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.