How dark is too dark for Young Adult fiction? When I began writing a YA novel a few years ago, I struggled with this question. I wasn’t sure how to handle my protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality, or how graphic the fight scenes in the book should be. I’m not the only one worrying about this: parents and teachers are chewing their nails too. When we have teens reading stories about racism, rape, murder, drug abuse, suicide, and genocide, have we gone too far? Do we want our young people reading about an isolated group of children who turn savage and fight to the death? What happened to the days when the most daring book a teen might read was “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?”
A few weeks ago, this national conversation — which has been going on at least since the middle of last century — got a bit more heated when the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon excoriating the horrible, awful, no-good, very-bad state of YA lit. Gurdon writes, “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.”
Before I get into my take on this debate, it bears repeating that “Young Adult” is a broad genre, and that a 12-year-old is quite a different reader than an 18-year-old. The last few Harry Potter books may be too dark for the former; The Hunger Games trilogy ditto. But most high-school seniors will consider those books kid stuff. They’ve been assigned books like “Heart of Darkness,” (it's right in the title!) and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” They’ve been reading about holocausts, racism, and rape. Parents, kids, and authors all have to recognize that in spite of the one-size-fits-all title, YA encompasses an enormous range. Just because a book is not appropriate for a 12-year-old doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written.
Back to teenagers browsing through books about rape, genocide, drugs, and children fighting to the death. Am I referring to “The Hunger Games?” Or to Sherman Alexie’s gritty novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” about life on the rez? (Both of these books are on Gurdon’s “too dark” list.) No. I’m recounting books assigned to most high school students over the past fifty years or so: “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Outsiders,” “Go Ask Alice,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Oedipus Rex,” and most of Shakespeare.
“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,” writes Gurdon. Really? Take Hamlet: you’ve got suicide, incest, parricide, and everyone dies in the end. In “Lord of the Flies,” two sweet boys are brutally murdered by other children, and the vivid description of a pig slaughter will put you off your tea for days. In “A Clockwork Orange,” a 15-year-old and his friends go off on a murder-and-rape spree. These are all classics, all read by teens forty years ago (or more).
Another WSJ article takes up Gurdon’s cause: “Until recently, the young-adult fiction section at your local bookstore was a sea of nubile midriffs set against pink and turquoise backgrounds,” writes Katie Roiphe. “Today’s landscape features haunted girls staring out from dark or washed-out covers. Current young-adult best sellers include one suicide, one deadly car wreck, one life-threatening case of anorexia and one dystopian universe in which children fight to the death. Somewhere along the line our teenagers have become connoisseurs of disaster.”
Roiphe must have forgotten Deborah Hautzig’s “Second Star to the Right,” published in 1981, about a 14-year-old’s near-fatal bout with anorexia. (Amazon lists it for “ages 12 to 15.”) We’ve already covered suicide and children fighting to the death with Shakespeare and Golding. These themes are not new, and young people’s exposure to them is not new. In fact, required reading for high school is inevitably going to include books with grim, dark, difficult themes.
The current kerfuffle over the state of YA is, I suspect, the result of Good Old Dayism: these people are remembering a past that never existed. Gurdon might have read Judy Blume when she was a teenager, but I was done with those books by the time I was 11. As teenagers, my friends and I read Pet Sematary and Clan of the Cave Bear. We read VC Andrews and HP Lovecraft. As teens still do today, we actively sought out dark books, books about people with problems bigger than ours, books about sexuality we hadn’t experienced. It was a way to experience things without actually having to live through them, a way to learn lessons without having to get hurt. While Gurdon seems convinced that reading about bad things will convince kids to go out and do bad things, I suspect it more often goes the other way — especially if the story explores the negative consequences of poor choices.
As a writer who has dabbled in YA, and as the parent of a teenager, I’m constantly aware of story content and context. They’re both important, but when it comes to writing and reading YA stories, context trumps content. A violent scene, or an early sexual experience, is completely different to read about when couched in different ways. Sex can be presented as meaningless or as part of a loving, consensual relationship. Violence can be gratuitous or illustrative. It’s all in the presentation. The point is not whether things are too dark, the point is whether the story reflects my value system — as the parent, and as a writer.