Young Adult Fiction

There is a recent article that appears to have caused a lot of debate in the world of young adult fiction – from what I can gather through my connections on Twitter and FaceBook, anyway. From support to criticism, it’s caused a bit of a stir, and I’ve been mulling it over for a week. Is contemporary young adult fiction too dark? Is it doing more harm than good?

It reminds me of a recent (i.e. within the past twelve months) conversation with my Aunt about a book she bought for her eight year old son. She purchased it because the blurb made it sound like a novel that would appeal to him, and set out that evening to read it aloud. A chapter in, my Aunt was stunned by the characters in the novel and could only assume that the mother figure – who wore tight clothing, worked long hours during the night, and seemed to have an array of male friends – was a prostitute, and the male character who lived in the same apartment block was surely some kind of pedophile. The book quickly made it to the rubbish bin and a rapid letter was fired off to the publisher, after which I was told to hurry up with this writing business and publish something decent for my cousin (and others, hopefully) to read.

I often find myself reading young adult fiction and wondering if the material is appropriate for a twelve year old … or a fifteen year old … or an eighteen year old … or even for me at age twenty something! I often read books intended for readers younger than I and blush. Sometimes I roll my eyes. Sometimes I am so shocked I snap the book closed with a jump. I read more young adult fiction than adult fiction because that is what I am studying, yet I also find the plots, characters, and themes interesting. Often I wish that I had read some of these books when I was a teen, though I’m certain that I would have received different messages from them then. So, what did I read when I was a teen?

At twelve, I loved Christopher Pike – I loved being terrified and would often spend nights cowering under my covers because I was too scared to sleep. I will also admit to owning a large collection of Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High books, however, so it wasn’t all murder and mayhem in my pre-teens.

Around the age of fourteen I discovered John Marsden. Forever in my mind is a conversation another friend’s mother had with me about how terrible Letters from the Inside was and how she wouldn’t let her own daughter read it – she glared at me accusingly after this spiel as though suggesting I might have read it behind my own mother’s back because surely no good parent would allow their daughter to access it freely! After I had devoured everything he had written I moved on to the world of fantasy. I managed to demolish a range of novels in series such as the Sword of Truth and The Witches of Eileanan at such an alarming pace that I am amazed I finished high school at all. Of course there are other writers whose words filled my spare moments but these were the books I reached for first.

By seventeen I was well aware of death, suicide, sex, abuse, drugs, alcohol, rape, murder, violence, swearing, and all manner of ‘grotesque’ themes one might not expect a seventeen year old private Catholic school girl to know. I’d overdose once a fortnight, go to raunchy parties weekly, witness violence of extreme kinds, and explore sexuality in between all of that … All within my books. Actually, by seventeen I had never kissed a boy (or girl, if you were wondering), never been drunk, certainly never done drugs, and rarely went to parties. I was much happier sitting at home reading about the teenagers who tortured their parents and experimented with illicit substances leading to a tragic end – and most of my friends were as cool as me back then, too.

Are books for teens detrimental to their development?

If anything, books helped me explore the possibilities of many different aspects of adolescence (and life in general) that I never had to explore through first hand experience – and that’s a good thing. I was never ignorant as to the ways of the world because my books had given me quite an education and rather than corrupt me I was instead enlightened without having to go out and actually get drunk and pregnant and smoke pot (not necessarily in that order, but you get my meaning). Judy Blume wrote Forever to give her daughter a “positive” experience of sex in adolescence because too many books at the time gave “negative” messages about sex leading to disease or pregnancy or death (I’m not sure which of those three I’d prefer even today at my ripe old age). Novels for young adults explore the themes that haven’t yet been explored, and they will likely adopt new themes in the future when these ‘dark’ subject areas are exhausted.

I agree that young adult fiction is increasingly dark and violent, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sex, drugs, homosexuality, alcohol … these are all themes that have been deemed “inappropriate” in young adult fiction in the past. Books get banned and then the bans get lifted because the themes are suddenly acceptable – times have changed and the themes are suddenly “OK”. This doesn’t just happen in young adult fiction!

I’m not sure what I would want my thirteen year old son or daughter to read, though I like to think that as long as they were able to enjoy reading in general then I won’t be too fussed. After all, my mother was the one who bought me  Letters from the Inside and I think she’s been a pretty good parent thus far.

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8 comments on “Young Adult Fiction

  1. What an insightful post! I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this one (and your description of your late teenage years is eerily similar to mine…).

    Great stuff! (:

  2. It seemed like you described my childhood reading patterns! What I like and appreciate that you mentioned is that as a teen you were reading about experiences that you haven’t yet had (or hopefully would never have). Sure reading can pique curiosity, but it can also satisfy it as well. If I were a parent, I’d much rather my kid read about things than be directly exposed to them. Much to my dismay, my parents censored my television too much, I don’t think I saw rated R movies until I was in college, but I read plenty about the ‘real world’ of sex, drugs, alcohol and the likes. It’s better that kids can ‘experience’ situations through books where redemption, change, and possibilities are explained than have them experience them in reality which is messy and confusing.

    • I read something somewhere (I am known for being vague) about a writer whose parents let him read whatever he wanted, but not watch whatever he wanted because they felt visually he would be more affected by negative experiences than what he would in words. I do find the ‘censorship’ debates fascinating … my mother always encouraged us to read and we didn’t own a television until I was eight!

  3. You’re upbringing/reading journey seems uncannily similar to mine. At the end of the day there’s never a good time for anyone to find out about these things, it would be nice if we could stay in a nice bubble of ignorance forever, but we cannot. I think some things should be left to the discretion of the parents, but I don’t think we should (to a certain degree) censor the content of books that young adults read. Like you say, it’s better to be aware of this stuff and wary of it, then to have to experience it first hand and then deal with it.
    Great post as always Stef.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do find adult opinions of children’s books fascinating, especially given it tends to be adults writing and publishing and buying them! Makes for an interesting circle …

  4. Fair enough … I’ve seen some YA books written with some pretty graphic details, yet when you read about the author and their intention, the book was written for adults but somewhere along the line someone classed it YA and off it went!

  5. I think any subject if approached with tact could be made into a young adult book. Reading about the negative impacts of other people’s choices which come close to their own might be a motivational spur for some of the readers to not do that crap. Honestly when I was fifteen I was reading Lord of the Rings, adventuring into Chronicles of Narnia, and some Shakespeare. I didn’t have the desire to read about most things.

    However I do remember seeing some books removed from the national book list or whatever and replaced by newer books. I nearly fainted and I’m very liberal in my beliefs. Books that detail sexual encounters between a young teen and old man? I don’t that that is appropriate — especially on school lists. Not because of homosexualiy or the sexual nature of the book but the sheer length the author went to make it just obscene.

    I don’t know what I would want my kid to read. I do know what I wouldn’t want them to read though. 😛

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