Every once in awhile, I see an article wherein someone complains about the content of teen books, like in this 2011 Wall Street Journal article called, “Darkness Too Visible“. In one passage, the author, Meghan Cox Gurdon, says:
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
This makes it sound like every children’s book, particularly those for young adults, are peppered with the horrific. Or that all young readers read for rainbows and happy endings. I don’t agree with either thought. I believe children read for three reasons: (1) to explore other worlds, whether that’s Narnia, Pakistan, or Brooklyn when they live in Indiana (or vice versa!), (2) to escape their everyday real lives, and (3) to find themselves in the books they read. Some of that definitely aligns with the rainbows and happy endings type of book, but not all of it.
Gurdon goes on to acknowledge what many writers, teachers, and parents say:
The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless.
But she glosses over that argument, saying instead that reading about self-destructive or other violent acts and behaviors will actually encourage teens to try them themselves.
Except, is that true? And is it true for the majority of children and young adults reading these books? Or perhaps instead, it helps teens see that there are others out there, and helps those who didn’t know such things existed, gain empathy for those going through such horrors.
Gurdon quotes Sherman Alexie, an author often under fire for his hyper-realistic fiction of a Native teenage boy living on a Reservation (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). Alexie responds in another WSJ article: “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood“:
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
He argues that when critics complain over the increasing horrors and violence in teen books, they aren’t trying to protect the children who are actually living these horrors:
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.
In other words, in writing about teens going through horrible things, writers aren’t making them happen. Instead, they’re validating for those living them that they’re not alone. That someone out there understands. That others have been through it and survived. Which is a damn powerful message.
Now granted Alexie doesn’t specifically mention the horrific acts that happen in all the books Gurdon mentions. Certainly, I could never, based on Gurdon’s description, read Lauren Myracle’s novel Shine, for instance, but that’s because I’m sensitive to violence, not because of my judgment on the subject matter. This level of detailed and cruel, intentional violence is, in my opinion, an outlier in the field of teen books (of all genres).
But Gurdon’s right: many teen books are dark.
I believe that books to a large extent mirror the culture in which they were birthed. (Can you imagine how different Little Women would be if it were written today?) And don’t we know that horrible things happen in real life to people of all ages? Bad things don’t wait until someone is 21 to hit them. So if we are seeing an increase in darkness in teen’s (and children’s) books, maybe the real question is: how much darker has the real world become? And we all know the answer to that: a lot.
I’m not sure what brought this to mind so strongly today that I had to look up these articles again and write about them. I think it was seeing the above quote from Mary Oliver that opened the door. Then maybe my own visceral reaction to something I saw on TV wove in, and together, they reminded me of the struggle I had some years ago: what, as writers, is our responsibility to readers, particularly to our younger ones? To produce sanitized stories where true horror doesn’t exist? Where the hero always wins? Where the happy ending always happens?
Or is it to say to them, I understand. You’re not alone. Stay with me because it can get better.
Maybe my responsibility (because I can’t speak for anyone else) is to take the darkness I’ve seen and lived through (and we have all had some darkness in our lives), and transform it through my writing to say, there is always hope. Maybe that’s why, while I may write darker material sometimes, I always have to end with a glimmer of hope, even if not with an outright happy ending. Because I’ve always believed that you can survive the worst things knowing that tomorrow might be better. And if tomorrow isn’t, the day after will definitely be. And I want my readers to believe that too.
Note: For a more recent article on the darkness in children’s literature, read The Guardian’s “How dark is too dark in children’s books?“