely don’t want to bump up against except in safe places like literature or film. Those children of ours with low self esteem will seek out experiences in real life that boost their sense of self and no amount of dark reading is going to help or hinder them. They’re the kids who act on dark urges consistently and in progressively more extreme ways.

    Of course, calling them dark urges is such a horrible judgment call. Those kinds of urges are so normal but certain kids will be able to make a boundary around what is normal and what isn’t. Kissing a boy in the alley on the way home from school is normal. Having sex with two or three boys in grade 7 is not. Shoplifting penny candy one afternoon on a dare is normal, attempting to steal merchandise from the mall is not.

    As parents, our job is to foster maximum self-determination in our kids. If you do that, you know that they can read about a troubled young people and not feel the need to adopt the character’s dark habits.

  2. Yet Moby Dick, MacBeth, Hamlet and The Telltale Heart are REQUIRED reading in school, at least when I was in school. Today’s YA is dark lite compared to Hamlet and MacBeth. MacBeth and his wife carry out a series of murders to further his lot in life for crying out loud. Edgar Allen Poe is only slightly less disturbing than H. P. Lovecraft who may be the darkest most macabre writer I have ever read, and Poe is required reading. I also have to mention that simply running into a bookstore and reading a few dust jackets tells you nothing about the content of the book except some superficial stuff the publishers think will cause you to buy it. Using this as a testimonial would get a “journalist” fired if he/she worked for me.

    1. Not to mention “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, which was required reading during the years I was in school. It was a disturbing book to read at 14yo, but taught me a lot about human nature.

  3. I get very annoyed at that bit about censorship, as a person who loves reading, and as a librarian, because it is so very incorrect. You see, I have absolutely no problem with a parent saying “I don’t think my child should be reading this book.” That’s called parenting. (Ok, maybe I get a little annoyed when it’s “This is too hard/big for my child” when it’s very much not.) When a parent says “No children should be reading this book!” or “This book should be hidden so the wrong person does not read it”, then we have censorship.

  4. I would like to note here, there has always been and will always be those that want to either a) banish anything they think bad, for your own good and b) those that abdicate any responsibility in rearing their young. Today, we live in a society where the TV is the main babysitter, schools are the arbiter of all knowledge and parents can’t be bothered to even try to instill either morals or manners… much less monitor and teach. The plethora of books is NOT the problem, it is simply a lack of initiative and resolve on the part of the parent(I use the term loosely). Some of the things that are required reading are far darker than most juvenile books (as noted above)… life is not sweetness and light… Parents should be PARENTS, there is no need to censor books, there is a need to guide and nurture children…

    Nuff said…

  5. Don’t know why the article singles out YA. My 9th grader just finished 1984 – talk about “dark.” Now he’s reading Brave New World – talk about “sex.” He’s reading both for honors English. Heck, I just wish he liked to read more; I wouldn’t be too worried about the content. I read all sorts of things as a pre-teen and mostly adult novels as opposed to YA, including The Godfather at 13! My parents weren’t concerned; they were happy to see me reading (well, except when I was still reading at 2:00 AM or when I was supposed to be doing chores).

    1. In ninth grade, I read Brave New World for school. This is a very religious school, and after I finished it I was baffled about why my teacher put it on the list. The same year I read Jane Eyre, about a 19 year old that falls in love with a 38 year old. Also, for school.
      Why aren’t THESE considered bad and dark?

  6. Suzanne, when I was a youth, I read the Exorcist, Brave New World, Stephen King. Was this any better. There is ‘pink’ YA, but the students I judge in high school forensics already are writing about bulimia, suicide, sex, anorexia, cutting. Should we tell them to stop reading the paper, watching TV, plug their ears and their eyes, and tell them to hold an aspirin between their knees? I don’t get it. Parent’s just have to be aware of what their children are reading and what the suggested maturity level is.

    1. Forgot. In High School, during a course that covered man’s inhumanity to man, we read ‘Hiroshima’. People being vaporized during WWII by the atomic bomb is light reading? Apparently some parents are not aware of what required reading is in the schools. For shame! That students read the truth, much less read something they know is fiction.

