Monday, August 8, 2011

Too Dark for Teens?

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.


  1. I believe you have answered your own question, Sister Stephanie. There is no tabu subject for teenagers as long as it is presented in a proper context. But I always say, it´s the reader, not the book. Impressionable young men, high-strung adult women, disturbed people and those with their own ax to grind will read a text asigning it an entirely different (and far more dangerous) meaning than a well adjusted person (regardless of his/her age)would. We do see it with fundamentalists (of all creeds)and their deformation of religious texts.
    Great subject, great post!

  2. True, my question was rhetorical: I wasn't really asking a question as much as forming an argument. I found Gurdon's piece histrionic. I don't think there *is* a problem, and even if there were, what is her solution? Do we ban books, as at least one Missouri school did recently? Should publishers turn into culture police, refusing to turn out YA books unless they're about shopping and beach vacations?

    Sherman Alexie himself responded to Gurdon's criticism with this:

    "When some cultural critics fret about the 'ever-more-appalling' YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

    "No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged." You can read the whole response here:

    His retort has now come under fire: the whole issue of YA content has become a heated debate in the blogosphere. It's an interesting argument. I'm looking forward to hearing others' thoughts on it!

  3. I would not use the world "privileged". It´s more a question of being sheltered, of preserving innocence. And there is no such thing as sheltered children (among the Amish perhaps?)or innocence in this world.

  4. I wonder if there ever really was such a thing as an innocent childhood. I mean, generally. Alexie's own childhood included enduring horrific physical and sexual abuse. Many of my friends survived a variety of trauma, including rape, car accidents, drug addiction, and eating disorders. (And some of them didn't survive.) A hundred years ago, kids died routinely in farm accidents; two hundred years ago they lost limbs while working twelve-hour days in factories. Harper Lee refers (somewhat obliquely) to father-daughter incest in "To Kill A Mockingbird," and of course her protagonist, Scout, learns what rape is when she's only eight years old.

    There are kids, of course, who are innocent of all the above, but they are also kids who are probably pretty privileged. And if they are still so innocent by the time they're teenagers, it's probably not a bad thing for them to begin learning about the rest of the world in such a safe way: through books.

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  6. What a topic! I believe the YA world of writing tends to be a slippery slope, thus why I don't have much interest in writing YA. As parents, we need to be vigilant about what our children read. I am with my daughter and, I'll be honest, there are some books I've made her take back to the library because I believe the content is too dark for her (and this is in grade school). I reviewed a YA novel last year that dealt with sixteen year olds (three of them) getting involved in relationships with men in their twenties (hey, but the author made sure the sex was safe) and I was a little put off by it. I wouldn't want my twelve year old reading that book. And it was then that the broad 12-18 range in years seemed really off to me. There should be a split in there, like literature for "Tweens" and then YA. As authors, we can write what we want and how we want the story to be expressed, but like with any genre (Romance, Fantasy, Historical, Literary, etc.) there are rules to writing the genre. So, why should YA be exempt? Why should it be all over the board without any limits?

    (Sorry, I had some typos I needed to correct ;-)

  7. I think kids have been reading risque YA for years, and it didn't harm them at all. Heck, when I see them pick up a contemporary novel at the library I almost cheer (except that would be super creepy).

  8. I would do quiet creepy cheering with you, AA! :) I agree that teens have been reading sketchy stuff for ... well, pretty much as long as there have been teens and stuff to read. But it wasn't *called* YA until fairly recently; perhaps this is part of the problem. Now we have a label for what kids are reading, and we're so shocked. (Even though we read the same stuff at that age!)

  9. When I was a young teen, I was reading Stephen King. I don't think I was too traumatized. Well, that's not altogether true. I always half expect to see a pair of scary twins at the end of a hotel hallway.

  10. I loved this post. I have twin daughters who will be nine years old in a few weeks. One of them is pretty much at her age level, reading-wise, so she doesn't cause much stress. The other daughter, however...sigh. She has read all the Harry Potter books, all the Percy Jackson ones, and just finished The Hunger Games trilogy (and loved it...although she said she "skipped the kissing parts.")

    When I was younger, I read Go Ask Alice about a million times, and also was OBSESSED with stories where someone dies (usually of leukemia or suicide or a car accident). I didn't like Babysitter's Club or those other types of series. Actually, I don't think my tastes have changed much...!

