YA Too Dark? I Think Not. YA Saves.

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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