  7. Very well said Suzi. There are a lot of “dark things” out there, not just books, but also on the TV, computers, and games. Children of all ages are bombarded with it at every turn.
    I agree that each child develops that their own rate & their parents need to be involved in all their media so that they can konw what is happening.
    As for books that deal with darker or controversial topics? I think that they are a great thing. Yes, the reader can see authors opinions, but also if the parent reads the same book, then they can talk about it. YA is not just enjoyable to teens.

  8. Excellent article.

    My teen is a voracious reader and I can’t keep up with everything she reads. However, I always ask about the books, make it a conversation, AND tell her what I am reading. When the characters are dealing with issues we have a chance to talk about it.

    I can’t hide every sad and dark thing from her – better to admit the darkness is out there and in here is a safe place to discuss it.

  9. I’m a rather conservative guy. I see stuff out there that I don’t want my son to see. Maybe not even when he’s older.

    But that is my job, not society’s job.

    You used the quote: It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!”

    Making a distinction between options requires that the options be defined and visible. Taking books off the shelves because they’re “too dark” conceals one or more of the options, therefore makes it impossible to make distinctions.

    Dereliction of duty is when a parent does not make those distinctions and throws the responsibility on others. There are a few distinctions I’m happy to have society at large make (anti-drug abuse, etc.) and support. But most of the time… not so much because society gets it “wrong” as far as I’m concerned. Defining the distinctions that matter and teaching your child why they matter are parental responsibilities, not societal responsibilities. There are so many different opinions in “society” that few people will ever agree with everything the majority says.

    So, maybe YOU don’t use those kinds of words, but your kid is going to run into people at school, at the mall, standing in line at the soft drink dispenser at a restaurant (person dropped an F-bomb, no less), and professors in college who do. Maybe YOU don’t condone that kind of behavior, but they’re going to meet plenty of people who do, and worse, and more dangerous. Teach them what you believe, why, and what they should do instead. Pretending it doesn’t exist leaves them unprepared and forces them to figure it out on the fly on their own (or worse, with the peers who are pressuring them to do it). “Train up a child in the way he should go…” not tell him all the things he shouldn’t do or try to hide them from him so he’s surprised when he finds they exist. (In more psychological terms, role play choices and positively reinforce your child for good choices.)

    My son (5th grade) started reading a series Scholastic had tagged a year or two above his age. (He reads well above grade level.) I’d never heard of it or the author, so I read the first book. The first chapter was a bit of a surprise. Wait, they just did what? What did he say? That was all before the bad guy started tossing people to beasts in the arena.

    After I finished reading it, we talked about the language issues (we don’t talk that way because it offends some people and gets you in trouble with teachers, etc.), and that he didn’t need to be “mackin’ with his girlfriend” now or when he was 12 like the protagonist–or probably any time vaguely soon (and why), and about the brutality of the bad guy later on (basic theme: treat people like people, not playthings and a brief mention that things like that have happened in history, etc.), as well as the issues of racism/classism, power/corruption, the difficulty of finding and value of trustworthy friends, moving forward when all seems lost, and so forth that the book addresses. He read the rest of the series. I didn’t. He hasn’t used that language, kissed on girls, or thrown anyone to savage animals yet.

    (I could be totally wrong, through, because I enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft, some Poe, Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Hamlet among other tragedies and the double entendre in Benedick’s “die in your lap” line in “Much Ado” always makes me chuckle.)

    1. I agree with you whole-heartedly. I am a liberal leaning person. My husband is a conservative. We have a great marriage based on God, love, and mutual respect. We both agree that our son should be raised in a way that he learns the tools to deal with the world, warts and all. Sure – people say bad things, but we don’t – and we explain to him how to handle it. We also show him that we can have differing opinions and still live in peace and harmony. While we are not “sheltering” him, we certainly aren’t throwing him in a bar of drunk roughnecks and saying “figure it out.” It is all about being age appropriate and explaining life.