    I agree that YA has always been dark. It's a time in our lives where even simple things take on exaggerated importance and the emotions are so visceral and intense. Look at Romeo and Juliet! I just want to know what my kids are reading so that we can talk about our own value system, and also make sure they understand reality when it comes to sex, relationships, etc.

  11. I'm raising my kids in the United States, but think of families raising their kids in Afghanistan, Syria, and the Congo. In war-ravaged countries, a ten-year-old sees atrocities that would shock even the most stalwart adults. May I remind you that Hamza al-Khatib was only 13 years old when the Syrian government tortured and killed him?

    So when you say, "[Reading YA] was a way to experience things without actually having to live through them, a way to learn lessons without having to get hurt," I say, "Amen, sistah!"

    Unlike most US citizens, I read the original version of "The Little Mermaid" to my children. There's no happy-ever-after in this tale. Why not? Because life is painful. The sooner my kids understand that, the better. God forbid they should ever find themselves living through the kinds of tragedies that war torn countries often face, but in the immortal words of the Dread Pirate Roberts (alias Wesley), "Life is pain, highness" and there's no getting around that. Art should reflect life.

    It's shameful to raise our children in a protective bubble, because the first time they encounter pain, it will shock the bejesus out of them. They'll contemplate suicide. They'll cower in fear instead of standing tall and fighting for what they believe is right.

  12. "I'll be honest, there are some books I've made her take back to the library because I believe the content is too dark for her (and this is in grade school)." Sister MM, I couldn't agree more: I have made my kids turn away some books, too. Your daughter and my son are still in grade school, and at this age they are children, not young adults. They need our supervision. Teenagers are in a different, however, and that's mostly what I'm focusing on here.

  13. "I just want to know what my kids are reading so that we can talk about our own value system, and also make sure they understand reality when it comes to sex, relationships, etc." Maggie, I wholeheartedly agree. My teenager just picked up "The Adoration of Jenna Fox," a bestselling YA novel, and she asked me to read it along with her, so I've got the audiobook and she's got the paper copy. :) We often read the same books, from those assigned at school to the read-for-pleasure YA. I don't want to limit what she's being exposed to as much anymore, now that she's not a child, but I do want to be right next to her as she experiences-by-proxy so we can discuss it ... for all the reasons you listed! Plus another, more selfish reason: as a writer who might do a YA novel someday, I want to know how the bestsellers are doing it. :)

  14. "It's shameful to raise our children in a protective bubble, because the first time they encounter pain, it will shock the bejesus out of them. They'll contemplate suicide. They'll cower in fear instead of standing tall and fighting for what they believe is right." EE, this is so well said. I wish I'd read novels like the current crop of YA: I remember when my first friend disclosed to me that she'd been sexually abused, and my initial reaction was utter disbelief. I had no idea how to talk to her about it, how to feel about it myself. If I'd read even one of the many excellent YA books that broach this topic, I'd have been a better friend. And if SHE had read one of those books, she might have found a way out of her nightmare a little earlier. One of four girls is sexually abused, so no wonder we see the topic so much in YA. I see criticism that writing about it "normalizes" it and somehow makes the situation worse, which I think is utter tosh. We need to be shining more flashlights into more closets, not putting our hands over our eyes and pretending if we don't talk about hard things, they'll go away. And more to the immediate point: we can't pretend that if we keep our kids ignorant, bad things won't happen to them.

    Young Adult fiction is a funny place where being a writer, a parent, and a reader come together, isn't it?

  15. So bottom line, YA novels are much racier and darker than mainstream because they are supposed to alert and instruct their readers (and their parents). But some parents fear their children will mimic the behavior of the protagonists. I was reading adult literature since grade school, and my mother had no problem with that. She assumed ,since most characters were much older than I was, and most stories were set in older days, I was not going to follow their steps. But when she got hold of "Go ask Alice", she almost had a fit. She was eyeing me suspiciously for weeks, until she finally blurted out “Don’t you even think of doing drugs like that Alice!”

  16. A thought-provoking post, Sister Steph.

    To me, balance is key. We don't want to shelter our kids until adulthood but we don't want to throw them too early to learn about the "harsh realities of life" (in vivid detail) just because we don't want them to have a distorted view of the world.

