~ By M-E Girard
This might almost be old news by now, seeing as it’s been all over Twitter, the blogosphere—the Wall Street Journal—for over a week now. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then allow me to explain…
On June 4th, the Wall Street Journal posted an article to explore the “dark” factor in contemporary young adult fiction—mainly that it is too dark. Several points were brought up, but the gist of it was that the dark subject matter (or “pathologies” as the writer, Mrs. Gurdon, referred to them) is much too present and young people should not be exposed to such “ugliness”. She even goes as far as suggesting that exploring these “pathologies” normalizes the behaviours in teens, and that it is in young people’s nature to infect each other with the current trend in self-destructive behaviours. To be clear, we’re talking about sex, drugs, rape, cutting, bullying, etc.
As an adult who chooses to read YA, I’ve often gotten odd looks when I tell other adults my taste in literature. I know most older folk assume the young adult books I read to be like those they may have read as “children”. My response is always the same, “YA fiction today is not at all what it was years ago; give it a try, you’ll see”. A lot of it is dark—I will give the Wall Street Journal that. But never did I consider “dark” to be a bad thing, or a “pathology”; the dark factor is simply another reality characterizing that age group. In my opinion, YA fiction has done us all a favour: it has moved forward with the times. It is true YA fiction, accurately reflecting the voice of today’s young adult. Being a young adult—even more so these days—is not easy and I would venture that today’s older adults just do not want to know the full extent of the difficulties teens can encounter. It’s shocking, it’s terrible, it’s unfortunate—it’s real life.
When I first read Mrs. Gurdon’s article, my inner teen came to the surface and her reaction went a little something like this: “Pfft…typical old person’s reaction. Whatever.” As I stated in my last blog, I spent my teen years with an R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike novel in my hands; not once did I get the urge to organize a ski trip in order to secretly murder all my friends, or suspect my babysitter of trying to murder me, etc. My adult self chimed in, adding that an adolescent mind that susceptible to such behaviours was probably already headed down that path anyhow. An individual who cannot cope with internal turmoil and is looking for a release will likely pick up the razor blade—whether or not they read about a teen protagonist doing the same thing. And even if the book is what introduced them to that particular behaviour, it does not mean that they wouldn’t have found another way to self-destruct. The teen was already on that path and the written words have nothing to do with that. If anything, those written words may be one of the only lifelines that teen has while he or she is navigating dark territory. Adding to that is the fact that by reading about YA protagonists who struggle, the teen reader gets an inside look at how other teens might live, which may foster a sense of empathy when they’re at school, taking a second look at classmates they may have dismissed or misunderstood in the past.
There has been an influx of blogs in response to the Wall Street Journal article. I’m going to switch it up a bit and turn the mic over to real live young adults and pick their brains about Mrs. Gurdon’s position on today’s “dark pathologies” and their place in YA fiction.
Katherine is a seventeen year-old, twelfth grade student. Rachel is a fifteen year-old, tenth grade student. I asked them a few questions on the subject and I am sharing their answers with you now.
How much YA fiction do you read?
Katherine: About two a year
Rachel: A lot. I’d say about 75% of what I read is YA. I’d say, maybe 3 or 4 books a month.
What kind of subject matter in fiction are you drawn to?
Katherine: I’m mostly drawn to things I can relate to. I like subcultures and sexual identity/orientation related subjects mostly.
Rachel: I like a lot of vampire stuff—not all Twilight, but all kinds of other ones. I like stuff that deals with drug abuse—that comes off as kind of weird, I guess.
How do you feel about so-called “dark” themes?
Katherine: I love dark themes, It adds realism and complexity to a story line. I can usually relate to them very well. Most times, to be honest, if there aren’t any I get bored and stop reading.
Rachel: I wouldn’t even really say they’re “dark”. It’s what a lot of kids have to deal with. Through the books you can learn a lot about people. You’re not as sheltered. It teaches how bad these things are. You get to read about the struggle that it is; it’s not like they’re teaching you to do these things. It’ll focus on the negative aspects.
In your opinion, is there any truth to the fact that reading about such “dark” things might cause a teen to want to go out and do it?
Katherine: I think that sometimes a teen will read and decide to try it. I think it really just depends on the person, I guess.
Rachel: I think that some teenagers are easily persuaded but not a lot of us are like that. You’d probably learn about that stuff anyway. You’d learn about it through your friends and parents. I think that kids who would do that kind of stuff probably wouldn’t be reading books much anyway.
Do you think YA fiction should be censored or not allow such dark themes in order to protect some teens from “picking up” certain self-destructive behaviours from them?
Katherine: No. F*** that. I’d never want them to be censored. I like them the way they are. Sometimes they’re even too censored for me…
Rachel: I don’t think so. That’s limiting creative expression. They don’t have limits for books. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t think it’ll stop teens from picking up bad habits anyway.
Well, there you have it, right out of the teenager’s mouth.
In conclusion, I would like to give some advice to parents looking to monitor what their teens are reading—because I can completely empathize with parents looking for milder, softer literature to entertain their kids with, especially when said parents are really making a valiant effort at sheltering their kids from today’s insanity: Get on the internet and do some research. The same way my low-carb dieting self has to wade through the carbohydrate-ridden products to find the ones I’m allowed to consume, a parent might have to put some research to find specific books he or she deems acceptable for their young adult to read. But remember this: No matter how much one might prevent “dark” books from reaching their teenaged children, the real world will still be there waiting for them.
M-E Girard is a registered nurse moonlighting as a fiction writer. A Young Adult Fiction buff, M-E spends most of her time telling tales of teenage angst and happenings of high school halls, with a focus on LGBT realities. She is currently working on her first novel (runner-up in the 2010 Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest) and regularly participates in short story competitions. Her short stories—The Welkin and Limbo—were published in Confabulation 4, a Canadian anthology. M-E lives just outside of Toronto, in Ajax, Ontario, Canada, with her partner-in-crime Melissa and their two Chihuahua babies.