      I am also a high school biology teacher and I had one student who was not allowed to watch videos of any sort. Her parents claimed that this protected her from bad influences and preserved her innocence. I couldn’t even show her a 30 second clip of cell division. This was ridiculous. I wonder what her parents would have thought if they had heard her language in the hallway where she thought I couldn’t hear! It made me gasp! They were not doing her any favors – in fact she rebelled against them by purposefully becoming pregnant her junior year. The parents blamed the school for it and tried to sue us. Turns out, the father didn’t even go to our school, but he did go to her church. It is a shame that they didn’t teach their daughter how to handle the real world. She found a way to do it on her own. Is this what parents want?

  10. I’ve been working on a YA series myself and a lot of the content is inspired by the issues my daughter and her friends face in highschool. I think our teenage years can be a difficult and confusing time and books that they can relate to, even if they have dark aspects, maybe even because they do can make them feel less alone in what they’re facing.

  11. I’m so disappointed – I read Hardy Boys and Tom Swift growing up, and I never turned into an international jet-setting sleuth or inventor…

  12. I’, part of the older set that grew up when YA meant Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. Which is why I lived inthe adult section of the library by 7th grade. I knew my world was far more complicated than those books, and I wanted something that helped me understand and face the world around me.

    Is today’s YA edgy? Absolutely, and so it should be. Take a good hard look at some fairy tales – those things were edgy too before Disney made them pretty. Kidnapping and horror, monsters and death – I’m sure some parents were concerned back when those first appeared too.

  13. Great article, great responses. There are so many parts to this it makes my head spin. My teen kids are growing up in a world so unlike mine–but I also suspect I was an ostrich. Like B. A. Binns, my selections trended to Narnia and Nancy Drew. My kids read Lord of the Flies and studied the Holocaust in great detail in middle school.

    We’ve overseen and provided guidance, but in the end I just have to trust that they are reading what they need, at the time they need it.

  14. Great post Suzanne, especially your comment that all a worried mother needs to do is ask for some help.

    At my library one of the most common questions I get is about what teen books are suitable for the advanced 11-12 year old readers and we have NO problems finding them plenty of books that are suitable and that they adore without having to stop the older teens from the amazing books out there, that often become so important to them.

  15. Well said.

    My 7 year old and I are working our way through the Harry Potter series, which I read to him at bedtime. (We just finished Azkaban.) It’s prompted many discussions about death and the nature of good and evil that we might not have had otherwise, and I am always grateful when he talks about difficult topics with me. Otherwise how am I going to teach him about my values in a world that isn’t always full of light?

    On the other hand, we haven’t let him watch SW Episode III, because of the murder of the younglings. We simply told him that the movie is too scary, and he’ll be able to watch it when he’s older, which he accepts with surprising good grace.

  16. Well, I don’t shop YA all that often at the moment. Still, I know that there is everything under the sun available for this group of readers.

    I don’t understand even parental censorship of reading. It doesn’t happen in my family. You want to read it then you can. The adults read it too and then we all discuss it. Was it good writing? Was the story good? What did you like? What didn’t feel “real” to you? Books are a great way to start discussions with teens and pre-teens ESPECIALLY about uncomfortable subjects like drugs, cutting, mean girls, food/diet/body image issues, hazing, abuse, how to deal with those issues, etc….

    This mom wasn’t comfortable with the idea of her daughter reading about “dark” issues. The question must be asked, “just how comfortable will she be to talk about those things?” Or did this woman really believe that her child won’t face dark things?

    The world has both light and dark. This is why stories have both, too. As a parent, it is your job to teach your children how to deal with the dark and move forward again into the light.

  17. I haven’t seen it anywhere but has any pulled Gurdon(sp?) up on the fact that she provides little evidence for her claim that Teen Fiction is full of “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings”. She provides no evidence for this statement. Surely an hour or two spent looking through YA best seller lists and she could have fudged some stats but no.

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