Young Adult Fiction Is Dark For A Reason

Katie Roiphe has an astute piece in the Wall Street Journal about why so many of today's young adult bestsellers focus on dark themes like suicide, eating disorders, and car crashes — and why we shouldn't be worried about it.

Roiphe may be a little off-base with her claim that "until recently, the young-adult fiction section at your local bookstore was a sea of nubile midriffs set against pink and turquoise backgrounds" — when I was in middle school in the 90s, there was definitely a series of YA books about terminally ill kids. And in Francesca Lia Block's now-embattled 1997 novel Baby Be-Bop, the main character is beaten by a gang of gay-bashers. But Roiphe is correct that many recent bestsellers deal with sorrow, suffering, and terror: there's Wintergirls, about a girl's gruesome battle with anorexia and cutting; If I Stay, in which a girl must decide whether to live or die after a car crash kills her parents; and Hunger Games, about a reality-show-cum-battle-royal in which only one teen will survive. Are these books shock lit, designed to sell copies through misery and gore? On the contrary, says Roiphe, their popularity just speaks to how difficult it is to be an adolescent. She writes,

[T]he extreme and unsettling situations chronicled in these books are, for many teenagers, accurate and realistic depictions of their inner lives. Your whole family may not have died in a car wreck, but it sometimes feels like they have. Everyone in the school cafeteria may not be plotting to kill you with bows and arrows, or knives, or mutant killer insects, but it feels like they are. In the theater of adolescence, with all the sturm and drang of separating from parents, with the total stress of just having to be yourself in the hallway at school, perhaps these books feel, at times, like a true and reasonable representation of daily life.

I once got to a talk by a linguist with who was developing a program to teach reading in inner-city schools. He said a big problem with the stories kids were assigned was that they were too happy — they didn't reflect any of the difficulties the kids actually faced in their lives. The idea that kids and teenagers always need to be protected or distracted from the hard things in life — or that, as Baby Be-Bop's detractors seem to think, keeping books out of kids' hands will keep them in the dark about sexuality, prejudice, and violence — is a false one. Children understand, from a pretty young age, that life can suck, and literature that acknowledges and comments on this is going to speak to them a lot more clearly than fluff about birthday parties and shopping.

Of today's popular YA books, Roiphe writes, "these investigations of personal disaster are much less depressing than the Gossip Girl knockoffs which initially seem frolicky and fun but are actually creepy and morally bereft and leave you feeling utterly hopeless." It sound harsh — and there's nothing wrong with a little escapism from time to time — but characters dealing with difficult circumstances are actually a lot more hopeful and inspiring than characters who never have to deal with anything.

It Was, Like, All Dark and Stormy [Washington Post]