    I haven't read a lot of YA fiction recently, except for the Twilight saga, so I can't speak with authority on the subject. But if they're anything like the current TV shows "for teens" I would be biting my nails too. Like many of you, I also read a lot of adult fiction when I was a teen, but the level of sexual/gory detaiI in the books I read during my teenage years cannot compare to the explicit scenes we can find on TV shows geared for YA nowadays. Just take a look at True Blood, Gossip Girl or Glee.

    Steph, you point out some Greek tragedies and classics which have dealt with disturbing topics. The difference with today is that even though these horrible things happened in fiction, most of the times they happened "off stage." Someone told the audience what happened or things were implied, whereas nowadays (in film particularly) the audience experiences in lurid detail all kinds of disturbing situations. (Here's where the "show" vs "tell" makes a huge/obvious difference.) Take a look at "Dangerous Liasons". The original was an epistolary novel about two characters who exchanged letters where they schemed their revenge over a character through the seduction and downfall of another. The story is pretty dark in concept, but the "telling" between the
    characters is hardly as visceral/disturbing as the modern film version "Cruel Intentions" (which has an added element of lesbianism that didn't happen in the book or in the earlier movie version with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close). If you look at the cast of Cruel Intentions (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon, a much younger cast than earlier version) it's clear who the target audience for this movie was. So what does that tell us?Producers/directors/writers are getting bolder each year including gratuitous sex to appeal to younger audiences. And I don't think their intention is to educate.

    Here's where I wholeheartedly agree with you: it's all in the presentation. But unfortunately many of these difficult issues are dealt in a very superficial/irresponsible way.

    Sorry to have turned this discussion away from literature and focused it on Film/TV, but I've noticed that many of these shows/movies stem from novels (a disturbing thought for a novelist if this is not the direction you wanted for your book!)

  17. I'm so glad people have jumped in and added their $0.02 to this topic!

    I attended a roundtable discussion recently with three local YA authors. (I should have mentioned this earlier, I keep forgetting.) I asked one of the authors about this topic: I was worried about whether I had too much "gritty reality" in my current book, which is borderline YA. (It could be YA, could be women's fiction.) She said, "Don't worry about it. Write whatever you feel is true, and let the publishing industry worry about how to market it." The other two nodded in vehement agreement.

    Now. This conflicts a bit from what we hear from agents, I realize. But these are published YA authors, so I think their opinion counts for a lot.

  18. "YA novels are much racier and darker than mainstream because they are supposed to alert and instruct their readers..."

    I wouldn't say they are darker than mainstream; mainstream can be pretty dark. We just notice it more, and are more shocked, for a variety of reasons, when teens are the target audience. I don't think writers of YA go out thinking, "I am teaching young people how the world works!" I know I don't. I think, "Hmm, stuff happened to me (or to my friends) that could form the basis of a great story. Right, I'm off then!"

    "The difference with today is that even though these horrible things happened in fiction, most of the times they happened 'off stage.'" While this may be true with Greek tragedies, fairy tales of yore are so dark modern moms and dads refuse to read them to their kids now. Cleaned up versions populate the current market instead. In Roman times, families attended gladiator games; in Victorian times, they attended public executions. Children historically have not been especially sheltered. I don't think this has always been a good thing. Watching violence, and pitting it as good, can inure the next generation to violence. It's not a black and white issue.

    "Producers/directors/writers are getting bolder each year including gratuitous sex to appeal to younger audiences. And I don't think their intention is to educate." I'm sure that's true about books as well. (I think it's totally fine to discuss movies and TV along books: stories are stories, to some degree.) There really isn't much we can do about the crappy state of things, though, except a) not to add to it ourselves as writers and b) to pay attention to it as parents. If our stories aren't full of terrible writing and gratuitous sex and drugs, and if we aren't handing our kids said books, then that's all we can do.

    That said, we all have acknowledged we read VC Andrews as teens, and it doesn't get much more sordid, does it? How many of us went and slept with our brothers as a result? =:O Not too many. There are a few kids who might go off the rails because they're exposed, via books, to "too much." But I really agree with the chart I linked: there's more damage done by trying to repress books than there is by books themselves.


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