Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is It Dark In Here, Or Is It Just the YA?

By now I'm sure anyone remotely involved in the YA market has heard of this article published in the Wall Street Journal, which lamented the prevalence of dark material available for teens. There were reactions aplenty, one of which involved the hashtag #YAsaves on Twitter, as well as a plethora of blog posts from writers, readers and agents alike.

A lot of the reaction involved people addressing the obvious—hey, there's plenty of lighter material as well. And I don't have a lot of add to that other than ... uh, yeah. Instead, I want to agree (to a point)—there IS a lot of dark stuff going on in YA these days. And you know what? Good.

I admit, when I first started my job as a YA librarian I was more than a little taken aback by what I could find in the pages of the books I was processing. Then I took a look at my patrons and began to understand. My best readers are what people would term "troubled kids." They need to escape from God knows what is going on in their lives, and part of that escape involves relating to what's going on in the pages. So they connect with that first, dark story that mirrors their own lives and (in my experience) a few things come from this.

1) They find out that reading isn't all dry Victorian classics or kiddo stories about hiding a puppy in your basement and hoping your mom doesn't find out. No—there are books about sex, drugs, & rock n' roll. There are also books about sexual abuse, addiction, and getting wasted way too often with your band. If my librarian senses ring true (and they often do) the kid who said, "I hate reading. Books suck," will come back a little shame-faced and ask, "You got any more like that one?" Yeah, baby. Sometimes that dark material is a gateway drug—to a new habit called reading.

2) They find out that whatever is going on in their life—be it abuse, addiction, depression, questioning their sexuality, or self-harm—it is NOT unspeakable. There are books about it. People talk about it. I can't tell you how often "dark" books have opened a door for kids, a door that leads to a room where they can TALK.

One of my jobs involves inventory. At the end of the year, I tally up what's on the shelves, what's checked out and what's ... "walked off." Without fail we've lost a few really popular series books here and there, and many, many titles of a darker nature.

Books like IDENTICAL by Ellen Hopkins and SUCH A PRETTY GIRL by Laura Weiss, which deal with parental sexual abuse, or SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, SAFE by Susan Shaw, STOLEN by Lucy Christopher and LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott, all books that center around rape victims. Gutsy authors like Brian James and Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson deal with the still-taboo subject of male rape with their titles DIRTY LIAR and TARGET, respectively.

Lauren Myracle's KISSING KATE and KEEPING YOU A SECRET by Julie Anne Peters, as well as David Levithan and John Green's WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON deal with teens who are questioning their sexuality.

HANGING ONTO MAX by Margaret Bechard, THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson, and AFTER by Amy Efaw all deal with teen pregnancy—go walk down a high school hallway and tell me those aren't necessary.

Drugs? Yeah, we've got those (or rather, by the end of the year, we usually don't) in the form of SMACK by Melvin Burgess, CRANK & GLASS by Ellen Hopkins, SHOOTING STAR by Frederick McKissack, BOOST by Cathy Mackel—the last two dealing with teen athletes looking for an edge.

SCARS by Cheryl Rainfield and CUT by Patricia McCormick address the very real problem of self-harm among teens.

BLACK BOX by Julie Schumacher and the now famous autobiography of Susanna Kaysen—GIRL, INTERRUPTED, deal with depression, and apparently kleptomania is a side-effect because I keep having to mark them "Lost" in inventory.

And that's alright. If a kid is too ashamed or embarrassed to check a book out because of the topic, it's okay. Go ahead and steal it.

I'll buy another one.


Mariella said...

Thanks for this blog post. As an aspiring writer I've been meaning to see whether I could come up with some stories that are more relatable to teens, but I have to read some first because otherwise it would be too huge a project for me. I was wondering what books I could read that would help with this and your blog post does exactly that--I'm definitely going to check out some of these titles. I can't believe I haven't read ANY of them.

I did realize not too long ago that there's more of a need for 'dark,' relatable books among YA readers. I hadn't noticed before. But now it's daring me to step out of my box and try a different 'theme,' and like you say, it helps a lot of readers. They need it more than unicorns and fairies a lot of the time.

I love this blog, BTW :)

Richard said...

A very thoughtful and, in some ways, beautiful post.

It's unfortunate that a lot of young adults suffer from one or many of a long list of maladies our society (especially poor parenting) handicaps them with. Stories that reflect their pain can actually help make them whole. Very few young adults live in a safe, nurturing, loving environment. Too many of them live in hell, or someplace close to it.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Mariella - thanks so much for your comment. Yes - it's very true that there are a lot of issues for today's youth, and as Richard says, a lot of it reflects upon the lack of parenting.

I can't help put wonder if the parents in these situations had their own unaddressed issues as youth, and their children's issues are reflection of a vicious cycle.

An environment where no issues are verboten is essential to adults and youth being able to tackle their problems without shame. I believe YA can help create that environment - if its given the room it needs to do so.

catwoods said...


Thank you for this post. I've worked as an advocate for children for many years and can tell you that "dark" is sadly normal. These kids need to see themselves reflected in writing to understand that they can overcome the hand they have been dealt--or dealt themselves.

All of these issues have been around since the dawn of time. We are just now giving our kids a connection to their futures through literature about them and for them. Literature that doesn't judge, shame or hurt.

Dark is not pretty, but it is necessary and empowering. As are wonderful librarians who understand their patrons.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Awwww shucks. Thanks, Cat :)

cherie said...

Excellent post, Mindy! I agree with all the points you've outlined. What's even better is that you've given as an fab list of books with varying themes. Someone above has pointed out the " bad or lack of parenting" issue. I think it's becoming truer every generation. I see this huge disconnect between parents and kids. Books are therapy. And I would rather have kids be addicted to reading than to drugs or whatnot. When they spend their energy connecting to characters in a book, they don't have energy to waste on useless, senseless things.

Leslie Rose said...

I once heard a speaker say that high school was a Dystopian society. Teen years are dark. Relatable stories are vitally important. I wish I'd had more edgy and issue driven stories in my high school days. SYBIL was the one we all read back then.

Luce said...

What Leslie Said.

When Joss Whedon located a hellmouth in a high school in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I don't know many folks who couldn't relate.

Thanks for the incredible post, Mindy.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Leslie, Cherie, Lucy - yes, absolutely. Those of us working in the high school system can easily say that YA has a place, and can serve a therapeutic function if used correctly.

I understand that someone removed from the culture might get a shock at first, when viewing the YA shelves. But, once you're immersed in it, you see the value.

r louis scott said...

I've often wondered how I might have turned out as a human being if it were not for libraries. I think it was James Michener's "The Drifters" that showed me some of the world's many possibilities when I was about 13 or so. Drug use, foreign adventure, tangled personal relationships, it was all there and it's no different today. Kids need this exposure and society should be grateful that they are getting it from a book.

Mindy McGinnis said...

rlouis - great question... who would I be if it weren't for books? Hmmm... I'm so enmeshed in them in both my personal, daily work life, and hopeful long term career that I'm not sure I can even guess what I would be without them.

Apparently a formless blob.